These days, when the classic Catholic parlor game of deciding who in the Vatican is for the pope and who’s against him gets underway, German Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller often figures near the top of most lists for the latter camp.
Prefect of the Vatican’s powerful Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and thus an indirect heir to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger before he became Pope Benedict XVI, Müller is perceived as a doctrinal conservative often struggling to hold the line against the more revolutionary tendencies unleashed under Pope Francis.
There are, of course, exceptions to every rule. Müller, for instance, is a close friend of Gustavo Gutierrez and a supporter of a moderate form of liberation theology. In general, however, he’s not seen as an especially “Francis" kind of guy, often perceived as representing the traditional yin to the pope’s maverick yang.
To hear Müller himself tell it, however, that’s just plain bunk.
On May 3, Müller was at the Universidad Francisco de Vitoria in Madrid, Spain, taking some questions from students and faculty. Inevitably, one was about whether the Vatican’s doctrinal czar feels uncomfortable with some of the more “ambiguous" things this pope says and does.
In fact, Müller claimed, there’s an explicit division of labor at work between his office and Francis, hatched from the very start three years ago. (Remember that Müller, 68, took office under Pope Benedict XVI in 2012.)
“At the beginning of his pontificate, we spoke with Pope Francis, observing that during the previous pontificates the press accused the Church of talking only about sexuality, of abortion and these problems," Müller said.
“For this reason, we decided, with Francis, to always, always, always speak in a positive way. If you look at the complete texts of Pope Francis, there’s gender ideology, abortion … yes, these problems are still there, but we concentrate on the positive."
That’s not a matter of “revolution," Müller said, insisting that Francis “is in line with his predecessors."
“His originality," he said, “is his charisma, thanks to which he succeeds in overcoming people’s blocks and their hardened positions."
To hear Müller tell it, the strategy is paying off.
“I think all of us can see, from the reaction of the press, that today there’s less aggression against the Church," Müller said. “It’s not that everybody is becoming Catholic, clearly, but at least they’re talking about other things."
He gave a concrete example of how the pope’s cachet actually allows him to push traditional Catholic messages in ways that other popes would have found difficult.
“Pope Francis has the courage to speak of the devil," Müller said.
“If Benedict would have said what Francis says today about the devil, he would have been called retrograde and medieval. But our pope has the charisma to say these things: the devil exists, he’s at work and is very evil, and whoever welcomes his suggestions is guilty."
According to Müller, his ability to rupture such taboos is the fruit of Francis’s pastoral nature.
“Pope Francis has his own style," he said. “He says he feels like a pastor, and that the doctrine is already very clear in the texts of Benedict XVI … He says, ‘go forward with the theology,’ but he maintains his charisma of knowing how to communicate with people, who need that charisma."
One could, of course, look on these statements with a degree of skepticism.
It’s natural to ask if Müller is perhaps slightly exaggerating his own role in crafting Francis’ spontaneous, shoot-from-the-hip style. It’s also possible to wonder if Müller’s insistence that what we have is a “positive" pope, not an “ambiguous" one, is to some extent a PR exercise calculated to calm anxious conservatives.
Nonetheless, Müller’s robust defense of the pope in Madrid does confirm one key point about reaction to Francis, both within the Vatican and among many Catholic bishops around the world.
Speaking to many prelates these days, especially those of a more conservative bent, you can often find a degree of ambivalence on certain points – whether Francis’ eco-encyclical Laudato Si’, for example, was too uncritical in embracing the agenda of the secular environmental movement, or whether his cautious opening to Communion for the divorced and remarried in Amoris Laetitia may lend itself to abuse.
If you phrase the question, however, as whether those prelates would like to roll the clock back to March 12, 2013, before Francis was elected, and see things turn out differently, a solid majority will say “no," and mean it.
In the main, that’s because many agree with Müller, that whatever its downside, this pope’s “charisma" has reduced hostility towards the Church in many sectors of the culture, including the press, and thereby created some breathing room for Catholicism to go about its business without the same constant fear of assault.
In effect, it allows Church leaders to catch their breath, to take a break from always putting out fires, and to ponder what comes next.
The next time, therefore, the “blues v. grays" exercise heats up about which bishops are with the pope and which are against him, this is a point worth recalling: At the end of the day, you don’t have to be with Francis on everything to regard him, net-net, as a blessing.
By By John L. Allen Jr.