At the end of June, Pope Francis dismissed Cardinal Gerhard Müller from his position as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) – arguably the most important position in the Catholic Church after that of the Pope himself, since the CDF is in charge of doctrine.
Müller was given no notice that the Pope was breaking from tradition by not renewing his five-year mandate – and no explanation. A few days later, on July 4, he explained what had happened in a long phone call to his friend Cardinal Joachim Meisner, one of four cardinals who had challenged Francis on the question of Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics.
Meisner was horrified to hear the details of Müller's humiliation. And, that night, he died in his sleep at the age of 83.
Now Müller – who has always been careful never to question the Pope – has also broken with tradition. He has spoken angrily about the way he was treated – drawing attention to the fact that a pope who never misses an opportunity to uphold workers' rights plays by very different rules inside the Vatican.
This is what Müller told the Bavarian newspaper Passauer Neue Presse:
On the very last day of my mandate as CDF prefect, the pope informed me within one minute of his decision not to prolong me. He did not give a reason – just as he gave no reason for dismissing three highly competent members of the CDF a few months earlier.
I cannot accept this way of doing things. As a bishop, one cannot treat people in this way. I have said this before – the Church’s social teaching must also be applied to the way employees are treated here in the Vatican.
'Within one minute', note. And it turns out that Francis has a history of sacking people without explanation. In an article for First Things magazine, the Italian journalist Marco Tossati fleshes out the story:
The first step of Müller’s Calvary was a disconcerting episode in the middle of 2013. The cardinal was celebrating Mass in the church attached to the congregation palace, for a group of German students and scholars. His secretary joined him at the altar: “The pope wants to speak to you.” “Did you tell him I am celebrating Mass?” asked Müller. “Yes,” said the secretary, “but he says he does not mind—he wants to talk to you all the same.” The cardinal went to the sacristy. The pope, in a very bad mood, gave him some orders and a dossier concerning one of his friends, a cardinal. (This is a very delicate matter. I have sought an explanation of this incident from the official channels. Until the explanation comes, if it ever comes, I cannot give further details.) Obviously, Mūller was flabbergasted.
This is not the behaviour of an unassuming pope who thinks of himself as 'Bishop of Rome' rather than supreme pontiff. It brings to mind his most authoritarian predecessors – or, indeed, some Latin American dictator who hugs the crowds and advertises his ostentatiously humble lifestyle while his lieutenants live in fear of his rages.
It's difficult to explain, since Francis is a man consumed by his faith who drew up an admirable plan for reforming the Curia – even if he's made almost no progress in doing so.
Don't expect the English-speaking media to enlighten you. Coverage in secular newspapers is patchy, biased and unreliable – The Times is perhaps the worst offender – while certain Catholic journalists who write about the Vatican appear to be taking dictation from a liberal faction in the Church that is trying to hijack this pontificate.
I say 'hijack', because the progressive churchmen who present themselves as Francis's allies are pretending to be better connected than they are. The Pope frequently wrong-foots them by saying the opposite of what they expect.
That's one of the points made by canon lawyer Dr Ed Condon in today's Holy Smoke podcast discussion about the rapidly deteriorating situation in Rome.
Ed's insights are fascinating – and invaluable, because he offers a plausible theory as to why a supposedly approachable pontiff is regarded as a bully by many of the people who work for him.
To find out more, listen to the podcast here: