In removing Cardinal Müller, Pope Francis is sending a powerful message

Cardinal Gerhard Müller (CNS)

There is an incident in the greatest film ever made, The Godfather, where a body turns up, and someone correctly says that it is a way of sending a message. It is a phrase that comes to mind in the wake of the removal of Cardinal Gerhard Müller: this is an act that constitutes a message. But what exactly?

The Pope has told Cardinal Müller that from now on all heads of dicastery will serve five years only. So, that is the first message, directed to other Vatican chiefs – watch out, your time is short, and you can and will be removed at the end of your term. No longer will heads of dicastery stay in post for decades, as did, for example, Cardinal Ratzinger. From now on, expect to be moved around like pieces on a chessboard, because in the Vatican there is only one centre of power that counts, and it is not yours.

The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) has traditionally been regarded as “la suprema”. Once upon a time, everything that emerged from the Vatican had to be passed first by the CDF. By dismissing the head of the most important department of the Vatican, the Pope is reminding everyone who is really supreme.

The demotion affects not only Cardinal Müller but the entire CDF, for the entire department is being cut down to size. Indeed, as has been apparent in this papacy so far, the CDF is not what it was, but has been repeatedly sidelined.

The Pope has not moved a big hitter in to take Cardinal Müller’s place, but rather moved up Cardinal Müller’s number two, who has been in post for some time, and who could have had no ambitions of promotion, being 73 years old (two years off retirement age), besides being a rather humble and self-effacing character. Archbishop Luis Ladaria Ferrer, though a competent theologian, is a low-key appointment who is never going to rock the boat, or cause any embarrassment to the Pope. His appointment means the virtual neutralisation for the foreseeable future of the CDF as a possible hotbed of opposition.

Long gone are the days when the supreme ruler of Rome could have those who had lost his confidence thrown from the Tarpeian Rock, and gone too are the days when the Pope’s enemies were discovered floating in the Tiber. Cardinal Müller lives on and will do so in Rome, aged 69, a relatively young and very underemployed Cardinal. This may not be such a good idea from the point of view of those who want to crush all opposition.

Neither should it be forgotten that Cardinal Müller has friends. His departure is a message to them. Chief of Cardinal Müller’s friends is, of course, his mentor, Benedict XVI. The cardinal’s passing is surely a sign that the old regime is now gone forever and that the changes wrought by Pope Francis are irreversible. Other friends of the cardinal may well tremble at that thought.