News Analysis

Who is in line to succeed the Vatican doctrinal chief?

Cardinal Ladaria, pictured in May 2018, never wanted the top job (CNS)

Cardinal Luis Ladaria has turned 75. Who will succeed him?

Last week was all about consistories. When will the next one be? Who would turn 80 when, and what will it all mean for the Church heading out of 2019 and into 2020? It was easy to get caught up in those questions – which were the right ones to ask – and forget to consider another significant curial birthday: the Cardinal Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), Luis Ladaria SJ’s 75th, which came and went this past April.

Ladaria never wanted the top job at the CDF. Truth be told, he never wanted any job at the CDF. He didn’t want the secretary’s desk, which Benedict asked him to take in 2008. He didn’t want the prefect’s chair, into which he came after Francis decided not to renew the mandate of his predecessor, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, in 2017. Müller was fairly vocal about his frustration with the way his dicastery – traditionally the “doctrinal watchdog” of the Church and the first to take a red pen to drafts of papal documents – was being sidelined in the Francis era.

So Francis let Müller go, and replaced him with the man who had been the number two at the CDF since 2008, then Archbishop Ladaria.

Now a cardinal, Ladaria had all the qualifications for the top job, but they weren’t the reason he got the gig in 2017. The reason he was promoted in 2017 was that he was the guy who was there. He was institutional and available: an old hand and a known quantity. Going outside the Congregation would have done two things: made it more difficult to sell Müller’s dismissal as normale amministrazione and effectively proclaimed that Pope Francis owned the appointment utterly.

Now that Cardinal Ladaria has reached retirement age, the smart money is on him to stick around only so long as necessary ensure a smooth transition. That transition, however, will be a little more complicated than others, given the impending – we are promised it is imminent – reform of the Roman Curia.

Heretofore styled La Suprema, the CDF has been put on notice: the behemoth Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples is to be expanded and repositioned as the first dicastery in Pope Francis’s new order. On the cards, therefore, is a retreat from the CDF’s role as guardian of the faith. In a word, the CDF’s profile is changing, from doctrinal watchdog to disciplinary enforcer.

The change began during the pontificate of John Paul II, when the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was CDF prefect. The man who would become Pope Benedict XVI secured a larger role for the CDF in the enforcement of canonical discipline over sexually abusive priests. In April of this year, the now Pope Emeritus wrote from his retirement to offer a theological justification for entrusting the CDF with increased investigative, disciplinary and judicial responsibilities. He argued, in essence, that sexual abuse is a crime against the faith, hence that the CDF ought to take the lead in handling cases. Expect, therefore, to see an increased focus on the CDF’s role as a law enforcement agency and criminal court.

The prefecture of the CDF, meanwhile, will remain a cardinal’s billet, even in the new Curia. So whoever gets the top spot will either have a red hat, or get one soon after getting the job. What isn’t certain is that the new prefect will be a theologian. Given the trajectory of reform, one might expect the top spot at that CDF to go to a lawyer.

One shouldn’t fall out of one’s chair to see Archbishop Charles Scicluna succeed Cardinal Ladaria in his. Scicluna spent years at that CDF, and is currently an adjunct secretary to the Congregation, on top of his duties as archbishop of his native Malta. He is the Church’s leading expert on the legal side of child protection. He understands the need for legal reform to drive cultural change. He is one of the few senior churchman with any credibility when it comes to fighting abuse and fixing the broken culture of clerical and hierarchical leadership throughout the Church.

It would be a mistake to call this a shoo-in. It is an error to treat anything as a given in this pontificate. The broad contours and major pieces of the thing seem to fit, though. If they fit, the rest follows. The one question is: when? June is early. Under normal circumstances, one would not expect a new prefect to get the red hat before he gets the job. Under current circumstances, one would expect whoever is in line to be CDF prefect not to get it until the new curial constitution has been unveiled and the system it is meant to implement is given a couple of months to get up and running.

Assuming Pope Francis doesn’t want to leave things undone for too long, and doesn’t want his new prefect to wait until the consistory after the next, one would expect announcements sometime in the mid-autumn. Then again, these are not ordinary circumstances. Whatever else these are, they are very interesting times indeed.