Vatican: The Pope whisperer

Vatican: The Pope whisperer

Is the Vatican’s new doctrinal tsar steering Francis in a new direction?

Several Vatican watchers have noticed over the course of the past week or so a change of tone, and speculated that it might indicate a change of tack in the Vatican on matters of doctrine and governance. They note that clarity and prudent stability seem to have re-emerged, in place of ambiguity and dysfunction.

The declarations and interventions often adduced in illustration of the change have a common element: the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith – and more specifically, the CDF’s new prefect, Archbishop (and Cardinal-designate) Luis Ladaria SJ.

Archbishop Ladaria (pictured) spent nine years as secretary to the CDF, and several years before that as a member of the International Theological Commission – including a stint as the ITC’s secretary-general that started in 2004. Until his appointment as CDF secretary in 2008, he was Ordinary Professor of Dogmatic Theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University, where he was known as a gentle and soft-spoken, rigorous and demanding teacher and director of dissertations. Students and fellow faculty alike held him in high esteem and harbour deep and abiding affection for him.

When Archbishop Ladaria took the reins of the Congregation on July 1, 2017, it was in the wake of Cardinal Gerhard Müller’s often tumultuous five-year term. Cardinal Müller had been outspoken during his tenure, even critical of some interpretations certain bishops – in particular those of Malta – gave to the post-synodal apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia. The prefect said: “It cannot be that the universally binding doctrine of the Church, formulated by the Pope, is given different and even contradictory regional interpretations.”

Müller’s term, begun under Benedict XVI, ended unceremoniously, with Pope Francis merely telling him he’d decided not to renew his mandate, and apparently offering no reason for his decision – not that he had to – mere days before its expiry.

The official party line at the Vatican was that Pope Francis had simply decided that there would be no more career men in the Curia, that officials would be replaced when their terms expired, and Cardinal Müller’s time was up. Normale amministrazione, as they say here in Rome. That line was about as convincing as it sounds.

In any case, Archbishop Ladaria’s appointment was one of institutional continuity. He was a company man, in more senses than one: a CDF insider and theological A-lister from the flagship pontifical university, who belonged to the same religious order as Pope Francis. It turns out that he speaks the Pope’s language: not Spanish, though they share that too, but Ignatian – the Pope and his CDF prefect both speak Jesuit. What makes Ladaria effective in his position is his ability to read and understand Francis’s Jesuit mens – his Ignatian cast of mind – hence to know when to ask permission and when not to ask it, as well as what to tell his boss and how to tell him what he knows his boss needs to hear and may not want to.

The business of drafting the CDF letter, Placuit Deo, must, for example, have been delicate. The text addressed certain aspects of Christian salvation, in particular “neo-Gnosticism” and “neo-Pelagianism”: theological terms Pope Francis uses in ways that do not always easily square with their technical meanings.

So the work of the CDF was a needle-threading game: “explaining” the Holy Father’s peculiar usage in a way that did justice both to his use of the terms and their historical-theological pedigree, without offending either the truth or the Pope.

Archbishop Ladaria dealt with the issue by making it clear – he was almost, but not quite, at pains to say in the presentation of the document – that it was merely the response of his dicastery to a solicitation from theologians, duly put together and presented to the Pope at plenary session, after which Pope Francis asked that the document be published as soon as possible. Archbishop Ladaria wasted no time, and two weeks later it was before the public: normale amministrazione.

While no one knows exactly what transpired in the meetings that led to the letter to the German bishops regarding Communion for Lutherans, it is not difficult to imagine Archbishop Ladaria making sure he got instructions broad enough to allow him to do the work he needed to do, and then sell his work back to Pope Francis as something with which he could live for the time being.

Last week’s cover story about women deacons dealt in part with the essay the archbishop wrote – apparently on his own initiative – on the impossibility of ordaining women to the priesthood. There, too, the CDF prefect showed he could take initiative – but not too much – sticking to his dogmatic guns and accomplishing another delicate pair of tasks: checking an influential cardinal (Christoph Schönborn) who is a major theological heavyweight and a papal favourite; and preparing the ground for a possible fight over women deacons in a way that protects the Church’s divine constitution and leaves the Pope enough room to do what he wants.

All of these accomplishments are significant, though perhaps most impressive has been Archbishop Ladaria’s apparent ability to accomplish his tasks without stepping on his principal’s toes or setting off his pique. It might be too much to call him “the Pope whisperer”, but only by a little.