Another embittered cardinal threatens the Pope


The Vatican’s former doctrinal chief warns Pope Francis of a looming schism. He’s the fourth man with a red hat to raise the possibility of a major split in the Church. What’s behind this ominous threat?

Robert Mickens, Rome

December 1, 2017

Pope Francis is about to conclude his history-making visit to Myanmar and neighboring Bangladesh.

But just hours before he even embarked on his 21st journey abroad last Sunday, Italy’s most authoritative daily newspaper published an interview with Cardinal Gerhard Müller. In it, the cardinal launched what amounts to a shot across the bow and an attempt to condition the pope’s freedom in guiding the Church.

The former head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) basically issued this ultimatum: Francis must open a dialogue with the tiny fringe of traditionalist Catholics that don’t like the direction in which he’s leading the Church or there will be a schism.

Schism. That’s one of the most serious and dangerous words in the Roman Catholic lexicon.

Since the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) there has been only one formal fracture in the Church’s communion. It came in 1988 when, in direct defiance of Pope John Paul II, the late Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre (d. 1991) ordained four bishops for the Priestly Society of St Pius X (SSPX) and fell into schism.

Now Cardinal Müller has warned that the Church is on the verge of splintering again if Pope Francis continues to ignore his critics.

“The authorities of the Church must listen to those who have serious questions or just complaints; not ignore them or, worse, humiliate them. Otherwise, inadvertently, this can increase the risk of a slow separation that could lead to a schism by a part of the Catholic world that is disoriented and discouraged,” the cardinal warned.

“The history of the Protestant schism of Martin Luther five-hundred years ago should teach us above all what mistakes to avoid,” he added.

The platform from which the cardinal issued this threat is significant. It was not one of the self-serving blogs authored by the neo-Tridentinist, anti-Vatican II agitators who don’t like Pope Francis. Rather, it was in the pages of Il Corriere della Sera, Italy’s closest thing to being a paper of record.

And the person who conducted the interview with the 69-year-old cardinal was Massimo Franco, one of the country’s most respected journalists and commentators on international and political affairs.

“We are in the apartment located in Piazza della Città Leonina, which was formerly occupied by Joseph Ratzinger before he became Benedict XVI,” Franco noted at the very start of his article, setting the stage for his conversation with German cardinal.

In giving this interview to this paper, Müller had a very specific target audience in mind – senior officials in the Roman Curia and the vast Italian public.

His obvious intention was to cause alarm among those in the first group, a solid faction of which is uncomfortable with the pope’s disregard for the Vatican’s centuries-long, court-like protocols.

And his aim with those in the second group, the vast majority of whom love Francis, was to sow confusion in the minds of ordinary Italian Catholics.  They – like many Europeans (and even some non-Europeans) – have been increasingly critical of the pope’s insistence on accepting migrants and refugees who are coming to the Old Continent.

“I believe the cardinals who expressed doubts over Amoris Laetitia, or the 62 signatories of a letter expressing even excessive criticisms of the pope, should be listened to, not dismissed as ‘pharisees’ or complainers,” Müller said.

“The only way to resolve this situation is through a clear and forthright dialogue,” he insisted.

The cardinal also made a number of other alarmist assertions and voiced a series of personal gripes that deserve to be addressed. But the most serious of them all was his warning of a schism and his remedy for avoiding it.

Müller is not the first cardinal to issue this caution to Pope Francis.

Two of the four cardinals who signed the now well-known “dubia” (doubts) concerning the pope’s teaching on marriage in the apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, have also raised the alarm.

The first was Cardinal Raymond Burke in an interview exactly one year ago in the Catholic World Report, a self-described “orthodox Catholic” magazine that is published by traditionalist American Jesuit, Fr Joseph Fessio.

“There is a very serious division in the Church,” Burke told the publication. “And if it’s not clarified soon, it could develop into a formal schism,” he warned.

The second was Cardinal Walter Brandmüller in an interview this past October with the respected German daily, the Frankfurter Allgemeine.

Sandwiched in between these two senior churchmen was yet another cardinal – Robert Sarah, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship.

In a message last March to a conference in Germany, he made an extreme claim that the Church was already in a state of schism due to a faulty implementation of the post-Vatican II liturgical reforms.

“The Second Vatican Council wished to promote greater active participation by the people of God… However, we cannot close our eyes to the disaster, the devastation and the schism that the modern promoters of a living liturgy caused by remodeling the Church’s liturgy according to their ideas,” the cardinal contended.

The conference he addressed feted the 10th anniversary of the “motu proprio” Summorum Pontificum, the document by which Benedict XVI lifted virtually all the restrictions in place up till then on the celebration of the unreformed, pre-Vatican II (or Tridentine) Mass.

So in addition to Cardinals Burke, Brandmüller and Sarah, we now have Cardinal Müller stoking the fires that a tiny minority of disgruntled and self-proclaimed traditionalist Catholics have set with the intention of intimidating Pope Francis into bowing to their demands.

Most of these Catholics in opposition to the pope, though certainly not all, take a very dim view of Vatican Council II, especially regarding the liturgy. In the first few decades after the council, they increasingly found themselves on the Church’s fringe, only barely tolerated by bishops and the Holy See.

But their fortunes changed in the last pontificate, especially with the 2007 “motu proprio” that capped their full re-integration into the Catholic mainstream. With the stroke of a pen, Benedict XVI gave this small group of neo-Tridentinists – perhaps unwittingly and unintentionally – new life, energy, and purpose in their longtime efforts to roll back what they have always seen as “the excesses” and heresies of Vatican II.

Sympathizers with the SSPX, they became the tail that wagged the dog in the last pontificate, to the great dismay of the overwhelming majority of the world’s Catholics.

And now Cardinal Müller is warning Pope Francis to sit down and have a discussion with these people or else – schism.

In doing so the cardinal has acted irresponsibly.

Francis has not taken anything away from this small group of Catholics, even though they wish to continue imposing their collective neo-traditionalist will on the rest of the Church. He has let them be. But after gaining a sympathetic ear and a prominence lopsided to their numbers in the last pontificate, they refuse to accept the normalcy that Francis has re-established in the Catholic Church, despite the intransigence of still too many priests and bishops.

Should the threats of schism alarm the pope or the majority of Catholics who are solidly supportive of his creative and evangelical efforts to reform and renew the Church?

The Vatican gossip column in Il Foglio, one of Italy most politically conservative and anti-Francis papers, has perhaps offered the best answer to that question.

The anonymous author of the column – “La Gran Sotana” (the Big Soutane) – this week wrote about eavesdropping on two bishops in a restaurant.

The younger one asks, “And what happens if we end up with a schism?”

“Come on! What schism?” exclaims the older prelate.

“What are they going to do, dress up the anti-pope in six meters of silk and red shoes, so the whole world can ridicule him in comparison to the Pope of the Poor? They’re just making noise,” the old man says.

The senior bishop’s conclusion?

“Everything will be decided at the next Conclave. The cardinals will either continue to move forward or they will turn back. Tertium non datur – there’s no third way.”