Archbishop Gerhard Müller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), seems to be making embarrassing the papacy something of a habit.
Despite Pope Francis having made God’s mercy one of the key themes of his pontificate, the archbishop declared that divorced and remarried Catholics could not be admitted to Holy Communion – they could not, he said, “appeal to God’s mercy”.
Pope Francis has now made it clear he wants this whole issue reopened, as it will be at a special meeting of the Synod of Bishops next year.
And now he has fallen out with some of the most senior figures in the German Catholic Church, including Cardinal Reinhard Marx, one of the Pope’s Council of Cardinals, over the case of the Bishop of Limburg, Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst.
The bishop has caused a furore in Germany by spending some €31 million (£26m) on a new official residence, including €15,000 (£12,672) on a bathtub. In addition he faces two court orders for perjury from one German court and nine for breach of trust from another. German Catholics are said to be resigning from the Catholic Church in droves, out of disgust that their church tax might be used for such extravagances.
Pope Francis, who clearly takes all this seriously, has asked him to come to Rome. Yet Archbishop Müller, himself a former Bishop of Regensburg in which capacity he also served under the then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger at the CDF, has sprung to Bishop Tebartz’s defence, calling the story “an invention of journalists” and a “building of lies”.
We have been here before. One of the worst aspects of the Vatican during the papacies of Benedict XVI and of his predecessor John Paul II was the tendency to dismiss reports in the mass media of misdeeds by clergy as malicious falsehoods.
This was undoubtedly one of the major factors which delayed the Church in coming to grips with the abuse problem, as a result of which the sexual abuse of children by clergy continued longer than it otherwise might have done, and incompetent or even corrupt prelates remained in office when they should have been retired in disgrace or handed over to the police.
The good name of the Catholic Church will take generations to recover from this self-inflicted wound. Though some media outlets have overstated the scale of the problem, virtually all the factual coverage has been vindicated by subsequent events.
Newspapers may sensationalise, but Vatican officials need to learn that they rarely tell lies.
Lying is precisely what Archbishop Müller has accused the press of doing in the Limburg case. He has defaulted to the Vatican’s old discredited defence whenever journalists draw attention to embarrassing facts, and has thereby undermined his own reputation. Cardinal Marx is not the only one who will be furious.
Journalists and church leaders are not easy bedfellows, and though they have different objectives, they should be united in respecting the truth – which may also be served by fair comment.
In connection with which, critics of the press might like to note that it was no journalist who called some who worked in the Vatican “crows and vipers” but a former Secretary of State, Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone; nor a journalist who called the court which surrounds the Pope “the leprosy of the papacy”, but Pope Francis himself.