Cardinal Müller Suggests Pope Francis Appoint Group of Cardinals to Debate His Critics

The prefect emeritus of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith says the Pope deserves ‘full respect’ and his ‘honest critics deserve a convincing answer’ as the Vatican declines to comment on a filial correction of the Holy Father, made public on Sunday.

Cardinal Gerhard Müller.
Cardinal Gerhard Müller. (photo: Edward Pentin photo)

To resolve the impasse between Pope Francis and those who have grave reservations about his teaching, Cardinal Gerhard Müller has proposed that one solution to this “serious situation” could be for the Holy Father to appoint a group of cardinals that would begin a “theological disputation” with his critics.

In comments to the Register Sept. 26, the prefect emeritus of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said such an initiative could be conducted with “some prominent representatives” of the dubia, as well as the filial correction which was made public on Sunday.

Cardinal Müller said a theological disputation, a formalized method of debate designed to uncover and establish truths in theology, would be specifically about “the different and sometimes controversial interpretations of some statements in Chapter 8 of Amoris Laetitia” — Francis’ apostolic exhortation on marriage and the family.

The Church needs “more dialogue and reciprocal confidence” rather than “polarization and polemics,” he continued, adding that the Successor of St. Peter “deserves full respect for his person and divine mandate, and on the other hand his honest critics deserve a convincing answer.”

“We must avoid a new schism and separations from the one Catholic Church, whose permanent principle and foundation of its unity and communion in Jesus Christ is the current pope, Francis, and all bishops in full communion with him,” he said.

The Vatican has not commented on the filial correction of Pope Francis, in which 62 priests and lay scholars accused the Holy Father of propagating seven heretical positions.

The signatories of the correction decided to publicize the very rare procedure after receiving no response from the Pope, who received the document on Aug. 11. 

They cited in particular Amoris Laetitia, and “other words, deeds and omissions,” saying the Pope had helped spread seven grave errors about “marriage, the moral life, and the reception of the sacraments.”

The clergy and scholars “respectfully” insisted that Pope Francis condemn the heresies that he has directly or indirectly upheld, and that he teach the truth of the Catholic faith in its integrity.

The official Vatican response has been not to answer the initiative, nor attempt to address the substantive issues raised in the correction.


Vatican: Response Unwarranted

The Register has learned that senior officials believe a response is not warranted, partly because they say it has been signed by only a relatively small number of Catholics they consider not to be major names, and because one of them is Bishop Bernard Fellay, superior general of the Society of St. Pius X, whom they view as a renegade in charge of a priestly fraternity not in full communion with Rome.

(Despite their best efforts to ignore it, the Vatican was nevertheless forced to respond obliquely to the correction on Sept. 25, after reports circulated that the Vatican may have blocked access to the filial correction website on its staff computers. It turned out the site itself was accessible, but not one of its pages where people can sign on to the initiative.

The Vatican ascribed this to a firewall that is automatically triggered to prevent access to immoral websites or view certain kinds of advertising. Holy See Press Office director Greg Burke said “only when it tries taking you to another page, a ‘parked domain’ does the filter kick in. Normal filters at work, like any company has on its computers.”

“You can’t really imagine we would do this [block the website] for a letter with 60 names,” he joked to the Italian newspaper Il Giornale.)

The overall silence is in keeping with the Pope’s and the Vatican’s response to five other major initiatives, including the dubia issued by four cardinals just over a year ago in which they posed five questions aimed at clarifying ambiguities in Amoris Laetitia.

Those concerned about the Pope’s teaching, however, maintain that these matters are of fundamental importance to the Church.

Douglas Farrow, professor of Christian Thought in the School of Religious Studies at McGill University in Montreal, said “whatever one thinks of the wisdom or timing of this ‘filial correction,’ or even of the issues with which it deals, it cannot be denied that in substance it is solid and that the matters it raises are of fundamental importance.”

Farrow, who did not sign the correction but in April took part in a conference in Rome of lay scholars who appealed for clarity on Amoris Laetitia, said the issues are so serious they require the “concerted attention of the pontiff and of the entire episcopate.”

Robert Royal, president of the Faith and Reason Institute, said it’s been pointed out before that Pope St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI faced similar Church divisions, but he said those popes were “more inclusive” in their papal response.

“I wouldn’t know how to counsel the Vatican about this,” Royal said, “but giving some sign that those who adhere to what were Church teachings until just a few years ago are respected and heard might help establish that much touted dialogue we’re always being told to pursue.”

But Royal also acknowledged that the inclusion of Bishop Fellay among the signers of the filial document had been problematic. “No disrespect to him,” he said, “but it complicated everything.” (See Bishop Fellay's reasons for signing it here).


Separate Corrections

Some reports wrongly portrayed the filial correction as the one which the two remaining “dubia cardinals” — Raymond Burke and Walter Brandmüller — have pledged to carry out, and wondered why they were not among the signatories.

But the organizers stressed this was not the correction the cardinals are planning to enact because Cardinal Burke has communicated that is something cardinals will do themselves, as a “fraternal correction” rather than a “filial” one, if Pope Francis remains silent on the dubia

The filial correction “has been undertaken independently from the ongoing communications of Cardinal Brandmüller and myself, and the late Cardinals Caffarra and Meisner, to the Holy Father regarding the dubia,” Cardinal Burke told the Register. “Therefore, the fact that my name does not appear on the filial correction has no meaning.”

Professor Joseph Shaw, spokesman for the filial correction initiative, told the Register Sept. 25 that the organizers “deliberately didn't involve the dubia cardinals because we wanted an independent initiative.”

For most Catholics, however, the accusations against the Pope are unlikely to garner much attention because they lack a sufficient knowledge of their faith, according to Royal.

“Many Catholics on several continents don’t have the slightest knowledge or understanding of the basics of the faith,” said Royal. “The Church has a huge evangelical task ahead that will not be bridged by speaking of mercy and dialogue alone.”

“For most people,” Royal added, “I’m afraid this controversy will fly over their heads, other than to confirm their impression that there’s nothing really solid and uncontroversial in Catholic teaching anyway.”

As of writing and since the correction was published on Sunday, 17 more priests and professors have put their names to the filial correction, including that of Bishop emeritus Rene Henry Gracida, 94, of Corpus Christi, Texas, taking the total number to 79.