Pope Benedict XVI Appoints Catholic Church’s New Top Cop

By putting Gerhard Ludwig Müller in charge of policing church doctrine, the pontiff may be looking for a strong ally as he looks ahead to the fall when scandals will resurface.

Thomas Lohnes, AFP / Getty Images

If anyone in Rome needs a little vacation, it’s Pope Benedict XVI. The 85-year-old pontiff has spent several grueling months troubleshooting multiple scandals that reached a climax in late May with the arrest of his trusted butler, who stands accused of stealing private papal documents and leaking them to the press.

But before leaving for his annual getaway in Castel Gandolfo, where he will escape the heat until the fall, the pontiff made his most significant personnel decision of the year. On Monday, he appointed his German compatriot Gerhard Ludwig Müller to replace American Cardinal William Levada as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Formerly the office of the Inquisition, the CDF now occupies itself with policing church doctrine. Benedict himself ran this crucial congregation for nearly two decades. And that has caused some speculation that the pope is looking for a stronger national ally in a top position, possibly to bolster support against the Italian contingent in the Roman Curia as he looks ahead to the fall when scandals will surely resurface.

A fellow Bavarian, Müller is the bishop of Regensberg, where Benedict XVI once taught and where his brother Georg Ratzinger—the former head of the Domspatzen boys choir--still lives. Back in 2010, Müller proved himself a trusted confidant to the pope when he traveled as a papal accessory to Germany, where he apologized on Pope Benedict’s behalf to pedophile victims of the diocese. Müller was unwavering in his support of the pope’s brother, who was briefly rumored to have been involved in widespread abuse at the Domspatzen choir.

Müller also proved his loyalty when he founded the Pope Benedict XVI Institute. He’s also currently the editor of Opera Omnia, which will eventually showcase all of the pontiff’s theological writing.

His new job will be no easy task. When Müller takes charge of the congregation, his agenda will already be full. He will have to deal with several open cases, including just what to do with the American nuns of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, who stand accused of bucking church doctrine by pushing radical feminist ideas.

His predecessor, Leveda, an American, no doubt had a different sensibility on the issue, especially given the antagonistic relationship between the U.S. Bishops Conference and the American sisters, who are far more popular than their male counterparts in the American church. Whether Müller continues to follow Leveda’s hard line remains to be seen. The LCWR told The Daily Beast they won’t be commenting on Müller’s appointment.

Inside Catholic circles, Müller has a somewhat mixed reputation. He has published more than 400 academic articles on church theology and doctrine, which will serve him well as a precursor for his new job. But not everyone has endorsed his appointment, especially other members of the congregation he now heads.

“Late last year there was a push in traditionalist circles to try to block the appointment,” says John Allen, a Vatican analyst.

“Emails were circulated suggesting that Müller … is not a man on ‘secure doctrine.’”

Müller’s foes are especially concerned with his close friendship with Gustavo Gutiérrez, a Peruvian priest who founded the controversial liberation theology movement, which once embraced the mantra: “If Jesus Christ were on Earth today, he would be a Marxist revolutionary.”

A student of Gutiérrez, Müller even coauthored a book with him about the controversial movement. As head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith himself, Pope Benedict XVI, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, went head to head with Gutiérrez’s followers, arguing about whether liberation theology was in line with the church’s doctrine.

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Some groups outside the Vatican also see him as an inopportune choice. As head of the CDF, he will be on the frontline of the controversial sexual-abuse scandal. Members of a pedophile victim’s group known as the Survivors Network for Those Abused by Priests (SNAP) say the decision to appoint him couldn’t be worse, calling to mind that Müller, as bishop, reinstated Peter Kramer as a priest after undergoing therapy for a pedophilia conviction in 2000.

“Pope Benedict had hundreds of options here. Yet he deliberately elevated a bishop who knowingly put kids in harm’s way,” said SNAP director Barbara Dorris in a statement.

“It’s more proof that the ongoing child-sex-abuse and cover-up crisis in the church is no crisis at all to Pope Benedict. It’s apparently a minor annoyance.”

In addition to the standing scandals he has inherited, Müller will be expected to bring his own ideas of what else needs fixing in the doctrine department, namely pinpointing other problem areas where the keepers of the faith may be straying. While Pope Benedict XVI catches up on his rest and reading in the Roman countryside, his new man at the Curia will undoubtedly be preparing for a difficult autumn.