Pope Francis Taps First-Ever Jesuit as Vatican Doctrinal Chief, Ousting German Cardinal

Spanish Archbishop Luis Ladaria Ferrer, 73, has been appointed by Pope Francis as the new
CNS photo/Paul Haring

The first Jesuit Pope in history, Francis has named Archbishop Luis Ladaria Ferrer S.J. as head of the Vatican’s powerful doctrinal office (CDF), making him the first member of the Jesuit order to ever occupy the post.

In an unusual move, Pope Francis chose not to renew 69-year-old German Cardinal Gerhard Müller, an appointee of Pope Benedict XVI, to serve a second five-year term in that role. The Pope has chosen instead the 73-year-old Ladaria, a Jesuit theologian who has worked as secretary of the CDF.

“This gives the pope the chance to finally place his own man in a very important spot,” said Jesuit Father James Martin, the editor of America magazine.

Austen Ivereigh, a biographer of Pope Francis, remarked in a Tweet that the Vatican’s doctrinal office is “now headed by a Jesuit, which means someone who understands discernment, which Müller did not.”

While some are delighting in the appointment, “some will feel uneasy about having two members of the Society of Jesus holding the two most senior positions in the Church,” wrote veteran Vatican journalist Edward Pentin. In point of fact, no religious order in history has held these two posts.

During his four-year pontificate, Pope Francis has not been exactly shy about elevating members of his order to positions of influence.

In another “first,” this past June the Pope gave Ireland its first-ever Jesuit bishop, naming Father Alan McGuckian S.J. as the new Bishop of Raphoe. The Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, said that Father McGuckian would bring “rich experiences and gifts” to his new ministry as bishop.

In April, Pope Francis appointed two Jesuits—Father James Martin of America magazine and Father Jacquineau Azétsop of the Gregorian University—among the 13 new consultants for the Vatican’s Secretariat for communications. In December 2016, the Pope bolstered the “Section for Refugees and Migrants” in the new Vatican department for the Promotion of Integral Human Development, appointing as under-secretary the Canadian Jesuit Father Michael Czerny, who had served as Secretary for Social Justice at the Jesuit headquarters in Rome from 1992 to 2002.

Along with his appointments of acting Jesuits, Pope Francis has also continued enrolling his confreres in the ranks of the saints. Within a year of ascending to the papacy, Francis canonized Father Peter Faber S.J., the only one of the first three members of the order not yet deemed a saint. (The other two were Saint Ignatius Loyola and St Francis Xavier). In April 2016, the Pope approved the beatification of Irish Jesuit priest Fr John Sullivan, who entered the Jesuit Order in 1900 and died in 1933.

But the appointment of a Jesuit as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the oldest among the congregations of the Roman Curia, has greater significance still.

Ironically, although the Jesuits have never had one of their members overseeing the Vatican’s doctrinal office, they have been exceptionally present as recipients of disciplinary “notifications” emanating from that office, which was founded to guard against doctrinal heresy in the Church.

In the seven-year period from 1998-2006, the CDF issued a remarkable four disciplinary “notifications” against Jesuit priests for certain doctrinal problems or “ambiguities” in their writings. As a group, in fact, the Jesuits have been the most frequent recipients of Vatican doctrinal corrections of any order in the Church:

“Notification concerning the writings of the Reverend Father Anthony De Mello, S.J.” (24 June 1998)

“Notification on the book Toward a Christian Theology of Religious Pluralism by the Reverend Father Jacques Dupuis, S.J.” (January 2001)

“Notification regarding the book Jesus Symbol of God of the Reverend Father Roger Haight, S.J.” (December 2004).

“Notification on the works of the Reverend Father Jon Sobrino, S.J.” (November 2006)

And although he received no public censure, in April 2005, Thomas J. Reese, editor of America, resigned under pressure from the Vatican, following years of criticism by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for positions taken by the magazine on a series of doctrinal issues.

Pope Francis, who has repeatedly downplayed the importance of doctrine in favor of a more “pastoral” approach, will now have a fellow Jesuit running the Church’s doctrinal office.

While Archbishop Ladaria is certainly no progressive, it remains to be seen whether he will raise his voice when doctrine threatens to get in the way of reform.

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