The announcement on July 1, 2017, that Pope Francis has appointed curial Archbishop Luis Francisco Ladaria Ferrer as the new Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith surprised even many Vatican watchers who had predicted a changing of the guard. Reports of his unorthodoxy, though, have been greatly exaggerated.
Ladaria, a 73-year-old Spanish Jesuit who wrote his doctoral thesis on the Holy Trinity and once taught theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University, has described himself as a “moderate conservative”. Pope Benedict XVI appointed him Secretary of the CDF in 2008, in other words, second-in-command to Cardinal Levada in a congregation that the Holy Father himself had headed for almost a quarter century (1981-2005). This was not a decision that he made carelessly.
Readers of Catholic World Report may recall that four years later, when the Pope called then-Bishop Gerhard Müller from the Diocese of Regensburg to be the Prefect of the CDF, there were anguished cries in the Traditional Catholic blogosphere that the doctrinal sky was falling. It didn’t. Now some of those same commentators are stirring up controversy because Cardinal Müller has not been reappointed for a second five-year term.
Professor Robert George, a legal scholar who teaches at Princeton University, knows Cardinal Müller and Archbishop Ladaria and has worked with both, most recently during the 2014 Humanum Conference on marriage. In a July 1 Facebook post responding to some of the rumors and fact-free commentaries, Prof. George wrote that the Pope “is not replacing a ‘conservative’ with a ‘liberal’…. Both are faithful Christians who are deeply committed to the Church’s doctrinal and moral teachings.” During the Humanum Conference “the two men were completely of one mind in upholding the biblical and natural law understandings of marriage and sexual morality.”
In October 2014, only a few days after the end of the Extraordinary Synod on the Family (i.e. part one of the two-part Synod), Abp. Ladaria responded to a letter that a French priest, Father Claude Barthe, had sent to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, asking whether a priest in the confessional can give absolution to a civilly divorced-and-remarried Catholic while the person is still living with the new partner. In his answer, Ladaria cited paragraph 84 from the Post-Synodal document Familiaris consortio by Pope John Paul II, which clearly states that divorced-and-remarried Catholics must repent and stop contradicting the indissolubility of marriage by their lives before they can receive the sacrament of Reconciliation or Holy Eucharist worthily. Although one may investigate whether the sacramental marriage was valid, any impression of “Catholic divorce” must be avoided. The possibility of reconciliation with the sacramental spouse should be considered. If for serious reasons—for instance, the duty to raise the children of the civil marriage—separation from the new partner is not possible, the divorced-and-remarried Catholics should live “as brother and sister”. If only the proceedings at the 2015 Ordinary Synod on the Family had been as clear as Abp. Ladaria’s letter to Fr. Barthe!
Again in 2014, in the midst of the pre-Synod consultations, debates, and media coverage, Abp. Ladaria highly recommended Un sola carne in un solo spirito [One Flesh in One Spirit], at that time the most recent book by Father José Granados, a professor at the Lateran University, a prolific writer and a member of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family. “It is a beautiful, deep and well documented volume, in which the discussion of the topics is always guided by a strict criterion,” His Excellency said at the presentation of the book in the Auditorium of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute in Rome. Fr. Granados went on to publish in Spanish and English in 2015 another book entitled Eucharist and Divorce: A Change in Doctrine?, answering the question in the title with a decisive “No”.
Some see trouble brewing in the fact that Abp. Ladaria is president of a commission to study (again) the role of deaconesses in the early Church and the possibility of women deacons in the future. The Secretary of the CDF heads the commission ex officio and is neither responsible for setting it up nor amenable to the views of a notoriously radical feminist from the United States who was also appointed to it.
Abp. Ladaria participated in the doctrinal discussions between the CDF and the Society of Saint Pius X back in 2009-2010. He knows the dossier very well. In his new position as CDF Prefect he will also be President of the Ecclesia Dei Commission which continues to negotiate with the SSPX.
Perhaps Fr. Zuhlsdorf put it most succinctly when he wrote that, considering the views on record of some of the other potential candidates for the position of CDF Prefect, “the Church has dodged a bullet” with the appointment of Abp. Ladaria.