dapd, Lennart Preiss, File, Associated Press
VATICAN CITY — The pope named Bishop Gerhard Ludwig Mueller to head the Vatican's all-important orthodoxy office Monday, tapping a German theologian like himself to head the congregation he presided over for nearly a quarter-century enforcing Catholic doctrine.
The 64-year-old Regensburg bishop replaces American Cardinal William Levada, who turned 76 last month and is retiring after seven years at the helm of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the former Holy Office.
While Mueller is considered a conservative theologian — he has penned some 400 academic articles and founded an institute to publish all the pope's writings — some of his less-than-orthodox positions have raised eyebrows in Rome and abroad among staunch conservatives.
Chief among them is his friendship with the Rev. Gustavo Gutierrez, the Peruvian priest considered the founder of liberation theology, the Marxist-influenced one advocating for the poor.
The former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, spent much of his tenure at the congregation battling liberation theology, arguing that it misinterpreted Jesus' preference for the poor into a call for rebellion.
Mueller was a student of Gutierrez, wrote a book with him on liberation theology in 2004, and in 2008 was given an honorary degree at the Pontifical University of Lima, where he gave a speech entitled "My experiences with Liberation Theology."
In the speech, though, he stressed that Gutierrez's liberation theology wasn't a political call to revolution, but rather was perfectly in line with the church's social teaching about the poor. It's a distinction he repeated in December in an article in the Vatican newspaper in which he noted that Benedict himself has said not all aspects of liberation theology were problematic.
Yet Mueller has also raised alarm bells among the church's more conservative, traditionalist wings for his outreach work with other Christians. He has served on several ecumenical committees, including being named the chief Catholic negotiator in theological talks with Lutherans.
In addition to handling clerical sex abuse cases, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is responsible for negotiating with a breakaway group of traditionalist Catholics, the Society of St. Pius X, which split from Rome over the liberalizing reforms of the 1962-65 Second Vatican Council.
Mueller has spoken out against the society, including a 2009 interview with the German news website Zeit Online in which he said the society's four bishops should resign, keep quiet and "lead an exemplary life as simple priests to repair a part of the damage the schism has caused."
Benedict has made many concessions to try to reconcile with the society, and just last month he offered its members a special legal status within the church, if they were to come into full communion with Rome. But the superior, Bishop Bernard Fellay, has said more talks are needed and that things were at a "dead end."
Naming Mueller as lead negotiator in reconciliation talks certainly can't have come as a welcome development by the society. Yet in a bid to nudge the process forward — and perhaps blunt any negative reaction to a Mueller appointment — Benedict last week tapped a trusted colleague to be the congregation's key No. 2 negotiator.
The appointment of the American Dominican theologian, Monsignor Augustine Di Noia, was accompanied by an unusual statement from the congregation stressing Di Noia's credentials in interpreting Vatican II not as a rupture from the past as liberals believe but as a continuation with the great traditions of Catholicism.
Mueller is a longtime friend of Benedict's and in 2008 founded a diocesan institute, the "Pope Benedict XVI Institute" to publish a 16-volume compilation of the "Collected Writings of Joseph Ratzinger."