The reputation of James Comey, who served as director of the FBI until six months ago, has fluctuated to a remarkable extent. In mid-2016, he was strongly criticised by the US Right for failing to prosecute Hillary Clinton: one Republican lawmaker said Comey’s actions were “fishy”. Then, just before the election, Comey announced he would re-open the Clinton investigation. Now it was the Democrats’ turn to be enraged: “He must be barred forever from any form of public service,” wrote the left-wing commentator Kurt Eichenwald.
Comey became The Man Who Won It For Trump – until earlier this year, when Trump abruptly sacked him. Since it appeared that Comey had been dismissed for being inconvenient, the tables turned again: Democrats now saw him as a martyr, while the Republican commentator Sean Hannity called him “a national embarrassment”. As many observed, the reactions to Comey tell us more about American political division than about the man himself.
The Catholic world has its own divisions at the moment, notably between those who uphold traditional doctrine on moral absolutes and on Communion for the remarried, and those who dispute either or both of those teachings. It also has a Comey-like figure: a man who, in trying to do his job, has provoked alternately praise and blame from both sides.
Cardinal Gerhard Müller was, until earlier this year, the head of the Church’s doctrinal FBI, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). It was a tough job, especially since four cardinals submitted their dubia last year, asking Pope Francis to reaffirm the Church’s traditional teaching. Cardinal Müller, in his role as head of the CDF, told an Italian TV channel that he was “amazed”, and that the dubia could “damage the Church”. The party of doctrinal change cheered Müller’s intervention.
That only lasted a few months, though, for shortly afterwards the cardinal made a statement which placed him firmly on the side of the traditional teaching. He referred to one of the most important affirmations of that teaching – the passage in John Paul II’s Familiaris Consortio which says that the divorced and remarried, if in a sexual relationship with their new partner, cannot receive Communion because their situation “objectively contradict[s] that union of love between Christ and the Church which is signified and effected by the Eucharist”.
Significantly, Cardinal Müller said: “It is not only a positive law of John Paul II, but he expressed an essential element of Christian moral theology.” If it was a “positive law”, then it might theoretically be changeable; so Cardinal Müller’s words were a blow to the party of reform. Suddenly the CDF prefect was no longer their friend. It appeared that he was out of favour with the Pope, too, who in June did not renew the cardinal’s five-year term as CDF prefect.
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