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October 18, 2017 (LifeSiteNews) — The Vatican’s former doctrine chief has criticized reprisals toward Catholics who make an effort to read Pope Francis’ apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia in light of the Catholic faith.

Cardinal Gerhard Müller said it’s only in cases when one repudiates Catholic teaching that a person can be quashed.

“Nobody who interprets Amoris Laetitia in the context of the orthodox tradition should be disciplined,” Cardinal Müller said. “Only if one denies the principles of the Catholic faith can he be censored.”

The cardinal’s comments came in a recent Catholic Herald report on what the UK news outlet termed the climate of fear within Catholic institutions.

“The burden of proof lies on those who want to interpret Amoris Laetitia in a heterodox way that is in contradiction to the words of Jesus and the dogmatic decisions of the Magisterium,” Cardinal Müller stated.

The German cardinal hopes Catholics can “overcome controversial and polemical discussion” and “speak the truth with respect and pastoral sensitivity for those who are in difficulties in their marital and family life.”

Still, according to the report, he proposed that reconciling the current fear and discord in the Church depends on a shared commitment to orthodoxy, and further, doctrine and pastoral care cannot be separated.

“Jesus Christ is at the same time the teacher of the Kingdom of God and the good shepherd laying down his life for the sheep,” Cardinal Müller said.

An orthodox cardinal not asked back to his post

Müller had defended Catholic doctrine during his tenure as head of the CDF.

Francis removed Müller in July when his term as Prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith ended. However, the termination came years before Müller reached the normal retirement age, and the pope gave no explanation why.

The dismissal came months after the pontiff ordered Müller to dismiss three CDF priests known for good work from their duties, also abruptly and without explanation.

And while the cardinal had not outwardly opposed Pope Francis, some of his comments about Amoris Laetitia were not in line with those from others among Francis’ advisers.

The cardinal has said Amoris Laetitia must be read in line with Church teaching and it cannot open the door to Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics. Muller has also rebuked bishops who have used it to justify adultery.

And at the same time Muller has made mixed statements about the dubia while also saying the cardinals who submitted them raised legitimate questions.

Concrete reasons for the climate of fear

Several months after Amoris Laetitia’s release last year, LifeSiteNews published a detailed firsthand account of a current climate of fear occurring in the Vatican based upon observations made by LifeSite leadership in meetings with cardinals, bishops, and other Vatican agency and dicastery staff.

A most notable recent case where a Catholic was punished for questioning the pope’s document is renowned Catholic philosopher Dr. Josef Seifert, who was removed in late August from his teaching post at the International Academy of Philosophy in Granada after publishing a critique of Amoris Laetitia.

Seifert, a personal friend of the late Pope St. John Paul II and former member of the Pontifical Academy for Life, had referenced the pope’s exhortation as a “moral theological atomic bomb” that could destroy all Catholic teaching. He said while the text “contains many beautiful thoughts and deep truths,” it could also be dangerous.

The German philosopher has since filed suit against the local archdiocese related to his dismissal.

Eighteen months rife with division, confusion

Since its April 2016 promulgation, Amoris Laetitia has generated significant controversy, confusion and division within the Church. Varying bishops’ conferences worldwide have applied the document in different manners, in several cases saying it allows Communion for Catholic couples living in conjugal situations outside of authentic marriage.

Critics and others who have questioned whether Pope Francis intended to permit Communion for Catholics living in objectively sinful situations have often been pilloried or charged with disrespecting or attacking the pope — including the four cardinals who submitted five dubia to Pope Francis requesting clarification on Amoris Laetitia.

Aside from the dubia, 45 priests and theologians signed a letter to the College of Cardinals a few months after Amoris Laetitia was published last year asking the cardinals to request the pope denounce the unorthodox readings of Amoris Laetitia.

Last December, 23 prominent Catholic academics and pastors released a letter conveying their “profound gratitude and full support” of the four dubia cardinals.

And late last month more than 60 scholars issued a filial correction of the pope for “propagating heresy.” The number of signers has more than doubled, and lay Catholics have continued to add their names to other petitions.

Confusion, division and fear

The Catholic Herald report detailed the ongoing negative fallout since Amoris Laetitia’s release, specifically the climate of fear that academics and clerics are facing related to the prospect of speaking up about concerns with Amoris Laetitia.

This included Seifert saying Catholics are facing persecution for defending Catholic teaching.

Seifert is not alone in his experience of negative pushback for not towing the line on Amoris Laetitia.

Cardinal Müller had confirmed the prevalent fear as well, describing for the National Catholic Register’s Ed Pentin late last month how “people working in the Curia are living in great fear.”

“If they say one small or harmless critical word, some spies will pass the comments directly to the Holy Father, and the falsely accused people don’t have any chance to defend themselves,” he said.

“It’s the same in some theological faculties,” he added, “if anybody has any remarks or questions about Amoris Laetitia, they will be expelled, and so on.”

Deputy Editor Dan Hitchens wrote that Seifert and Cardinal Müller are only saying publicly what many will say in private about the current climate of fear in universities, seminaries, and other Catholic institutions.

Priests and academics on four continents quickly requested anonymity after Hitchens brought up the question of intimidation with them as he researched the article, Hitchens said.

The fear is not limited to priests and academics, as bishops have attested to experiencing it as well.

“I am not ready for white martyrdom,” one professor told Hitchens, others expressing concern over losing their livelihood.

The Herald piece tells of a U.S. academic, speaking anonymously, who has been harassed by his bishop for criticizing Amoris Laetitia. The Catholic scholar is afraid his experience will be repeated elsewhere in open or subtle modes of coercion, serious limiting of free speech, and a rekindled push to marginalize orthodox Catholics.

Some among the 45 priests and theologians signing the letter to the cardinals last year experienced retribution, including coercion to withdraw the signature, scolding from a bishop, academic demotion, teaching and writing work becoming scarce, and near loss of employment.

The present prevailing fear in the Church was illustrated by the experience that Professor Anna Silvas of the University of New England had while in Rome for a conference convened with lay academics in April to discuss the potential dangers of Amoris Laetitia.

As five of the scheduled speakers gathered for dinner at a restaurant the night before the conference began, Silvas reported, a young priest approached their table. After blessing the meal and the academics, the priest told them something,

Silva recalled, “The message I got from him was this, ‘There are a lot of priests and bishops out there, behind all this, hidden. They are keenly interested in what you have to say. But they cannot show themselves at the conference because identities could be noted, names could be taken. There could be … repercussions.”