VATICAN CITY — Pope Benedict XVI 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 model 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 titled ‘‘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 are problematic.
Mueller is a longtime friend of Benedict’s.
Mueller has also worried 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 a separate development Monday, Benedict, in a rare show of papal power over his bishops, fired Bishop Robert Bezak of Trnava, Slovakia, for apparently mismanaging his diocese.
Usually when bishops run into trouble they are persuaded by the Vatican to resign, but the pope has become increasingly willing to forcibly remove bishops who refuse to step down, dismissing three others in the last year alone.
His willingness to do so raises questions about whether he might take the same measures against bishops who covered up for sexually abusive priests.
The Vatican gave no reason for dismissing Bezak, 52, but Italian news reports suggested administrative problems were to blame and Slovak news reports quoted Bezak as saying he thought his criticism of his predecessor may have had a role.