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Cardinal Gerhard Müller, right, walks to the Vatican alongside Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn. Credit Alessandra Tarantino/Associated Press

ROME — Pope Francis earlier this year ordered Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller, the top doctrinal watchdog in the Roman Catholic Church, to fire three priests from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which is the keeper of the church’s orthodoxy and presides over investigations into sexual abuse.

Cardinal Müller, an ideological conservative often at odds with the pontiff, was vexed by the order, and, in a recent interview, said he had made a case, in vain, for the priests to stay in Rome.

“I’m not able to understand all,” Cardinal Müller said when asked why Francis sent them away. He added, “He’s the pope.”

On Saturday, it was Cardinal Mueller’s turn to leave. The Vatican announced that Francis had declined to renew the German cardinal’s mandate and had replaced him with his deputy, Archbishop Luis Ladaria, 73, a Spanish Jesuit theologian.

In a rarefied political atmosphere where personnel is policy, the replacement of Cardinal Müller, 69, who was appointed by Francis’ conservative predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, amounts to one of the pope’s most consequential appointments.

“This gives the pope the chance to finally place his own man in a very important spot,” said the Rev. James Martin, an editor at large for the Catholic magazine America and a consulter to the Vatican’s Secretariat for Communication. “For many admirers of Benedict, Cardinal Müller was the last link to Benedict’s way of doing things.”

The appointment also potentially removed the most powerful ideological brake on the pope’s agenda to emphasize pastoral inclusion over issues of doctrine. The dismissal comes right after Francis granted a leave of absence to an ideological ally of Cardinal Müller’s who is facing trial in Australia on charges of sexual assault.

Taken together, the departure of two archconservative powerhouses at the Vatican is a serious setback to critics of Francis. They do not see him as an avuncular pastor but instead fear that he is a deft political operator in the midst of a house cleaning of conservatives.

Cardinal Müller was on the front line of that endangered wing. Asked this spring if he considered the pope tolerant of different opinions in the church, Cardinal Müller said, “It’s not so prudent to say my opinions.” He added: “Everyone has his own style. I cannot change it.”

Cardinal Müller always seemed an odd fit for Francis, who elevated the German to become a prince of the church when he created his first batch of cardinals in February 2014.

As early as October 2013, with expectation rising in the church that Francis planned to open an avenue for divorced and remarried Catholics to receive communion, Cardinal Müller dampened the idea. In a long article published in L’Osservatore Romano, the church’s official paper, he wrote that the case for mercy “misses the mark.”

That pattern appeared again and again.

The pope proposed creating a tribunal to try bishops who mishandled sexual abuse cases, Cardinal Müller declared that the idea had “legal” difficulties, and the tribunal never came to be. Francis established a special commission to study the possibility of women as deacons, and Cardinal Müller flatly called the change “not possible.”

That dissonance between the pope’s inclusive messaging and Cardinal Müller’s door slamming intrigued Vatican watchers. Some Vatican analysts suggested that the cardinal played a useful role for Francis, perhaps as an ideological bad cop to his pastoral good cop, or as someone who provided political cover to protect the pontiff from conservative critics worried about the dissolution of the church’s orthodoxy.

But the powerful congregation, which Benedict, then Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, led for years under John Paul II, seemed weakened, or even ignored, under Francis. The number of theologians or priests investigated for advocating supposedly suspect views shrank. And the congregation’s proposed corrections to Francis’ watershed document, Amoris Laetitia, or Joy of the Family, before its publication last year were ignored.

It was that document that provided the most public division between Francis and Cardinal Müller, who made it clear that he viewed the most controversial aspects of the document through the prism of church tradition, and rejected the possibility that divorced Catholics who had remarried without an annulment could receive communion.

During the pope’s trip to Philadelphia in September 2015, Cardinal Müller said “it’s not possible” for violators of church doctrine on divorce, homosexuality or abortion to be welcomed completely back into the church. “It’s not an academic doctrine, it’s the word of God,” he said.

That position put him increasingly at odds with a pope who, in a letter to Argentine bishops, once wrote that there were “no other interpretations” to his document than the more merciful one. During the pope’s trip to Philadelphia, Cardinal Müller was also reported to have offered internal support to four conservative cardinals who wrote a letter to Francis questioning the doctrinal soundness of his position on divorce.

The pope has simply refused to respond to the letter, which has become the central rallying cry among the church’s conservative circles, and spurred talk among some radical traditionalists of a potential schism. Cardinal Müller, who argued that the dispute should be settled privately between the Cardinals and the pope, was confident that he could squash the schism talk, because, he said, his ideological allies “will respect orders under my authority.”

But that authority was already waning. The widening gulf between the pope and his top doctrinal enforcer made for a precarious position for Cardinal Müller, who expressed concern that too much focus on the “hype” surrounding the pope’s personality and pastoral style distracted from the church’s core beliefs.

Archbishop Ladaria, a former vice-rector at Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University who is not considered especially liberal, can expect a demanding superior.

Asked in the interview whether the pope was as tough a boss as many critics in the Vatican suggested, Cardinal Müller grinned and said, “It’s a secret.” When it was noted that his staying in his job seemed like a promising sign, the cardinal laughed.