The Pope must “entrust himself to the College of Cardinals”

By ITV Staff

“Every Pope must distinguish precisely between his divine mandate and himself as an individual with all his limitations. He must not impose his private opinions regarding politics or economics or non-theological sciences on other Christians.” —Cardinal Gerhard Müller, Prefect Emeritus of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith, on the release of his new book, True and False Reform: What it Means to Be Catholic, in Turin, Italy.

We excerpt the talk he gave on the occasion, published May 10 on the Italian website

Card. Gerhard Müller, former Prefect of the Dicastery of the Doctrine of the Faith.

By Cardinal Gerhard Müller (Excerpts)

Müller’s new book True and False Reform: What it Means to Be Catholic

Anyone who wants to describe the importance of the papacy to the Catholic Church must start with Jesus Christ. Indeed, it is only in the light of the Word made flesh that the “mystery of the holy Church” is revealed in its foundation by the historical Jesus of Nazareth. With the foundation of the Church as a visible community of people who are related to God in faith, hope and love in the Holy Spirit, Jesus also called his apostles as his vicars.

The bishops (with the presbyters and deacons at their side) preside as successors of the apostles “in the place of God of Christ’s flock,” as shepherds in their guidance, as teachers in the proclamation of the Gospel and as priests in sacred worship, i.e., in the celebration of the sacraments, especially the Holy Eucharist. After his resurrection from the dead and through the outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles and all who are to come to faith, Jesus completed the foundation of the visible Church on earth.


The papacy is, in its most intimate essence, a service to the unity of the whole Church in the truth of the Gospel. Peter’s ministry is not a secular office of ruler in the manner of absolutist kings and autocratic tsars, but a pastoral-spiritual ministry. Bishops and popes must not follow the example of secular rulers who oppress and exploit their people. Rather, they must excel in greater devotion to the eternal salvation of believers. In fact, Jesus said to the apostles, who were arguing about which of them should take first place: “… whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave. Like the Son of man, who did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mt 20: 26-28)


Jesus’ great promise to Peter in the Gospel of Matthew is also found written in the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica above the tomb of the Apostle. “And I tell you: you are Peter and on this rock I will build my Church and the powers of hell will not prevail over it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven: whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Mt 16:18-19).

These words of Jesus cannot be relativized by saying that Jesus did not expressly speak of a successor in Rome or by questioning the historical permanence and martyrdom of the Prince of the Apostles in Rome. It was rather providential that Peter’s universal mission was accomplished in his bloody martyrdom in Rome at the time of Nero. Indeed, that Other (Jn 14:26) who will lead Peter where he does not want to go is the Holy Spirit, who assists him so that he can “glorify God through his death” (Jn 21:19).

The bishop therefore also represents in his person the diachronic and synchronic unity of the Church in the succession of the apostles and the internal continuity of the Church with its origin in Christ and in the apostles. Since only the Bishop of Rome is the personal successor of Peter, while the other bishops are successors of the Apostles throughout their college, the prerogatives of Simon in his capacity as Peter, as rock on which Christ, the Son of the living God, will build His Church, are also valid for the Bishop of Rome. Over time, the title of “Pope” has evolved to include in a single term the essential elements of the Petrine ministry of the Roman bishop.

But there remains a crucial difference between apostles and bishops. The apostles, with Peter at the head, were the direct recipients and bearers of God’s full self-revelation in Christ. The bishops and the Pope, on the other hand, are linked in content to the realization of revelation in Sacred Scripture and in the Apostolic Tradition. “The office (…) of authentically interpreting the word of God, whether written or transmitted, is entrusted to the sole living magisterium of the Church, whose authority is exercised in the name of Jesus Christ. Which magisterium, however, is not superior to the word of God but serves it, teaching only what has been handed down, inasmuch as, by divine mandate and with the assistance of the Holy Spirit, it piously listens, holy guards and faithfully expounds that word.

Even if the doctrinal decisions of the Church in particular cases infallibly reflect revelation because they are supported by the charism of the Holy Spirit, nevertheless they require the best possible human preparation and demand to be jealously preserved and faithfully exposed and both the Pope and the bishops are obliged to do so consciously. Even for the general governance of the Church, the Pope should first entrust himself to the College of Cardinals, which, after all, represents the Holy Roman Church and – like the presbytery advises a bishop – advises the Pope collegially/synodally.

As in all cases, a consultative body constituted by the supreme decision-maker according to criteria of complacency and clientelism is of little use and does more harm than good to those in charge. The latter does not need the praises that flatter human vanity.


Christ Giving the Keys to St. Peter, by the Italian Renaissance painter Pietro Perugino, Sistine Chapel, Rome

Every Pope must distinguish precisely between his divine mandate and himself as an individual with all his limitations. He must not impose his private opinions on politics or economics and non-theological sciences on other Christians.

Nor may a Pope or bishop or other ecclesiastical superior abuse the trust which is readily placed in him in a fraternal atmosphere to furnish incompetent or corrupt “friends” with ecclesiastical sinecures or, contrary to divine right, arbitrarily depose bishops to him personally unwelcome or to interfere without just cause in the ordinary pastoral office of the diocesan bishop.

If there was a traitor among the apostles chosen by Jesus, and even Peter denied Jesus during the Passion, then we know that even the human representatives of the Church in history and in the present can fail and abuse their office in a selfish or narrowed way.

We also have an example of this in matters of faith, given that Paul openly resisted Peter when he allowed himself a dangerous ambiguity in the “truth of the Gospel” (Gal 2:11-14). Our affective and effective attachment to the Pope and our bishop or pastor has nothing to do with the unworthy personality cult of secular autocrats, but is brotherly love for a fellow Christian who has been entrusted with the highest responsibility in the Church. It can also fail in this. That is why loving admonition promotes the Church more than slavish hypocrisy.

But the best way to help the Pope and the bishops is through prayer. We trust in Jesus, the Lord of the Church, who before his Passion said to Simon, the rock on which he would build his Church (Mt 16:18): “Simon, Simon, behold: Satan has sought you to sift you like wheat; but I have prayed for you, that your faith may not fail. And you, once converted, strengthen your brothers” (Lk 22: 31-32).

Peter’s faith is the faith of the whole Church, “that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that, by believing, you may have life in his name” (Jn 20:31).

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