Bishop Gerhard Ludwig Müller, new prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Some say he is too “progressive,” while others claim he is too “conservative.” Bottom line: the Pope trusts him

He is a big man, more than 6 feet tall (he towers over Pope Benedict XVI). His physical bulk is matched by his great capacity for work: his massive compendium of Catholic dogmatic theology fills more than 900 pages (as a personal friend of Pope Benedict, he has been charged with preparing the publication of Benedict’s Opera Omnia, a series of books that will collect, in a single edition, all the writings of the current Pope, and he himself has written more than 400 works on dogmatic theology, ecumenism, revelation, her­me­neutics, the priesthood and the diaconate). This “big theologian” is the man the Pope chose on July 2 to become the head of the Church’s most important doctrinal office, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. His name: Archbishop Gerhard Ludwig Müller, 64, of Regensburg, Germany. (At the same time, the Pope accepted the retirement of Cardinal William Levada, 76.)

The decision immediately unleashed a storm of controversy. To summarize: A number of commentators argued that the man chosen by the Pope to be the guardian of Catholic orthodoxy was himself unorthodox on a number of points of Church teaching.

Citing phrases from Müller’s writings and talks, these critics accused him of holding or having held questionable positions in four key theological areas:

(1) the perpetual virginity of the Virgin Mary even during childbirth (in his 900-page Katholische Dogmatik. Für Studium und Praxis der Theologie, Freiburg, 5th edition, 2003), Müller says that the doctrine of the Perpetual Virginity of the Blessed Virgin Mary even in childbirth is “not so much concerned with specific physiological proprieties in the natural process of birth […], but with the healing and saving influence of the grace of the Savior on human nature”);

William J. Levada

Cardinal William J. Levada, previous prefect of the same Congregation.

(2) the true presence of Christ’s Body and Blood in the Eucharist (in 2002, Müller, in Die Messe: Quelle des Christlichen Lebens [“The Mass: Source of Christian Life”], St. Ulrich Verlag, Augsburg), wrote: “In reality, the body and blood of Christ do not mean the material components of the human person of Jesus during his lifetime or in his transfigured corporality. Here, body and blood mean the presence of Christ in the signs of the medium of bread and wine”);

(3) the membership in the Catholic Church of non-Catholics (he argued in an October 2011 speech, quoting the Second Vatican Council’s document on ecumenism, Unitatis Redintegratio, that “the Catholic Magisterium is far from denying an ecclesial character or an ecclesial existence to ‘the separated Churches’ and ecclesial Communities of the West”); and

Müller with Gustavo Guttierez

(4) Liberation theology (Müller is a pupil and friend of Gustavo Gutierrez, the “father” of Latin-American liberation theology. From 1988 to date, he has traveled to Peru each year to follow the courses taught by his mentor. He frequented theological workshops in the seminaries of Cusco, Lima, and Callao, and while there, stayed with the poor. In November 2008, he was awarded a doctorate at the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru (PUCP), the same university currently involved in a polemic against the authority of Lima’s cardinal archbishop, Juan Luis Cipriani Thorne, and the instructions of the Holy See. On that occasion, Müller gave a talk in which he said: “The theology of Gustavo Gutierrez, independently of how you look at it, is orthodox… The theology of liberation is founded on a profound spirituality. Its substrate is the following of Christ, an encounter with God in prayer, participation in the life of the poor and the oppressed, the willingness to listen to their cry for freedom and their desire to be fully recognized as children of God. It is participating in their fight to end exploitation and oppression, in their eagerness to respect human rights and demand for a fair share in the cultural and political life of democracy”). Gutiérrez’s thoughts have never been censored by the Holy See, although he was asked to modify a few of his writings.

There has been no official response from the Vatican to these concerns and charges, but defenders of the Pope’s choice maintain that the questioned phrases have either been misunderstood or taken out of context.

They have told Inside the Vatican that the Pope not only trusts Müller’s scholarship and orthodoxy — as shown by his decision to entrust the final editing of his own Opera Omnia to Müller — but also his example of Christian courage in the face of a powerful secularizing current in modern society, especially in Germany. A friend of the Holy Father noted that, when many, both inside and outside of the Church, protested the very strong and powerfully orthodox statement of the centrality of Christ in all things issued by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 2000, Dominus Iesus (“The Lord Jesus”), Müller not only embraced and defended the document, he actually made the title of the document, Dominus Iesus, his episcopal motto. “Here we have a German theologian truly committed to Jesus Christ,” our source told us. “His choice of a motto shows us how Christo-centric he is. He is a profound and orthodox Christian who not only preaches his faith, but lives it. When he travels, he does not stay in episcopal palaces, he goes and stays in the homes of the poor. He is an extraordinary figure, in fact, an extraordinary Christian. The critics have quibbled at phrases and misunderstood the man, who is a staunch, effective defender of Catholic orthodoxy in our time, but also, just as important, an effective promoter and witness to the beauty and goodness of God and his Kingdom.” (Note: We will attempt to go more deeply into these questions in an upcoming issue of the magazine.)

On July 26, the Vatican daily L’Osservatore Romano ran an interview with Archbishop Müller. Here are key excerpts:

“Faith is characterized by the greatest openness,” Müller said. “It is a personal relationship with God, which has within it all the treasures of wisdom.
“Because of this our finite reason is always in movement toward the infinite God. We can always learn something anew and understand with ever greater profundity the richness of Revelation. We will never be able to exhaust it.”

During the interview, held in the old palace of the Holy Office, Müller also spoke of his arrival in the Roman Curia, of his decision to become a priest, and of his repeated sojourns in Latin America. And he explained that he learned to know and appreciate Joseph Ratzinger from his Introduction to Christianity, which already in 1968 was a best-seller.

Can you tell us your first impressions of the post you have just taken up?

Archbishop Müller: …I will need a bit of time before I am able to find my way in the complex structure of the Curia. Of course, new for me, above all, is the role of prefect… I must carry out and guide the work every day with those who work in the dicastery, preparing and acting on the decisions correctly. I am grateful to the Holy Father for having given me his trust and for having entrusted this task to me.

The problems that are foreseen are very great if we look at the universal Church, with many challenges that must be addressed and in the face of a certain downheartedness that is spreading in some environments but which we must overcome. We also have the problem of groups — of the right and the left, as is usually said — which take up much of our time and our attention.

Here the danger easily arises of losing sight of our main task, which is to proclaim the Gospel and to explain concretely the doctrine of the Church.
We are convinced that there is no alternative to the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. Revelation responds to the great questions of men of all times. What is the meaning of my life? How can I face suffering? Is there hope that goes beyond death, given that life is brief and difficult?

We are fundamentally convinced that the secular and immanentistic vision is not enough. We cannot find a convincing answer on our own. Because of this, Revelation is a relief, given that we must not seek answers at all costs. However, our capacities are so great as to render the human being capax infiniti. The infinite God has manifested himself to us in Christ. Christ is the answer to our most profound questions. Because of this we are willing to face the future with joy and strength.

Would you tell us something about yourself, about your family, your studies, your choice to become a priest, your ex­per­ience as a scholar and docent of theology, as bishop?

Müller: For almost 40 years my father was a simple worker of Opel at Russelsheim. We lived close by, at Mainz-Finthen, a small locality founded by the Romans, and still today there are ruins of an aqueduct built by them. From this point of view, our fundamental stamp is Roman. At Mainz we are still very aware of this legacy, and we are proud of it. To have a Roman horizon at the heart of Germany has left a sign. And when one is a Catholic the two realities are linked automatically.
My mother was a homemaker. I am grateful to my parents for having educated me in the normal way from the human point of view, without exaggerating in one direction or another.

Thus we grew in the Catholic faith and its practice, in the right balance between freedom and ties, with clear principles. Still today I agree fully with my parents.
Then the theological studies followed from which I acquired a more profound dimension of the faith. Important for my choice to become a priest was having continued to meet priests who led an exemplary spiritual life, with intellectual exigency.

From this point of view, for me there were never contradictions between being a priest and study. I was always convinced that the Catholic faith corresponds to the highest intellectual exigencies and that we must not hide ourselves.

The Church can boast of many great figures in the history of culture. Because of this we can respond with security to the great challenges of the natural sciences, of history, of sociology and of politics.

Faith is characterized by the greatest openness. It is a personal relationship with God, which bears within it all the treasures of wisdom. Because of this our finite reason is always in movement toward the infinite God. We can always learn something anew and understand with ever greater profundity the richness of Revelation. We will never be able to exhaust it.

As bishop I continued to stress to seminarians that the identity of the vocation to the priesthood is in need of an encounter with genuine priests. Faith begins with personal meetings, beginning with parents, priests, friends, the parish, the diocese, in that great family which is the universal Church. We must never fear intellectual confrontation; we don’t have a blind faith, but faith cannot be reduced in a rationalistic way. I hope that everyone will have an experience similar to mine: that of identifying themselves in a simple way and without problems with the Catholic faith and of practicing it. It is most beautiful.

Pope Benedict has entrusted to you the care of his Gesammelte Schriften (“Collected Works”), leaving also to you his Roman apartment, where Cardinal Ratzinger lived until the conclave of 2005 and where there are still many of his books. How did you meet Joseph Ratzinger?

Müller: As a young student I read his book Introduction to Christianity. It was published in 1968, and we absorbed it practically like sponges.

In those years, in fact, there was uncertainty in the seminaries. In the book, the profession of the faith of the Church is explained in a convincing manner, analyzed with the help of reason and explained with mastery. It is an important subject that characterizes the whole theological work of Joseph Ratzinger: fides et ratio, faith and reason.

Then I met and learned to appreciate Ratzinger also as a person. In my commitment as docent and as bishop, he was a support for me and a clear point of reference.
I will describe him as a paternal friend, being older than me by a generation.

And I hold that the reason for my coming to Rome is certainly not to burden him with various questions. My task is to relieve him of part of the work and not to present problems to him which can be resolved at our level.

The Sant’Uffizio Palace

The Holy Father has the important mission to proclaim the Gospel and to confirm his brothers and sisters in the faith. It is for us to address all the questions that are less pleasing, so that he is not burdened with too many things, although always being informed, of course, of the most essential issues.

Shortly before the end of the Council, Paul VI transformed the Holy Office into the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. What do you think of this change and of the role of the dicastery today?

Müller:  The Church is first of all a community of faith; hence the revealed faith is the most important good, which we must transmit, proclaim and protect.

Jesus entrusted to Peter and to his successors the universal magisterium, and it is this that the dicastery must serve.

Hence, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has the responsibility for what concerns the whole Church in profundity: the faith that leads us to salvation and to communion with God and among ourselves.

I think that the most important aspect of the transformation of the dicastery was not the relationship with the other institutions of the Holy See, but rather the main orientation of its work. Pope Paul VI wanted the positive aspect to be at the forefront: the Congregation must first of all promote the faith and render it comprehensible, and this is the decisive factor.

To this is added the fact that the faith must be defended against errors and devaluations. In fact, at present we are in need of hope and signs to begin again.

If we look at the world, especially at our European countries, which, naturally, are the ones I know best, we see many politicians and economists who do extraordinary things; but they are not the first to be looked to when it is a question of transmitting hope and trust.

It is here that I see one of the great tasks of the Congregation and of the Church in general: We must rediscover the faith and make it shine anew as positive power, as a force of hope and as potential to overcome conflicts and tensions, and continue to meet in the common profession of the One and Triune God.

The Pope’s concern for the proclamation of the faith is well known. This is expressed also in the institution of the Pontifical Council for Promoting the New Evangelization and in the proclamation of a “Year of Faith.” What are the plans of your dicastery?

Müller: The faith is realized in the Holy Mass, in Christian life, in families. In reality we can do no more than give support. There are already many valid texts for children, young people and adults, in addition to theological studies and documents of the magisterium. The forthcoming Synod of Bishops must give the participants and the whole Church a new impetus for the transmission of the faith.

I consider it my personal task to encourage bishops and theologians in this sense. We must support one another.

Bishop Müller ictured with the Pope’s brother, Father Georg Ratzinger

The Lord himself said to Peter: Confirm your brothers and sisters. This is true in particular for the Pope, but not only for him.

In fact, for those who proclaim it is important to be on the terrain of faith, to access its sources, Holy Scripture, the Fathers of the Church, documents of Councils and of pontiffs, the great theologians and spiritual writers. Where this doesn’t happen, everything is arid and empty. When, instead, the faith is accepted with joy and determination, life is born.

Scripture proposes to us some beautiful images: the light on the candelabrum, the salt that gives flavor to everything, the Gospel as leaven in the world.
As a bishop of a diocese, as a priest caring for souls, we see real people.

There we see them concretely in their situation of life. We cannot proclaim the Gospel to them if we don’t love them and don’t see that each one of them is a mystery, image and likeness of God.

We must continue to repeat that Christ died on the cross for us all. We are aware that our vocation is to be friends of God and thus discover to what hope, in reality, we are destined. This makes doubts disappear from the heart. Atheists and enemies of the Church should ask themselves, perhaps, with a spirit of self-criticism, if they themselves have means of salvation to offer the men of today.

You have many contacts with Latin America. How did this relation begin?

Müller: I went often to Latin America, to Peru, but also to other countries.

In 1988 I was invited to take part in a seminar with Gustavo Gutierrez. I went with a certain reservation as a German theologian, also because I knew well the two statements of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on liberation theology published in 1984 and in 1986.

However, I was able to see that it is necessary to distinguish between a mistaken liberation theology and a correct one.

I believe that every good theology has to do with the freedom and glory of the children of God. However, certainly a mixture of the doctrine of Marxist self-redemption with the salvation given by God must be rejected.

On the other hand, we must ask ourselves sincerely: How can we speak of the love and mercy of God in the face of the suffering of so many people who don’t have food, water, health care, who don’t know how to offer a future to their children, where human dignity is truly lacking, where human rights are ignored by the powerful?

In the last analysis this is possible only if we are also willing to be with the people, to accept them as brothers and sisters, without paternalism from on high. If we consider ourselves as God’s family, then we can contribute to making these situations that are unworthy of man change and improve.

In Europe, after World War II and the dictatorships, we built a new democratic society thanks also to Catholic social doctrine. As Christians we must stress that it is from Christianity that the values of justice, solidarity and the dignity of the person were introduced into our Constitutions.

I myself come from Mainz. There, at the beginning of the 19th century, there was a great bishop, Baron Wilhelm Emmanuel von Ketteler, who was at the beginning of the social doctrine and encyclicals. A Catholic child of Mainz has social passion in his blood, and I am proud of it. This was certainly the horizon with which I arrived in the countries of Latin America.

For 15 years I always spent two or three months of the year [there], living in very simple conditions. In the beginning, for a citizen of central Europe, this implies a great effort. However, when one learns to know the people in person and one sees how they live, then one can accept it.

I also went to South Africa with our Domspatzen, the famous choir that the Pope’s brother directed for 30 years. I was able to deliver lectures in several seminaries and universities, not only in Latin America but also in Europe and in North America. And this is what I was able to experience: You are at home everywhere; where there is an altar, Christ is present; wherever you are, you are part of the great family of God.

What do you think of the discussions with the Lefebvrists and with the religious sisters of the United States?

Müller: It is important for the future of the Church to overcome ideological clashes no matter where they come from. There is only one revelation of God in Jesus Christ which was entrusted to the whole Church. This is why there are no negotiations on the Word of God and one cannot believe and not believe at the same time. One cannot pronounce the three religious vows and then not take them seriously. I cannot make reference to the tradition of the Church and then accept it only in some of its parts. The path of the Church leads ahead and all are invited not to enclose themselves in a self-referential way of thinking, but rather to accept the full life and the full faith of the Church.

For the Catholic Church it is altogether evident that man and woman have the same value: It is stated already in the account of creation and confirmed in the order of salvation. The human being does not need to emancipate himself, or to create and invent himself; he is already emancipated and liberated through the grace of God. Many statements regarding the admission of women to the sacrament of Holy Orders ignore an important aspect of the priestly ministry. To be a priest does not mean to create a position for oneself. One cannot consider the priestly ministry as a sort of position of earthly power and think that emancipation will only exist when all can occupy it.

The Catholic faith knows that it is not up to us to dictate the conditions for admission to the priestly ministry and that behind one’s being a priest there is always the will and call of Christ.

I invite [all] to give up the controversies and the ideologies and to immerse oneself in the doctrine of the Church. In fact, in America women and men religious have done extraordinary things for the Church, for education and for the formation of young people.

Christ is in need of young people who follow this path and who identify themselves with their own fundamental choice. The Second Vatican Council affirmed wonderful things for the renewal of religious life, as also for the common vocation to sanctity. It is important to reinforce mutual trust rather than to work against one another.

Apart from (Cardinal) Merry del Val from 1914 to 1930, the dicastery was always led by Italians. After 1968, Seper, Ratzinger, Levada and now you (all non-Italians) have been appointed. What does this new tendency manifest?

Müller: At first the possibility of frequent trips didn’t exist, so the persons of the Curia came from around Rome and Italy. Today, modern technical means help us to live in a more concrete way the catholicity of the Church. Because the primacy of the Pope is, however, linked to the Church of Rome, it is obvious that in the Curia there are still many Italians. The internationalization has to do, however, with the catholicity of the Church. Already at the time of the Empire, there were many Christians in Rome and even Popes originating from other places, for example from the East.

Today, as then, we are, in the Church, members of one family and we must, so to speak, be the engine of humanity’s genuine progress. No other organization, in fact, has this international dimension, which embraces humanity and is so committed to the unity of persons and of peoples.

Wherever we celebrate the Eucharist, we share the most intimate part of our conviction and we have the same communion of life with Christ, even if the culture and language are different. We feel immediately that we are one thing, that we are members of one body and that we build together the temple of God.

It is, in a certain sense, the follow-up of the experience of Pentecost: We come from all countries and we can render praise to God all together; we can hear in our language the one Word of God.

The Holy Spirit speaks to us in the language of love, which unites us all in God, our Father.

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