Between This Rock and a Hard Place: Cardinal Müller’s Dilemma

(CNS photo/Paul Haring)

And I say to thee: That thou art Peter; and upon this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (Mt. 16:18)

But when Cephas was come to Antioch, I withstood him to the face, because he was to be blamed.” (Galatians 2:11)

As OnePeterFive has been reporting over the past week, several bishops and theologians have come to the defense of the Four Cardinals who have written to Pope Francis, asking him to clarify several important ambiguities and potentially heretical statements in his post-synodal exhortation, Amoris Laetitia. We have now learned, however, that Cardinal Gerhard Müller, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, will not speak in their defense.

Meanwhile, critics of their letter to the pope expressing “dubia” about certain propositions contained in AL — critics like the newly-minted Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago — have gone so far as to accuse the four cardinals (and implicitly, their supporters) for “doubting the fruit of two synods, and the fruit of propositions that were voted on by two-thirds of the bishops who were there.”

On the contrary, Edward Pentin, the well-informed Rome Correspondent for the National Catholic Register, has reminded us that the so-called “Kasper proposal” never found the support of the required majority at either of the two synods. In the second synod – after the first one expressly rejected this idea of giving Holy Communion to the “remarried” divorcees – there was an attempt made to keep the equivocal formulations ambiguous enough so that all options would be left open in the aftermath. As Pentin reports, the Synod Fathers did not recognize this subtle method at the time:

Many other efforts were then made to steer the second synod, for example by purposely leaving out the words “mortal sin”, making the text intentionally ambiguous, and deliberately omitting the key passage (no. 84) in its integrity of John Paul II’s apostolic exhortation on the family, Familiaris Consortio, in particular the part which clearly rules out Holy Communion for remarried divorcees unless the couple are living as brother and sister. “We all voted according to the proposals we received,” one synod father told the Register on condition of anonymity earlier this year. “I understood that if the ‘yes’ would be interpreted in accord with Familiaris Consortio, one goes in the right direction. But you see that in those proposals they prepared, they mentioned Familiaris Consortio, but at the same time left it open to other interpretations… They neglected to mention some things.”

Making use of a language that is sufficiently unclear so that it could be exploited later on is nothing new in the Church. This same approach has been lamented at least since the Second Vatican Council. In this case, as the second synod concluded, the stage was set for a later interpretation by Pope Francis himself – as Archbishop Bruno Forte revealed.

We know that Cardinal Müller opposed the Kasper proposal before the synods, as well as afterwards.There is, however, evidence that he may have been lured into accepting a sort of compromise as the second portion of the Synod of the Family drew to a close in 2015. On 17 October 2015, the German magazine FOCUS published an interview with Müller in which he said the following, (according to my own translation):

Curial Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller, head of the Congregation for the Faith in the Vatican, does not exclude Communion for remarried divorcees – at least not “in extreme individual cases.” However, there cannot thus be granted a general admittance to Communion for such members of the faithful, according to Müller; “but, in certain cases, there could be such an admittance in the field of conscience.” That is what Familiaris Consortio, number 84, had also already proposed – in the Apostolic Exhortation of John Paul II promulgated in 1981 [according to Müller]. “One can think further in this direction,” said the German cardinal to FOCUS. As a criterion, one has to proceed according to “theologically responsible considerations.”

Whether Cardinal Müller had in mind that “remarried” divorcees had to live in perpetual continence is not clear in this 17 October 2015 interview – he did not mention the matter explicitly. At the time, I recall discussing this interview with my editors, and with grave worries. Did his statements indicate a change of position on this critical issue?

The third and last report of the German-speaking group of the October 2015 Family Synod seemed to imply a shift in the thought of the CDF prefect. It was within this group that Cardinals Kasper and Müller – the two most notably opposed cardinals in this important discussion about possible access to Holy Communion for “remarried” divorcees – were reported to have come to an agreement about a proposal to allow a certain discernment of such cases to be left to the “forum internum” (internal forum; i.e., through discussion with a confessor or spiritual director). This proposal, though vague and at least somewhat theoretical, opened the door enough to enable Pope Francis to push it open even further in his Amoris Laetitia.

At the time, Cardinal Marx – one participant of the German-speaking group – saw that there was, indeed, a little opening now for the “remarried” divorcees. As I then reported:

Cardinal Marx himself, as one of the main promoters of the Kasper proposal, also showed himself very pleased with the outcome of the Synod. At a press conference on the same day as the approval of the final report, he said: “I am very happy that we made a step ahead.” And he called it –  together with Cardinal Christoph Schönborn – an “historical step” which will “allow Pope Francis to move ahead on his path.”

Furthermore, Professor Thomas Stark, an Austrian professor, commented after the second Family Synod – especially concerning the German-speaking group’s own report – as follows:

Stark added that it was another example of the “old, cheap tricks” that are being pursued by the German bishops and their allies, to advance their agenda on reception of Communion indirectly by devolving the authority over the matter from the Pope to individual bishops or to bishops’ conferences. “It is nothing new, just the old Kasper proposal in other clothes, in my opinion.”

However, a few months after the end of the second synod, Cardinal Müller seemed to be trying to close that little crack in the door, after all. He said in a 28 February 2016 interview the following, as I then reported it:

When the newspaper Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger with regard to the question of the admittance of “remarried” divorcees to Holy Communion pointed out that the German-speaking group at the 2015 synod — with his approval — had considered the admittance of the “remarried” divorcees to Holy Communion, Mueller said:

When the spouses — as Pope John Paul II in his apostolic exhortation Familiaris Consortio (1981) reminded us of the always valid Catholic teaching on marriage — ‘live together as brother and sister’. . . . But the Church has no possibility to dissolve or suspend a validly contracted and true sacramental marriage.” [my emphasis]

As I have shown elsewhere, there also arose at the time the question as to why the “slip” of Cardinal Müller during the second synod happened at all – without which Pope Francis could not at all refer in any way to the synods themselves for his own liberalizing agenda. There is, as we know, a close connection between Müller and Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI — the latter having repeatedly shown his public support for Pope Francis, and having declined to respond to the official letter of the Four Cardinals (as I have been told by a reliable source in Rome). Pope Francis has even praised Benedict for his promise to practice “unconditional obedience” toward his papal successor – which, in itself, is an un-Catholic thing to do (just as applying, for example, the doctrine of the “lesser evil”).

Not long after the second Family Synod in 2015, reports came to us (and they are still being held to be true by some serious Vatican experts) that Benedict did actually give – at the time of the 2015 Synod – his subtly implicit approval for a compromise. As I then reported:

On Monday, 26 October, Marco Ansaldo reported in the Italian newspaper La Rebbublica that there is a possibility that it was the former student of Joseph Ratzinger, Cardinal Christoph Schönborn – a proponent of the liberalizing faction at the Synod and the head of the German-speaking group – who, in a recent meeting with the former pope during the last week of the Synod at the monastery Mater Ecclesiae, may have convinced Pope Benedict to influence Cardinal Müller in favor of a “minimal solution” (in Magister’s words).

This claim of Marco Ansaldo has never been publicly denied — not then, and not today.

Whether this story is true or not, Cardinal Müller right now plays a pivotal role with regard to the defense of Catholic Truth in Rome, just as he largely did during the two Family Synods. Will he now refuse to help correct the “slip” that may have taken place during the second synod? And will he continue to claim that his position as CDF Prefect precludes him from coming to the support (and effective rescue) of the four courageous cardinals – some of whom, for example Cardinal Carlo Caffarra, have the honored reputation of a certain sanctity – who are now even being threatened with the removal of their honorific red hats? (It is worth recalling here that this putative sanction is exactly what Pope Francis was reported, during a fit of anger, to have used to threaten the 13 cardinals who wrote him a letter of concern during the second synod, namely: “I will remove their [red] hats!”)

Cardinal Müller has now said that, in his position, he speaks and acts “with the authority of the pope” and that he cannot thus “participate in the controversial dispute” brought up by the dubia. Will he continue to stand on the sidelines as pressure mounts against these four cardinals and three bishops? Will he not defend Divine Truth above the ambiguous declarations or imprudences of the current occupant of the Petrine Office (especially since the pope has not yet spoken – and most probably will not ever thus speak – on these explicit moral matters ex cathedra)? Will Müller not now serve God more than man? Will he decide, despite his protestations, to rush to those who suffer for their own defense of the truth – with whom he even authored books on this matter – or will he now leave them alone in the ditch? Will he try to avoid a schism that is implicitly already there, caused by – or at least facilitated by – no one other than the pope himself? Will he not courageously help those confused Catholics to stand firm in the Faith by resisting falsehood, deliberate deception, and potential heresy?

In this case, it seems not sufficient to politely and indirectly disagree (as Müller has just done it again in May of 2016, and with reference to Amoris Laetitia) or to simply defer. Now that the pope encourages practical implementations of his errors and ignores those cardinals who politely oppose him, an even more explicitly resistant counteraction is needed.

Does Cardinal Müller not yet realize that he will render his own office as the Prefect for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith feckless if he does not now use its authority and carry out the duties of his charter coram Deo? Does he, as a German, still remember the famous Martin Niemöller quote? Will he wait until he has been removed from that very office, leaving it up to someone else such as Cardinal Christoph Schönborn to adapt that office further to the new regime of putative mercy?

May he act before it is too late, and do the right thing for the right reasons. And we shall ardently pray for that.

Steve Skojec contributed to this story.

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