Just a few days ago, OnePeterFive was able to highlight an important allusive statement made by Cardinal Gerhard Müller, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, about Archbishop Victor Manuel Fernández, whose undifferentiated idea that the pope need not necessarily reside in Rome in order to govern the Catholic Church was labeled by the CDF prefect as “heretical”.
There is yet more to come. Müller’s June 2016 interview with the German Catholic journal, Herder Korrespondenz, contains even more comments of importance that deserve our special attention. For example, Cardinal Müller balks at a tonal image Pope Francis spontaneously and repeatedly likes to use: that of those throwing stones at sinners, or at the faithful themselves, as such.
Herder Korrespondenz asks Müller in the interview the question as to how he himself as a guardian of dogma would comment on the papal document Amoris Laetitia, especially its statement that “the Church’s teaching should not be thrown – just like stones – at the faithful.” Cardinal Müller responds, as follows – and here I quote extensively:
Theologically, there is not much to say about it. Perhaps this sentence has been formulated out of a certain feeling. These images are more destined for a parenetic [i.e., hortatory] use, rather than a dogmatic use. I do not believe that God gave us the Commandments so that we use them as weapons [like stones] against others, but, rather, that we sanctify ourselves by fulfilling them. Blessed be he who hears the Word of God and follows it, says St. Luke 11:28. In this sense, I would not be happy – and I say this very openly and humbly – if someone would quote the pope in order to demean our loyal and zealous professors of theology as [rigid] “teachers of the law.” Theology and theologians are indispensable for the proclamation of the Church. For, we are to answer any question from him who asks us how to understand the reasons for our hope, and for our Faith, as it says in the first letter of St. Peter, 3:15. It is not that education itself is the tinder for our arrogance, but it is, rather, a form of pride which has its seat first in the heart and not in the head – to which it of course can sometimes ascend.
Cardinal Müller here clearly rejects the notion of demeaning the Church’s laws as a harsh tool to be thrown at people, since they, the laws, come from God Himself. When asked in the Herder Korrespondenz interview, and in this same context, about the danger of becoming a pharisee, Müller has some even more trenchant words to present:
That [temptation] is of course the inclination of every human being. Also those who denounce others as cold teachers of the law are themselves running the risk of the same [spiritual] danger. That is not especially Christian: in this case, one then uses this [recurrent] image of the stones in order throw stones at others. That is the reason why I am not always convinced that all these images are always well chosen. We should unite ourselves with the goal of overcoming both legalism as well as laxism in the interpretation and application of God’s Commandments. If we fall out discordantly with one another, and boast with victorious attitudes and also make bitter reproaches against one another, then we have misunderstood something. It is the game [and the trap] of the diabolos to play truth and love against one another. [emphasis added]
With regard to the papal text, Amoris Laetitia itself, the German cardinal adds some thoughtful principles that should be heeded: “To separate the teaching of the Faith from the practice of the Faith would be disastrous for the Church just as if we were thereby to put into opposition Christ the teacher of the Truth and Christ the Good Shepherd who gave His life for his sheep.” [emphasis added] While Müller first says that Pope Francis tries to pay more attention to the individualized and concrete situation of each of the faithful, he then reminds his audience of another extreme and growing danger, namely: “to dissolve everything now in a postmodern fashion into subjectivism, according to the motto: everyone is his own law and a judge in one’s own case.”
When asked as to whether Amoris Laetitia has now given more weight to the conscience of the individual, Müller makes some very helpful clarifications. For example, he says:
One cannot give more weight to the individual conscience, as such, because the conscience is in its highest instance a standing before God, with the help of which I put myself directly, and without any other representation, before the Will of God Who always wills my salvation. However, our Catholic understanding of the conscience does not abstain from teaching the full message of the Gospels, as well as the teaching of the Church, which are both necessary for our salvation.
Müller adds that the act of salvation not only takes place directly and personally in connection with God, but also indirectly with those indispensable means of Grace offered by the Church, says Müller. He continues:
My conscience can never absolve me from fulfilling the Divine Laws, because God will not hold back from us the Grace to fulfill them, if we sincerely ask for it. It is about an inner decision according to one’s conscience, in which, with my knowledge and with my will, I confront myself with God’s holiness and truth. There may exist, for instance, a lack of knowledge that is threatening to one’s own salvation: for example, due to a deficient marriage preparation or, in general, a deficient introduction into Christian teaching and life within the Church. The indissolubility of marriage is rooted in Sacramentality. If one does not understand all of this, the Catholic teaching on marriage appears to be merely like an insurmountable hurdle that is estranged from life – even though the Sacraments are, especially, for leading us to the fullness of the Life in Christ. [emphasis added]
Herder Korrespondenz also questions Cardinal Müller about the matter of the synodality and the decentralization of the Church as recently proposed and promoted by Pope Francis himself. The cardinal responds by saying that the bishops’ conferences are “a helpful principle of structuring, but they exist due to human law, and are not due to Divine Church Law.” Müller says it is problematic to see the pope giving certain authorities back to the bishops, “as if he had previously taken something from them.” He adds: “The pope cannot give more to the bishops than they already have through their episcopal consecration and, with it, through Christ Himself in the Holy Ghost. Moreover, he cannot take away from anybody that episcopal consecration.” Müller insists that the primary authority is with the pope and cannot be divided, “even if the Roman Church supports it in its organizational form of the Curia in a special way, in order to help execute it [that primary papal authority].” In this context, Cardinal Müller criticizes the current rule that a bishop, as soon as he turns 75 years of age, automatically steps down from his office, unless the pope himself deems it to be necessary to retain him. Müller calls this rule “dogmatically more than problematic.” He therefore also proposes a “re-adjustment of the Church’s Law here, in order to prevent a secularization of the episcopal office.” What he means here is that a bishop should not be subjected to the standards of a “secular job,” but that his mission is, rather, a sacred and enduring commitment.
The head of the CDF also cautions his audience to keep in mind that, with regard to the interpretation of the Faith, “the Church is, in its decisions, definitely bound to Revelation. It cannot be reversed.” He continues:
We cannot say that the Council of Trent at the time defined seven Sacraments, but that here in Germany, one can well do with only five Sacraments. The admittance to the reception of the Sacraments is part of the Sacrament, and, therefore, one cannot here [in Germany, for example] admit Catholics to Holy Communion who are living in the state of mortal sin, but, at another place and according to the rules of other [bishops’] conferences, deny it. The Church cannot interfere with the substance of the Sacraments. [emphasis added]
With these comments, Cardinal Müller rejects any notion that the national bishops’ conferences could be given more autonomous or independent authority with regard to the administration of the Sacraments. He also rejects any notion that there could be an effectively inconsistent, pluralistic Church. He warns against a relativizing theology which would favor “the centrifugal forces and which would render the Universal Church incapable of acting as one.” Müller says that
There is a great danger of tearing apart the Body of Christ. A fitting plurality may not break the unity of the Faith, but must, instead, enrich it. The unity of the Church is constituted by the object and the content of the Faith. And, therefore, a merely loose world association of national churches with a Catholic imprint, of sorts, and with an honorary president as its head, would be diametrically opposed to the sacred event of Pentecost from which stems the one Church composed of many nations.
It seems that here the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith resolutely continues to offer his own well-formed, polite, yet candid opinion with regard to many of the fundamental themes that have been recently raised – and been put up for discussion – by Pope Francis himself: such as marriage, synodality, decentralization, and the more easily permitted access to some of the Sacraments. Müller does not hold himself back if he sees it to be fit to criticize a dubious new concept or “image.” Cardinal Müller remains true to his own words which he also uttered recently in Spain, when he presented a polite critique of Amoris Laetitia. As I then reported:
Indeed, both Pope Benedict and also Pope Francis himself had told him “not to be a slavish copy of the pope, but to use my own head – and so I try. I have to do my own homework.” That is to say, Müller honorably added, “to promote and to defend the Faith.”