Cardinal Müller: Remaining Loyal to Christ – Lest We Become Culpable in the Loss of Souls

Der Papst  Sendung und Auftrag (The Pope – Mission and Mandate)
Cardinal Gerhard Müller
Publisher Herder
608 pages
€ 29.99

Today, 20 February, the German publishing house, Herder Verlag (Freiburg), has released a new book written by Cardinal Gerhard Müller, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. (Ignatius Press is already preparing an English translation of the book, as I was told.) The book is entitled The Pope – Mission and Mandate, and it proposes to be a thorough academic description of the papacy from its inception. Over more than 600 pages, Cardinal Müller presents a detailed discussion of the major aspects of the topic “Papacy.” He presents its origins; its development from Apostolic times; its mission and mandate; its relations with the world’s Catholic episcopacy; its teaching authority; its infallibility; and much more.

More important in our current context is that Cardinal Müller presents, at the beginning of the book, in some 100 pages, elements of his own biography in relation to the seven popes he has known during his own lifetime. I shall especially thus concentrate on these cumulatively revealing 100 pages. Before going into more of the historical details, however, let us consider what Cardinal Müller also has to say in the short chapter (pp. 100-105) that he explicitly dedicates in this first biographical part of the book to the current pontiff, Pope Francis. (Later on in the book, the cardinal will deal in more detail with some of Francis’ papal documents such as Evangelii Gaudium and Laudato Si.)

After his relatively short introduction about the beginning of this papacy and the major themes of it – poverty, immigration, attention to the peripheries, ecology, and mercy – Müller incisively speaks, though somewhat out of context or without much of an introduction, about the Church’s overall teaching on marriage. For us readers, it is clear why he would touch upon this contentious topic now, and in that specific chapter. My research shows that his book was largely finished by late summer/early fall of 2016, according to Dr. Stephan Weber, Herder Verlag’s own chief editor of the book. (Müller’s Foreword, however, is dated earlier, on 22 February 2016: the Feast of the Chair of Peter.) That means that the cardinal, when finishing up the book – to include the chapter on Pope Francis – was already aware of the papal document Amoris Laetitia, which had been published on 8 April 2016.

Thus the few pages dedicated to the topic of marriage might be of special interest for us now. After a short introduction into Francis’ papacy, Müller promptly says that, on 21 September 2013, Pope Francis confirmed his position as the Prefect of the Congregation for the Faith. He continues:

On 22 February, 2014, the High Feast of the Chair of Peter, he [Francis] elevated me to the College of Cardinals in a solemn consistory and he made me Cardinal Deacon of the Church of Sant’Agnese in Agone. My contribution at the Synod of Bishops concerning the theme of marriage was as follows […]

This shortened quote (I have left out here his own extended quote on marriage) might show the reader how, without much ado, Cardinal Müller enters into the controversial matter of marriage when speaking about this papacy. Significant in this context is that he was elevated to the College of Cardinals at that Consistory when, two days earlier, Cardinal Walter Kasper had delivered his invited consequential speech to the assembled College of Cardinals. I do wonder whether it is an accident that Cardinal Müller signed his Foreword to his new book on that same date of his becoming a cardinal and whether he wanted to show that this book also is meant to be a proof of his living up to the demands of his high office as cardinal.

In the following pages, Müller repeats the Church’s solid teaching on marriage, as he has done it repeatedly and intermittently in the last few years. He mentions that marriage is “not merely an human ideal” but an “indestructible reality created by God.” The cardinal compares the marriage bond with the bond that exists between Christ and His Church; he mentions the goods of marriage (“bonum fidei, bonum prolis et bonum sacramenti” – “fidelity, offspring, and indissolubility,” according to St. Augustine) and says that the comprehensive sense of marriage is “the sanctification of the spouses on their common path unto the eternal life with God.” He speaks about the Sacrament of Matrimony, how it is effected, and has been created in order to bring forth families, “to welcome and educate children” – who are first made sons of God “by the Grace of God in Baptism.” Cardinal Müller also teaches us about the order of Grace with regard to marriage:

Marriage comes into existence by virtue of a consecration, that is to say, it mediates, increases, and specifies justifying and sanctifying Grace and gives participation in the new creation, the Kingdom of God (ex opere operato). That is why marriage is something different from a mere benediction of persons which merely contains actual Graces (ex opere operantis). The indissolubility of the sacramental marriage and the other goods of marriage are essential and inherent.

The German cardinal importantly adds shortly thereafter, while indirectly pointing even to the pope:

Even the highest ecclesial authority could not intervene into the “substance of a Sacrament.” [A quote from the Council of Trent] The Church has preferred, and still prefers, severe disadvantages rather than to dissolve only one single valid sacramental marriage – as in the case of the disputes with Christian rulers (e.g., the split of the Catholic Church of England from Rome through Henry VIII of England) or with the prevailing public opinion. The Church has to obey here God more than man and may not sacrifice the Truth of the Gospel – which surpasses mere natural reason – to a mere human calculation. [my emphasis]

While speaking of man’s inherent and remaining weakness – concupiscience – even after Baptism, Müller says that this may not be used

as a pretext in order to relativize God’s Commandments and the duty to live a Christian life out of the [Seven] Sacraments. It is an irreversible Catholic doctrine: man who is justified in Christ can, with the help of Grace, fulfill the Commandments of the Decalogue and the ethical demands of the Sacraments.

As with all Christians, those who are in the married state are to live a life in light of the Cross and thus to carry loyally one’s own specific cross – “of which nobody is spared, in the face of the multiple challenges of our mortal life.” It is here that Cardinal Müller makes his indirect reference to Pope Francis’ Amoris Laetitia when he says:

God’s mercy generally cannot be interpreted as an ignoring of sin or, here especially, as a permission for a second marriage-like bond when according to [mere] human standards the marital life has become unbearable or boring. [my emphasis]

What, however, has been increasingly spreading now in the Catholic Church since April of 2016, in the wake of Amoris Laetitia? Most probably as it seems – already in light of the expected and increasingly grave confusions and liberalizing interpretations of that perceptibly ambiguous document – Cardinal Müller thus adds some of his own piercing words:

The Church has to remain loyal to the Word of God in Scripture and in Tradition and in the binding interpretation of the Magisterium – otherwise she will render herself guilty with regard to the salvation of souls. In Christ – the Teacher of Truth and the Good Shepherd – the teaching and the life of His Church are inseparable. [my emphasis]

There then seems to come another indirect reference to Amoris Laetitia when Cardinal Müller adds:

If she [the Church] were to offer the Sacraments of Penance and of the Eucharist, only in order not to disturb the feeling of inclusion – without pointing to the overcoming of the objective obstacle for the reception of the Sacraments – she would give the people a false feeling of essentially secure salvation. […] The Sacrament of Penance is not there in order to talk people out of their consciousness of sin, but, rather, in order to awaken in them repentance and the resolution to amend one’s life so that, in absolution, the guilt is truly wiped out. [my emphasis]

In this context, it is important to quote Cardinal Müller’s words later in the book on the pope’s Magisterium. He insists that the Successor of Peter, too, can sin and err, for example if he fails to teach the Faith. A pope’s statement is true because and when it is in accordance with the Doctrine of the Church. Müller then gives an illustration and says that a pope could not change the “inherent criteria of admission to the Sacraments” and “give sacramental absolution and allow Holy Communion for a Catholic who is in the state of mortal sin without repentance or firm resolve to henceforth avoid that sin without thereby himself sinning with regard to the Truth of the Gospel and the Salvation of those faithful who are thus being led astray into error.” [my emphasis]

As we shall now see, when passing on to discuss mainly the first 100 pages of this book, much of Müller’s doctrinal firmness and his Catholic language – which is seldom to be found nowadays anymore – might be traced back to Cardinal Müller’s own early formation: his “healthy affective and intellectual introduction into the Faith” as he had gradually and gratefully received it in his childhood and youth. This formation, and also that of his later life, says the cardinal, together with the Grace of God, has helped him to be able to say today, quoting St. Basil the Great himself, that he “never held erring ideas about God.”

In discussing his own life with regard to the seven popes of his lifetime, Cardinal Müller starts with his remembered childhood which was first imprinted by the papacy of Pope Pius XII – Müller was born on 31 December 1947 (Feast of Pope Saint Sylvester I) – and now ends with the papacy of Pope Francis. About Pope Pius XII, Müller states that he was “the pope of my childhood” and that he “was the incarnation and measure of everything Catholic.” Müller also says that his own parents were both very pious Catholics who raised their four children – two boys and two girls – in the Faith; they did so by “sowing the Faith softly into the heart,” giving them a “love for Christ” without inordinately intruding “into the freedom” of their children. Having been raised by nuns in kindergarten and then later by priests and Catholic teachers in school, Cardinal Müller was himself immune to the nihilistic, rationalistic, and atheistic theories that were spreading in his youth after World War II. He was thoroughly instructed in the Faith, to include a daily examination of conscience, the study of the Catechism, and an intimate bond with Our Lord which grew steadily in him. Cardinal Müller shows how his youth was pervaded by a good religious instruction, accompanied by a deep Marian devotion, thus combining reason, truth, warmth, and beauty. Full of gratitude for his upbringing and formation, Müller praises his parents, teachers and spiritual directors for their having been such good Catholic guides and inspiring examples.

Cardinal Müller also shows how he, as a young altar boy, realized that even St. Peter – and his successors in the papacy – were at times all-too-human and sometimes even quite weak. He was impressed with the photographs of Pope Pius XII kneeling and praying and thus showing his own humility. As another important influence on him as a young man, he mentions the German priest Wilhelm Hünermann and his 1953 book about the life of Pope Pius X, Flame of White (Brennendes Feuer). The German cardinal says that Pius X was for him an “exemplary pastor-pope.” He says: “The apostolic zeal for the House of God which was expressed in it [in his motto “Instaurare Omnia in Christo” – “to Restore All Things in Christ”], I was allowed to experience in all the priests of my youth in the parish and in school.” And he conveys this with warm gratitude.

As a side remark of encouragement, I may add that I myself, in the process of conversion to the Catholic Faith, have also read that same book on Pope Pius X. If there is a book that could still draw a person into the Catholic Faith, it is that. Pope Pius X’s humility, poverty, and love for the people are described in the 1953 book in a very touching and realistic way. I would strongly recommend this book originally published for young people.

As another important influence upon his life, Müller mentions the great Bishop Wilhelm Emmanuel Freiherr von Ketteler (1811-1877), a strong defender of the Church’s social doctrine, who himself came from Mainz, the town of Müller’s own origins. Müller himself grew up in its country surroundings, in the village of Flinthen (which later became part of the city of Mainz), where he could also grow up in the atmosphere, and with the knowledge, of this great man.

Müller, whose family was resistant to Hitler and to his politics – his own father even once rescued a Jewish child whom a national-socialist man had tried to throw out the window – soon learned from his parents about Pope Pius XI’s 1937 encyclical Mit Brennender Sorge (With Burning Concern) and his “honest and upright language.” As a youth, Müller studied this document with much interest, especially in light of the Moral Law which stands against any form of relativism. He realized that this Moral Law – rooted in God Himself – gives the anchor for human society. If it is undermined, society can easily become cruelly inhuman and morally degraded. Thus, the German cardinal defends sound religious instruction as a primary foundation for a human society. He insists upon the importance of a life according to the Decalogue and the encompassing Precepts of the Church which altogether help to build character, to restrain oneself and one’s selfishness and to look out for the Common Good. “A school which demands much, but not too much,” is how Müller sums up the Christian formation and life. Without such a Moral Law, mankind is too much exposed to mutable intellectual fashions and the “changing moods of the time.”

Müller remembers from his childhood, how his parents and other Catholic adults always stressed that, with regard to the papacy, one has to differentiate between the office and the person. They acknowledged that popes could be weak or sinners. As a boy, he also was thoroughly instructed in the meaning of the Holy Mass. He says: “We were instructed, as follows: the Sacrifice of the Mass is nothing else but the unique Sacrifice of the Cross in its sacramental realization.” [my emphasis] The German cardinal also remembers some of the songs of his youth and how he often repeated his baptismal vows. He adds: “With the Grace of God I hope to remain loyal until death to my baptismal vows – for which at my Baptism the parents and godparents lent me their mouths.” It is in this context that Cardinal Müller shows that, from childhood on, he had also believed in and was convinced by Our Lord’s words: “Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build My Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” He was convinced about these words, just as much as he was about the Incarnation.

Under the papacy of John XXIII – whose “aggiornamento” (in Müller’s eyes) was not about adapting to the world – Cardinal Müller then also first read a book written by Henri de Lubac, S.J. which helped him “to find my way beyond the destructive [dialectical] opposition between Conservatism (Integralism) and Progressivism (Modernism).” [my emphasis] The German prelate calls both movements “ideological,” “destructive,” and “fruitless”; and, in the final result, he thinks them to be a form of “gnostic self-redemption.”

A similarly critical attitude concerning the putative “traditionalists” was earlier to be found also in Cardinal Müller’s previous book “The Message of Hope.” In the latter book, he says, on page 145 of the German version, and with specific regard to the Second Vatican Council, that one may not relativize it with a mere reference to its pastoral character. He then says:

We have here, as so often, two extremes: the position of some traditionalists who relativize the Council because it was supposedly [sic] not dogmatic; and the position of the modernists who interpret this Church event as the final step of the Church’s modern self-definition […].

In the new book about the papacy, Cardinal Müller further proposes to explain the problems relating to the Council, as follows:

In reality, it was the ideological interpretation of the Council which split the Church into Council skeptics [“extreme traditionalists”] and Council enthusiasts. Instead of a hoped-for Pentecostal renewal, there came a Babylonian confusion.

Then Müller firmly adds that “a fear that an ecumencial council could lead to a breach with Tradition is not only heretical with regard to any single and specific question, but it would also take off its hinges the whole supernatural revelation and its historical transmission by the Church.” [my emphasis] Here, he supportively refers to Pope Benedict’s expression as to the proper “Hermeneutic of Continuity.”

A special chapter is dedicated to the formative role of Cardinal Karl Lehmann in Müller’s life. Lehmann was Müller’s academic teacher for thirteen years, and he was his doctoral father, as well as his guide for his post-doctoral qualification (Habilitation). Müller praises him as a great teacher and he generously – and publicly – expresses his deep gratitude to him in this new book.

We remember in this context that Cardinal Lehmann, not long ago, had made some critical remarks about Cardinal Müller. In May of 2016, for example, Lehmann said:

Whatever might be the case today, in any event he was not like that [sic] in earlier times. I checked it in my archives, and I have accompanied Gerhard Müller altogether for 13 years in the theological field – right from the theological diploma up to the Habilitation [post-doctoral thesis]. He was very docile then and he also dealt well with criticism. He wrote impeccable works. Later, he changed. But, I do not want to judge this at all. Each pupil has to go his own way.” [my emphasis]

In that same interview, Cardinal Lehmann also speaks openly about his own earlier resistance against Pope John Paul II’s insistence upon the defense of the unborn babies; and how, in spite of that, that pope later still made Lehmann a cardinal. It is regrettable that Cardinal Müller says nothing about this matter, nor how he himself has regarded these dissenting parts of Cardinal Lehmann’s own recurring role in the Catholic Church of Germany. (Lehmann was the Bishop of Mainz from 1983 until 2016 and the President of the German Bishops’ Conference from 1987 until 2008. He is a defender of the Declaration of Königstein which opposes parts of Humanae Vitae concerning contraception. He is also one of the three southern German bishops who, even back in 1993, proposed to give Holy Communion to the “remarried” divorcees.) Lehmann was among the bishops who had consecrated Müller as bishop in 2002.

Cardinal Müller knew Pope John Paul II personally and was pleased with his early canonization in 2014. He also dedicates a small chapter to his Peruvian friend, Gustavo Gutiérrez, with whom he has written several books. Concerning Liberation Theology, the cardinal now writes:

At the beginning of my work as the Prefect of the Congregation for the Faith, some misunderstandings were clarified which stemmed from the two declarations of the Congregation (Libertatis nuntius 1984; Libertatis conscientia 1986). [Links added by M.H.]

Also here, it would have been helpful for us to read what Cardinal Müller specifically and clearly means as to what these misunderstandings actually were; after all, at that time, in the 1980s, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (under Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger) was very concerned about Liberation Theology and it also publicly criticized one of its major promoters, Leonardo Boff.

As the German prelate now explains it, Liberation Theology is about theology “and not politics.” It is about an attentiveness toward suffering and the poor, and on a practical level. During his visits in Peru, the cardinal himself visited and lived with the poor. According to the cardinal:

I do not speak abstractly and theoretically about Liberation Theology – or even ideologically – in order to show that I am the comrade of a progressive ecclesial camp. But at the same time, I do not fear that there could be a suspicion about me as to any lack of orthodoxy. Whichever way you look at it: the theology of Gustavo Gutiérrez is orthodox, because it is ortho-practical and it teaches us the prescribed Christian conduct, because it stems from the right Faith.

At the end of this overview of the reported personal account of Cardinal Müller’s life in light of the popes of his time, we should briefly mention Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, who, as Pope Benedict, had first called Müller to Rome in 2012 to head the Congregation for the Faith; and whom Müller has known since his own student years. Moreover, Müller even tells us that the following authors – in addition to Cardinal Ratzinger – have been very formative for him; and that from the writings of these same authors, he had often eagerly tried to get a hold of all of their books to read and study them: Erich Przywara (1889–1972); Gustav Siewerth (1903–1963); Karl Rahner (1904–1984); Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905–1988); Jean Daniélou (1905–1974); Henri de Lubac (1896–1991); Yves Congar (1904–1995); and Louis Bouyer (1913–2004). During the pontificate of Benedict, Müller and Benedict co-operatively came to an agreement to put together the whole works (Opera Omnia) of Benedict. Müller calls Pope Benedict XVI “one of the very great theologians [to be elected and placed] on the Chair of Peter.” He even sees Benedict’s three volumes of private, non-magisterial meditations on Jesus of Nazareth – written by Benedict while he was pope – as being of special importance and Müller dedicates a portion of one of his own chapters to those Ratzingerian meditations.

I would like to end this little review with two references. The first is to quote two of Cardinal Müller’s own first prayers from his childhood: “Jesus, for you I live, Jesus, for you I die, Jesus, I am yours dead and alive.” And: “With God, I begin, with God, I end, that is the most beautiful course of life.” (“Jesus, dir leb ich, Jesus dir sterb ich, Jesus, dein bin ich tot und lebendig.” and “Mit Gott fang an, mit Gott hör auf, das ist der schönste Lebenslauf.”)

Finally, I would like to leave our readers with one searching question. How is it that a man so raised in such a loyal way and with such a filial love, not only for Pope Pius X, but also for Pope Pius XII was later to study deeply some of the authors many of whose writings were indirectly condemned (not by name) by Pope Pius XII himself, in his 1950 encyclical Humani Generis? Here we speak, for example, of Henri de Lubac, S.J. It was Father John Hardon, S.J., who more than once in the 1980s and the 1990s told my husband emphatically in private how he, as a doctoral student in Rome in 1950, was ordered by the Gesù librarian, shortly after the publication of this updated 1950 Syllabus of Errors, to go to each student’s room at the Gesù and to recall any such manuscripts that were written, for example, by Henri de Lubac because this author (as well as others) was found to have some modernist ideas and writings which present grave errors, and not just those on “Nature and Grace” and his defense of Teilhard de Chardin, S.J.

This larger question I would, one day, indeed like to discuss with Cardinal Müller in person. Because he has a good heart, and he would try to instruct the ignorant.

This article has been slightly expanded, in order to include an additional passage from Cardinal Müller’s book.

Update, 21 February: Father Joseph Fessio, S.J told me that the English title of the book will be The Cardinal Müller Report.

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