As I reported elsewhere a few days ago, on 4 May, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, allowed himself to make several very important statements while he was visiting Spain at the beginning of May. The most important words he spoke in Spain I then summed up as follows:
“It is not possible to live in God’s grace while living in a sinful situation,” he [Müller] said, and continued by saying that people living in sin “can not receive Holy Communion unless they have received absolution in the sacrament of penance.” Müller importantly added that the “Church has no power to change the Divine Law” and that “Not even a pope or council can change that.”
In addition to the talk given in Madrid – from which these words stem – Cardinal Müller also gave a speech to seminarians in Oviedo, Spain. The full transcript has just been published by the German Catholic newspaper, Die Tagespost, on 6 May. Since many substantive and striking statements of Müller had not been reported in an earlier, shorter article published by the Tagespost, I shall try in the following to present some of the major aspects of this Oviedo talk in which Cardinal Müller makes it amply clear what parts of the Church’s teaching and discipline on Marriage and the Sacraments are unchangeable in light of the Divine Laws and Truths.
The title of Müller’s talk is: “What May We Expect From Families?” In the beginning of his presentation, which is interwoven with many references to Amoris Laetitia, the German cardinal compares the family with Noah’s Ark. At that time, Müller says, “the threats against the family and the whole society were omnipresent.” In the words of an old Jewish legend, moreover, the generation of the deluge had “lived in excess and was turned only toward itself.” Müller continues: “These self-sufficient people did not belong to any family.” And he concludes that, therefore, “the deluge does not appear so much as a Divine punishment, but, rather, as a logical consequence of the sin.” Out of the deluge, according to the cardinal, “a new people was born, purified from evil.” God, therefore, “expressed His Mercy through a family and in its dwelling – the Ark.” In a powerful way, Cardinal Müller compares our own current situation with that of Noah’s times, when he compares the “sea of the deluge” with “the relationships of post-modernity which – always being unreliable, deprived of any enduring form, and always unstable – start again and again anew in manifold and disconnected relations.” Cardinal Müller concludes: “If the man of today does not have any further [higher] reference, his desire to have a family will wind up being reduced – and in a crooked way – to himself.” But, it is God Himself Who offers us here help and rescue. Without remembering God’s love, says Müller, “men would in vain try to escape from the deluge of a non-binding love.”
Müller speaks here of “the Church’s great duty and challenge with regard to the family.” He continues: “The Christian tradition has seen in Noah’s Ark an image of the Church: She is rest, Sacrament of Salvation, and shelter for all who have been rescued from the deluge.”
In keeping with this image of an ark, the German cardinal proceeds to say that “the family has to live within the Church” and that Christ Himself is the foundation for this ark: “In giving Himself up at the Cross, in order to save us, He passed through the waters of death, in order to build a new people. The wood which passes the waters, was interpreted [by the Church Fathers] in view of the Cross and Baptism: the Love for mankind which Christ confesses at the Cross, touches us in Baptism and in the other Sacraments and gives us a new capacity to be loved by others, as well as to be able love others. “St. Augustine saw in the Sacramental Order of the Church the foundational architecture of Noah’s Ark – which is the Body of Christ – with Baptism as the great door. The Church can drive on the sea because the hull, the mast, and the sails take the form of the Love of Christ which is communicated to us through the Sacraments.”
For Cardinal Müller, it is from there – from Christ – that there comes hope for the family. “This hope subsists in the great gift, which each family has received in the Sacrament of Marriage, through which the spouses become effective signs of the Love of Jesus and His Church,” he adds. “If the family has hope, then because of this gift which it has received from God and which itself brings forth manifold relationships.” The Sacrament of Marriage takes the love of the spouses, and, according to Müller, “transforms it.” In spite of the sinfulness of the spouses, God can, with the help of the Sacrament, become the “bond of such an indissoluble love.” Such a bond then will also be open to bring forth children, according to God’s plan. Müller insists that “in this bond, the individualism of the spouses or of the couple will be overcome and a culture of the family will grow, an area in which love can further blossom – that is to say, Noah’s Ark in which they can drive together in the deluge of the nonbinding postmodernity.”
Cardinal Müller interprets Pope Francis’ words about the “ideal of marriage” as an “incarnate ideal, because the Word, the Logos, became flesh and accompanies her [the Church] life in the Sacraments. This living and transforming presence of the perfect love of Jesus consists especially in the Sacraments. As already said, they [the Sacraments] contain the architecture of Noah’a Ark.” The Church can offer hope to all men, says Müller, also those who are far away, “as long as she remains loyal to this dwelling which she has received from Christ, as long as she fosters this general culture of Christ’s love which becomes known to us in and through the Sacramental signs. They themselves are the architecture of the ship which gets us safely to the secure haven [i.e., heaven].” The Sacraments, therefore, support and strengthen us in spite of our own weaknesses.
In the following, the German cardinal explicitly discusses the question of the 8th chapter of Amoris Laetitia, that is to say, the question of those “who have suffered shipwreck in the deluge of post-modernity and who have forgotten their marital vow with which they, in Christ, once had sealed a love for ever.” Cardinal Müller while quoting Pope Francis, makes it clear that there is a way for these people to return to the Noah’s Ark as built by Christ: namely, by returning to their fidelity in the marital bond. While keeping with the references to Noah’s Ark, Cardinal Müller quotes St. Augustine, who points out that the pure and the impure animals [i.e., the just as well as the sinners] all entered the Ark through the same door. “They all lived under the same roof.” However, says Müller, “Here, the bishop of Hippo refers to the Sacraments with Baptism as a door, as well as referring to the change of life which is demanded from him who desires to receive them. He has to give up sin.” Only if the Church insists upon the concordance between the Sacraments and the visible life of the Christians, can she show “not only how Christ himself lived, but also how the members of the Body of Christ are called to live.” Only when the Church remains on this path, “ can she welcome the sinners, to receive them immediately and invite them to a certain path, so that they overcome sin.” And here the cardinal becomes insistent: “However, what the Church can never lose – because then she would lose the original gift which preserves her – is the Sacramental Order. Otherwise, she would not any more make visible the love of Jesus, nor the way and manner in which this love changes the Christian life. Exactly with the help of her acceptance of the Sacramental Order, does the Church then avoid two paths that would lead to a ‘Church of the pure’: namely, by either excluding the sinner or by excluding the sin.”
Therefore, Müller holds firm to the teaching that the harmony between the celebration of the Sacraments and the Christian life is “the key for the path of accompaniment.” As is visible here, the cardinal uses notions that Pope Francis also uses in his Amoris Laetitia, and gives them a principled doctrinal foundation, and thereby attempts to block any heterodox understanding of them. Here Müller says: “Herein [in this harmony] lie the reasons for the discipline with regard to the Eucharist, as it has always been preserved by the Church. Thanks to it, the Church can be a community which accompanies the sinner and welcomes him, without thereby approving the sin. Thus, she offers the foundation for a possible path of discernment and of integration. John Paul II has confirmed this discipline in Familiaris Consortio 84 and Reconciliatio et Poenitentia 34. The Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has also confirmed it in its document of 1994; Benedict XVI has deepened it in Sacramentum Caritatis 29. We are dealing here with the consolidated teaching of the Magisterium which is based upon Holy Scripture, as well as upon the Church’s teaching: namely, the harmony of the Sacraments necessary for the salvation of souls, the heart of the “culture of bonding” as it is lived by the Church.
Here now we shall quote Cardinal Müller extensively:
There have been different claims that Amoris Laetitia has rescinded this (previous) discipline, because it allows, at least in certain cases, the reception of the Eucharist by remarried divorcees without requiring that they change their way of life in accord with Familiaris Consortio 84 (namely, by giving up their new bond or by living as brothers and sisters). The following has to be said in this regard: If Amoris Laetitia had intended to rescind such a deeply rooted and such a weighty discipline, it would have expressed itself in a clear manner and it would have given the reasons for it. However, such a statement with such a meaning is not to be found in it [Amoris Laetitia]. Nowhere does the pope put into question the arguments of his predecessors. They [the arguments] are not based upon the subjective guilt of these our brothers and sisters, but, rather, upon the visible, objective way of life which is in opposition to the words of Christ.
Moreover, the German cardinal also discusses the question as to whether there is not a certain change to be found in footnote 351 of the papal document, where it says “that the Church could offer the help of the Sacraments to those who are living in an objective situation of sin.” He responds to this question with the following words: “Without entering into this question in a deeper way, it is sufficient to point out that this footnote refers in a general way to objective situations of sin, and not to the specific cases of the civilly remarried divorcees. Because this latter situation has its own distinctive characteristics which differentiate it from other situations.” Here Cardinal Müller repeats the Church’s teaching that the “remarried” divorcees live “in opposition to the Sacrament of Marriage and therefore also in opposition to the Discipline of the Sacraments.” Therefore, in Müller’s own words, the footnote 351 does not “touch upon the earlier discipline. The norms of FC 84 and SC 29 and their application in all cases continue to remain valid.” Müller continues his very important and timely doctrinal discernment, as follows:
The principle is that no one can really want to receive a Sacrament – the Eucharist – without at the same time having the will to live according to all the other Sacraments, among them the Sacrament of Marriage. Whoever lives in a way that contradicts the marital bond opposes the visible sign of the Sacrament of Marriage. With regard to his carnal existence, he turns himself into a “counter-sign” of the indissolubility, even if he is not subjectively guilty. Exactly because his carnal life is in opposition to the sign, he cannot be part of the higher Eucharistic sign – in which the incarnate Love of Christ is manifest – by thus receiving Holy Communion. If the Church were to admit such a person to Holy Communion, she would be then committing that act which Thomas Aquinas calls “a falseness in the sacred sacramental signs.”
This is not an exaggerated conclusion drawn from the teaching, but, rather, the foundation itself of the Sacramental Constitution of the Church, which we have compared to the architecture of Noah’s Ark. The Church cannot change this architecture because it stems from Jesus Himself and because the Church was created in it and is supported by it in order to swim upon the waters of the deluge. To change the discipline in this specific point and to admit a contradiction between the Eucharist and the Sacrament of Marriage would necessarily mean to change the Profession of Faith of the Church. Concerning their Faith in an indissoluble marriage – not as a distant ideal, but as a concrete way of conduct – the blood of the martyrs has been shed.
Müller denies that Pope Francis opened the door to such a disciplinary or doctrinal change. He, rather,
opened all the windows because he is aware of the deluge in which the current world lives. He has invited all of us to let ropes down from these windows so that the shipwrecked can enter the ship. However, to admit someone to Holy Communion who lives in a way that is visibly in opposition to the Sacrament of Marriage – even if it were only in a few individual cases – would not mean to open an additional window. It would rather be as if someone had drilled a hole into the bottom of the ship and thereby allowed the seawater to enter the ship. The seafaring of all would thereby also be put into danger and the service of the Church for society would be put into question. Instead of a way of integration, it would be a way of destruction of the Church’s Ark, a leak. If the discipline is respected, there are no limits to the capacity of the Church to rescue families. Additionally, the stability of the ship as well as the capacity to lead us safely to the haven are thereby secured. The architecture of the Ark is necessary, especially so that the Church does not permit that someone remain in a situation which is in opposition to Jesus’ own words of eternal life, so that the Church, thus, “does not condemn anyone forever” (AL 296-297).
Cardinal Müller shows us here that “the discipline of the Church has an unmeasurable pastoral value.” (As my own husband, Dr. Robert Hickson, often says: “The Laws of God are Acts of Love!”)
Cardinal Müller also shows the consequences of any denial of this whole Sacramental Order:
If the Church were to admit remarried divorcees to Holy Communion without demanding a change of their way of life by allowing them to remain in their [objectively sinful] situation – should one then not simply say that she has accepted divorce in some cases? Certainly, on paper, she would not accept it. She would continue to consider marriage as an ideal. But, does society today not also consider it an ideal? How, then, would the Church be different? Could she then still claim to have remained loyal to the Word of Jesus which, even at the time, was considered to be hard? Was not His Word also then in opposition to the culture and the practice of His time, which allowed for divorce in certain cases in order to adapt to human weakness? In practice, the indissolubility of marriage would remain merely a pleasant principle, because it would not any more be manifestly confessed in the Eucharist, the true place where the Christian truths are being confessed that relate to life and that form the public witness of the Church.
Here, the cardinal also points to the importance of the Common Good of the Church, namely: if we admit exceptions, the whole edifice will suffer, and every member of the Church will be affected. Müller refers to the example of a couple who undergoes difficulties and who now is weakened by the fact that other such divorced and “remarried” couples may receive Holy Communion. He says:
To perceive marriage and the Eucharist as something individual without considering the Common Good of the Church will dissolve, in the long run, the very culture of the family. That would be as if Noah, when seeing all the shipwrecked around the Ark, would start taking apart the bottom of the ship and its sides in order to distribute the wooden planks. The Church would forfeit her character as a community which is based upon the ontology of the Sacraments. She would turn into a collection of individuals who aimlessly swim around, exposed to the play of the waves.
Therefore, by preserving this very edifice of the Church, she can also be of help to the “remarried” divorcees who are in need of guidance to go apart from habitual sin. In Müller’s words:
In this manner, the Church can then remind them of the call: “Do not stand still. It is possible also for you, you are not excluded from the return to the Sacramental Covenant which you once entered, even if it takes time. With the help of God, you can live in loyalty to Him.”
In Müller’s eyes, this is the true path of discernment: to renew the desire “so that we can live according to the Word of the Lord.” Those people who are trying to find exceptions, says the cardinal, “forgo to renew the hearts of men.”
In this context, Cardinal Müller also shows that, in the case of the “remarried” divorcees, the question of subjective culpability is not applicable since “the Sacramental Order is an order of visible sacred signs, not of inner attitudes or subjective guilt. A privatization of the Sacramental Order would certainly not be Catholic.” Therefore, a discernment can only mean “to return to the fidelity of the marriage bond and to come back into the dwelling or the ark which the Mercy of God has offered for the love and the desire of men. The whole process is aimed at recognizing and healing – step by step, with patience and mercy – the wound from which our brothers and sisters are suffering. It [the wound] is not the failure of the earlier marriage, but the new relationship. Therefore, the discernment is necessary – not in order to chose the goal, but, rather the way. […] Here comes into play, as a second criterion, the logic of the small steps of growth about which the pope also speaks (AL 305). It is of decisive importance that the divorcees forgo to settle into their situation, that they do not make an acquiescent peace with their new partnership in which they live, [but, rather,] that they are ready to consider it [the relationship] in the light of the Words of Jesus. Everything that aims at terminating this way of living is a small step of growth which has to be promoted and encouraged.” While still keeping with his image of Noah’s Ark, Cardinal Müller says, at the end of his talk, that the Church takes in a man “who has lost logos (reason) through sin and who therefore has become ‘unreasonable’ and walks around without the light of love.” Thus it is the duty of the Church “to renew man and to form the human heart according to the Word (Logos) of Jesus. The people walk in as ‘unreasonable’ and turn out to be ‘reasonable’. That is to say, they are then ready to live according to the light of Christ, according to His love, which ‘hopes for everything’ and which ‘remains forever.’”
At the end of Cardinal Müller’s text, there are to be found several very important footnotes. One feels here again reminded of a certain parallel to Pope Francis’ text, namely, that some very decisive comments are being made in footnotes – this time, however, with the intention to preserve and strengthen orthodoxy. In footnote 8, for example, there is to be found a criticism of the term “objective situation of sin” as being a “very general term.” Additionally, the term “irregular situation” is being criticized as being too “general.” Müller says: “In itself, this notion merely says that someone is finding himself outside of a norm. But the distinction is not made whether this norm is an Ecclesial norm or a norm of Divine Law. In any event, we may be reminded [of the following principle]: If there is a doubt concerning the interpretation of a document, there is only one way of reading that is validly possible – according to a Catholic hermeneutic – a reading which follows that meaning which has been previously taught by the Magisterium.”
In footnote 9, Cardinal Müller proposes to explain footnote 336 of Amoris Laetitia, saying that “it is a very general formulation” and that it implies “that a canonical norm (even within the Sacramental Order) does not necessarily need to have the same effect for everybody, because the subjective guilt might be mitigated in some cases.” Müller then turns this argument the other way around, saying: “That means that there can be proper norms that are indeed to have the same effect for everybody. This is an undeniable fact, for example, with regard to the norm that denies the non-baptized access to all the other Sacraments.” He explains: “Such a norm does not depend upon the subjective guilt of a person, but upon his objective state as a non-baptized person.” Müller proceeds to talk about cases of norms where there are exceptions, and he then explicitly mentions once more the “remarried” divorcees and their non-admittance to the Sacraments as falling under the same category of canonical norms that are binding without exception: “The norm of FC 84 belongs however to the former category [of norms]. It does not depend upon the subjective guilt, but upon the objective state in which someone finds himself. The Magisterium has continuously explained this.” It is in this context that Müller mentions that there might be, for example, exceptions to the general rule that public sinners are excluded from public roles within the Church such as lectors and godparents – as long as they have started “a path of conversion” and that such an admittance would encourage them [to persevere on their new path].” He therewith also puts forth a strong limitation to the doubtful idea of some that “remarried” divorcees should be generously permitted to have public functions within the Catholic Church.
At the conclusion of this summary report on Cardinal Gerhard Müller’s historic speech in Oviedo, Spain, I would like to note that the fuller version of his talk is much stronger and keener than those portions that had previously been selectively published in Germany. Additionally, it should be noted that Cardinal Müller sets very strict limits to any attempt to undermine the Sacramental Order, or the other irreformable teaching and divinely established structure of the Catholic Church. If Pope Francis intends to do so, he must now publicly contradict his own Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. For, each Catholic may now refer to this decisive talk when defending any novel interpretation of the Church’s teachings on marriage. It is to be hoped that Pope Francis will now soon come out with his clarifications as to where he stands and as to what his fuller intentions are – and to do it in a manly, forthright, and honest way.
During his recent trip to Spain – when asked whether his new book Report on Hope is meant to be a “theological correction” of Pope Francis – Cardinal Müller trenchantly stated that, 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 defend the Faith”.