Editor’s note: this interview was originally published at Corriere Della Sera in Italian, and has been translated and reprinted here with permission.
The theologian: “There is a risk of a separation which could become a schism. I remain with Bergoglio, but those who complain must be listened to.”
By Massimo Franco
“There is a faction of the traditionalist groups, as well as of the progressives, who want to see me as the leader of a movement against the Pope. But I will never do it. I have served the Church with love for forty years as a priest, sixteen years as a professor of dogmatic theology and ten years as a diocesan bishop. I believe in the unity of the Church and I will not let anyone exploit my negative experiences of the last few months. The authorities of the Church, however, ought to listen to those who ask serious questions and make legitimate complaints, not ignore them or, worse, humiliate them. Otherwise, without intending it, they may increase the risk of a slow separation which could develop into a schism of one part of the Catholic world, disoriented and disillusioned. The history of the Protestant schism of Martin Luther 500 years ago ought to teach us above all what mistakes to avoid.” Cardinal Gerhard Müller speaks with a soft voice and pronounced German accent. We are in the apartment on the Piazza della Città Leonina where in the past Joseph Ratzinger lived before he became Benedict XVI, in a building where various high ranking prelates reside.
Müller, perhaps the most respected Catholic theologian, is the ex-prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, replaced by surprise last July by Jorge Mario Bergoglio. “The Pope told me, ‘Some have said to me anonymously that you are my enemy,’ without explaining to me on what point [they said I opposed him],” said Müller, heartbroken. “After forty years of service to the Church, this is what I heard said about me – an absurd accusation created by empty talkers who instead of attempting to instill apprehension in the Pope would do better to visit a shrink. A Catholic bishop and cardinal of the Holy Roman Church is by nature “with” the Holy Father. But I believe that, as the 16th-century theologian Melchior Cano said, the Pope’s true friends are not those who give him adulation but those who help him with the truth and with human and theological competence. In all the organizations of the world, sycophants of this stripe serve only themselves.”
Harsh, resentful words, spoken by one who feels he has suffered an undeserved wrong. The cardinal dismisses the idea, maintained by some alarmist voices, that someone is organizing plots against Francis, disagreeing with others taking positions he considers too progressive: he considers it “an absolute exaggeration.” But he admits that the Church is being strained by serious tensions. “The tensions arise from the opposition existing between an extreme traditionalist position on certain websites and an equally exaggerated progressivist position, which today tries to legitimize itself by claiming to be ultra-papist,” according to Müller. He considers these to be aggressive minorities.
This is why the cardinal expresses a message of unity but also of concern. “Watch out – if there is a perception given of injustice on the part of the Roman Curia, almost by the force of inertia a movement towards schism could be set in motion, difficult to rein in once started. I believe that the cardinals who expressed the dubia regarding Amoris Laetitia, or the 62 signers of the letter criticizing the Pope, even if their criticisms were excessive, need to be listened to, not dismissed as “Pharisees” or grumpy people. The only way out of this situation is a clear and frank dialogue. Instead, I get the impression that in the “magic circle” of the Pope there are those who preoccupy themselves with spying on their presumed adversaries, thus impeding an open and balanced discussion. To classify all Catholics into two categories as either the ‘friend’ or ‘enemy’ of the Pope is the most seriously damaging thing they are doing to the Church. One remains perplexed if a well-known journalist and an atheist can present himself as a friend of the Pope, while at the same time a Catholic bishop and cardinal like me is defamed as an opponent of the Holy Father. I do not believe that these persons can give me theology lessons on the primacy of the Roman Pontiff.”
Müller does not see a Church more divided than it was in the years of Benedict XVI. “But I see it weaker. We struggle to analyze problems well. Priests are scarce and give answers that are more organizational, political, and diplomatic than theological and spiritual. The Church is not a political party with power struggles. We ought to discuss existential questions, about life and death, the family and religious vocations, and not endlessly discuss church politics. Pope Francis is very popular, and this is a good thing. But the people no longer receive the Sacraments. And his popularity among non-Catholics which is praised with enthusiasm unfortunately does not change their false convictions. Emma Bonino [an Italian atheist and politician known as one of Italy’s foremost abortionists], for example, praises the Pope but remains firm in her positions on abortion, which the Pope condemns. We must be careful not to confuse the great popularity of Francis, which is also an enormous patrimony for the Catholic world, with a true revival of the faith, even if we all support the Pope in his mission.
In the view of Cardinal Müller, after almost five years of this pontificate one phase of it has ended – that of the Church understood as a “field hospital,” the happy definition which Francis gave to La Civilta Cattolica in 2013, shortly after his election. “It was a great intuition of the Pope. But perhaps now we need to go outside the field hospital and take stock of the war against the natural and supernatural good of contemporary man which made the hospital necessary,” he asserts. “Today we have more need of a ‘Silicon Valley’ of the Church. We ought to be the ‘Steve Jobs’ of the faith and transmit a strong vision in terms of moral and cultural values and spiritual and theological truths. He notes the inadequacy of “the popular theology of certain monsignors and the overly journalistic theology of others. We also need theology at the academic level.”
From his words one intuits that his criticisms are directed above all towards certain collaborators of Francis. “Popularization is fine. Francis tends to justly emphasize the pride of intellectuals. At times, however, they are not the only proud ones. The vice of pride is an aspect of character and not of the intellect. Faith and reason are friends.” In the cardinal’s view, the model of the papacy which tends to emerge intermittently “more as the sovereign of the Vatican State than as supreme teacher of faith” can raise some objections.
“I have the feeling that Francis wants to listen to and integrate everyone. But the premises of his decisions must be discussed first. John Paul II was more a philosopher than a theologian, but he made Cardinal Ratzinger assist him and counsel him in the preparation of magisterial documents. The rapport between the Pope and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was and will always be the key to a profitable papacy. And I also remind myself that the bishops are in communion with the Pope: brothers, not delegates, of the Pope, as the Second Vatican Council reminded us. Müller has not yet recovered from “the wound,” as he calls it, of the firing of three of his priest co-workers [at the CDF] shortly before his dismissal. “They were good and competent priests who worked for the Church with exemplary dedication,” is his judgment. “People cannot just be sent away ad libitum, without trial or due process, simply because someone has anonymously denounced a vague criticism of the Pope by one of them…”
Translated by Giuseppe Pellegrino
Correction 12/13/2017: In a parenthetical, Emma Bonino was originally described as an “Italian Catholic politician”. She is in fact an atheist and well-known abortionist in Italy, as well as a friend of the pope.