Image: Professor Thomas Schirrmacher (By Christliches Medienmagazin pro, via Wikimedia Commons)
Today, the Austrian Catholic website Kath.net published an interview with Professor Thomas Schirrmacher who is a prominent German Protestant theologian and Associate General Secretary of the World Evangelical Alliance; and he has as such also participated at both Family Synods in Rome in 2014 and 2015. According to Kath.net, Schirrmacher has manifold contacts within the Vatican and with different Catholic personalities also due to his engagement in certain life issues. He has, additionally, repeatedly met and talked with Pope Francis, and he even published a book about these meetings, entitled: Coffee Breaks with Pope Francis.
This interview is of importance because Professor Schirrmacher reveals here several pieces of background information that might be helpful in understanding better the circumstances of Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller’s recent dismissal from the position as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Professor Schirrmacher explains in the interview that new the Prefect of the Congregation for Doctrine (CDF), Archbishop Luis Francisco Ladaria Ferrer, S.J., has been helping Pope Francis in his theological writings since 2013 and thus has been, effectively, already the “theological chief counselor of the pope.” Thus, says the German theologian, “it is only consequent” that Archbishop Ladaria has now this official position. What Schirrmacher reveals is that Ladaria had been already intimately involved in some of the theological publications of then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, for example the CDF document Dominus Jesus and the text on the question of the existence of Limbus (Limbo). Schirrmacher stresses also that Ladaria and Pope Francis have in common that they both studied, for a while, under the same teachers in at the Sankt Georgen Graduate School of Philosophy and Theology in Frankfurt, Germany.
When discussing the possible differences between Cardinal Müller and Pope Francis, Schirrmacher points out that it was the cardinal himself who refused to head up the new exploratory commission on a female diaconate: “Müller rejected it; he saw it as an entrance door for the topic of the ordination of women.” [my emphasis] Later during that same interview, Professor Schirrmacher repeats this statement that “Cardinal Müller had rejected the commission on the female diaconate.”
When further describing Cardinal Müller’s own theological positions, Schirrmacher insists that the German cardinal was “in certain areas more conservative, in others not.” He explains, saying:
His book The Mass opens up much room for ecumenical understanding and [it] rejects any all-too-materialistic [sic] conceptions of the Transubstantiation. He knew well Liberation Theology and approved of it, yes, even studied it intensively over many years.
Moreover, Professor Schirrmacher – who knows Cardinal Müller personally and well – describes, from his own experience (also as a member of the German-speaking group) during the second Family Synod in 2015, how the German cardinal was willing to find a compromise for the sake of unity:
Cardinal Müller was certainly always also attentive to the dignity of the papal office and the unity of the Church and has been involved – I was able to experience it in part myself – in avoiding a breach at the Synod. In spite of great concerns, he agreed upon the compromise.” [my emphasis]
This statement confirms what we have earlier reported, namely Cardinal Müller’s decisive role in a compromise in the important German-speaking group (to include Cardinal Walter Kasper and Cardinal Christoph Schönborn) concerning the “remarried” and divorced at the 2015 Synod that then enabled Pope Francis to write Amoris Laetitia with a more liberalizing orientation. It also confirms Cardinal Müller’s desire for unity which seems to have been supported at the time even by the ex-pope Benedict himself. (This story has never been officially denied by the Vatican, even though it had been first reported by Marco Ansaldo from La Repubblica, and based on a very good source.)
Professor Schirrmacher shows his own sympathy with Cardinal Müller when he describes him as a “German outsider within the Italian machinery” and a “victim of the cliques at the Vatican” because he was not himself a “politician.” Moreover, Schirrmacher thinks that Müller was dismissed from his position as the Prefect of the Congregation for Doctrine because he had expressed his criticism of the pope in public, something that, in Schirrmacher’s eyes, no superior would accept for an extended period of time.
Interestingly, however, Schirrmacher at the same time criticizes Müller for his “more absolute understanding of the papal office than Francis, and perhaps also of Pope Benedict.” The German Protestant theologian – who has completely read Müller’s recent book on the papacy – sees that Müller “places the papal office too high.”
It is important to keep in mind that Professor Schirrmacher, as a Protestant, will have some different opinions about doctrinal and theological matters from those of a loyal Catholic. He also does not seem to be concerned about the theological direction into which Pope Francis now apparently leads the Catholic Church. However, this German Protestant professor’s revelations about the background of certain equivocal developments in the Vatican – and especially in the CDF – should still be of illuminating worth for our readers. As many Catholic observers have said in recent months, Cardinal Müller’s critique of the Dubia Cardinals was based on his understanding of the papal office, which seemed to put personal loyalty to a pope above loyalty to the teachings of Jesus Christ. Some of us would respond, in any case, that the basis of unity is truth.
The post has been updated.