Archbishop Gerhard Müller is a friend, co-author, and defender of Gustavo Gutiérrez. But he’s also close to the pope, who knows what he is doing

What are we to make of the appointment of Bishop (now Archbishop) Gerhard Ludwig Müller as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith? It looks, at first sight, to be an obvious choice of a tough and orthodox bishop, close to the Holy Father. According to the renowned Vaticanologist Sandro Magister, he will be part of a “small nucleus” of cardinals in whom the pope can have complete confidence, including Cardinal Marc Ouellet, the French Canadian who is Prefect of the Congregation for Bishops and Cardinal Kurt Koch, who is Swiss and is President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. Archbishop Müller is an old friend of the pope, and is presently editing a 16-volume Collected Writings of Joseph Ratzinger.

So, what’s not to like? Well, he may be an old friend of the pope; but he’s also an old friend of the most renowned (or notorious) of liberation theologians, Gustavo Gutiérrez. He has written a book with him; and according to John Allen, every year since 1998 has travelled to Peru to “take a course” (What does that mean?) from Gutiérrez. In 2008, he accepted an honorary doctorate from the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru, which is widely seen as a bastion of the progressive wing of the Peruvian church. On that occasion, he praised Gutiérrez and [ital] defended his theology.[end ital] “The theology of Gustavo Gutiérrez, independently of how you look at it, is orthodox because it is orthopractic,” he is on record as saying: “It teaches us the correct way of acting in a Christian fashion since it comes from true faith.” This Gutiérrez connection, it appears, among other issues, led to an unsuccessful attempt by Vatican conservatives to prevent the appointment, and you can see why it might.

Other issues raised by these Vatican conservatives—who sent out e-mails all over the place (don’t you love it? Vatican conspiracy in the digital age) suggesting that Archbishop Müller is not a man of “secure doctrine”—were his views on the perpetual virginity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Eucharist (he has apparently suggested we shouldn’t use the term “body and blood of Christ” to describe the consecrated elements – so what DO we call them?), and ecumenism (last October, he apparently declared that Protestants are “already part of the Church” founded by Christ.)

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What remains obscure to those of us who haven’t actually read the works in which he proposes these things is what he actually means by them. His defenders are arguing that in every one of these examples of his supposed “insecurity of doctrine” his words have either been taken out of context or are consistent with official teaching. I’m sure that must be true; quite simply, I trust the pope, who knows the difference between an orthodox theologian who is so solid in the faith that he can afford to speculate and a flaky liberal who thinks that speculation isn’t just a permissible intellectual activity within accepted boundaries but is itself the ultimate aim of all intellectual life and that there are no such boundaries.

So, I am sure that Archbishop, Cardinal-to-be Müller is doctrinally as solid as a rock. All the same, the Prefect of the CDF surely needs to be easily and unambiguously understood by the faithful. These speculative flights could lead to trouble, and I hope he will soon take steps to dispel the uncertainty by explaining himself in simple language. Already, for instance, there are signs of trouble from the SSPX, from the wing of the SSPX who are already giving Bishop Fellay problems over his attempts to bring the Society back into full communion with the Catholic Church. The issue is Archbishop Müller’s allegedly heterodox views on Our Lady’s perpetual virginity. “It is not acceptable that the leader of the congregation holds a heresy,” said Auxiliary Bishop Alfonso de Galarreta.

Well, no, absolutely—but does he? The Pope obviously thinks he doesn’t. But the Pope is a real theologian of theologians: what about simple people like me? His hermeneuticalness, Fr Tim Finegan says he is sitting on the fence over the appointment, over precisely the same issue, though he comes down on the opposite side of the fence from the SSPX over the issue of Our Lady’s perpetual virginity. “Essentially” he explains, Archbishop Müller has said that “the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary is not so much concerned with specific physiological proprieties in the natural process of birth (such as the birth canal not having been opened, the hymen not being broken, or the absence of birth pangs). He says that it is concerned rather “with the healing and saving influence of the grace of the Saviour on human nature”… The question of Our Lady’s physical integrity was discussed by Tertullian. Writing against the docetists and in favour of Christ’s true humanity he argued against physical integrity and in favour of a normal birth. In summary, Bishop Müller’s theological opinion on the relationship of physical integrity at birth to the doctrine of the virginity of Our Lady… is not heretical, even if most devout Catholics would want to go with the general teaching of the Fathers and St Thomas.”

All the same, Fr Finegan himself is, he says, “sitting on the fence at the moment” even after giving various examples of Archbishop Müller’s orthodox toughness, including a recent sermon—much attacked by the We Are Church mob—in which he said that “We should not allow any room for anti-Roman blabber… Any activities directed against the truth of the Faith and the unity of the Church will not be tolerated”.

Well, I’m not sitting on the fence. I trust the pope; when I’m a bit perplexed, that’s my default position. All the same, I have my fingers crossed. In the words of the song, “there may be trouble ahead”.

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