The Vatican doctrinal chief may be a hard taskmaster, but he has an instinct for finding common ground. Can he heal the Church’s divisions?
Over the past year, the prospect that Pope Francis would take the Church on a trajectory radically different from that of his predecessors has been hailed by some as a new dawn, while others have either rejected it as an impossibility or decried it as a betrayal. Amoris Laetitia seemed to confirm a seismic shift, and denial has been replaced by stirrings of opposition. Polarisation in an already divided Church has even publicly affected the College of Cardinals.
In recent weeks, however, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, has published a book which insists that there is no irreconcilable opposition between the present Pope and his predecessor. Benedict and Francis: Successors of Peter at the Service of the Church takes the form of four essays on internal issues and external challenges facing Catholicism today.
A distinguished theologian even before Pope Benedict chose him in 2012 to lead the former Holy Office, Müller is uniquely placed to appreciate what is at stake and influence the outcome. Before examining his convictions, it is worth looking briefly at the man and his career.
Müller, 69 as of December 31, was born into a working-class family in the suburbs of the Rhineland city of Mainz. Attending local schools and then university faculties in Munich and Freiburg as a seminarian, he gained his doctorate in 1977 under Karl Lehmann, who later became a cardinal and leader of the German Church. The following year Müller was ordained priest for his home diocese.
After working as curate in several parishes and teaching in schools, he qualified as a professor in 1985. The following year he took the chair of dogmatic theology in the Catholic Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich. Müller gravitated into Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s orbit by becoming a member of the International Theological Commission in 1998. The two became friends as well as colleagues.
Ratzinger was present when Müller was ordained Bishop of Regensburg in 2002, and it is perhaps significant that the new bishop took as his motto the words Dominus Jesus, the title of a landmark document issued by Ratzinger’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith two years previously. After he was elected Pope, Ratzinger chose Müller to oversee the publication of his collected works, and in 2008 the Pope Benedict XVI Institute was founded in Regensburg for that purpose.
It was natural, then, for Benedict XVI to choose Müller as prefect of the Congregation which he himself had led for so long when the low-key American Cardinal William Levada stepped down from the post in July 2012. Some have speculated that resignation was already in the pontiff’s mind when he chose his tough, outspoken compatriot for the crucial position. At any rate, within months Müller found himself confirmed in the job by the new Pope, then elevated to the cardinalate in Francis’s first consistory in February 2014.
Some have claimed that the relationship between the two men is uneasy. This is not hard to imagine as Müller pulls no punches. His new book contains a very Ratzingerian attack on secularism and its accompanying “dictatorship of relativism”, issues on which Francis, in public at least, has preferred to avoid confrontational language.
Müller is known for a certain asperity of character: he did not inspire among his German students the same affection which the shy and courteous Ratzinger seems to have engendered. Francis, too, is known to be a severe taskmaster with his collaborators. Reports surfaced this week that the Pope personally imposed the dismissal of three of Müller’s officials. The cardinal apparently protested that these priests were among his best men and should have an opportunity to defend themselves, but Francis – who had presumably heard reports that they were critical of his governance – allegedly refused to revoke or even to explain the order.
There were rumours during the year gone by that Müller was about to be dispatched to his native Mainz as archbishop and replaced by Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, thought to be more amenable to the more controversial aspects of Francis’s “agenda of mercy”. As this failed to materialise, some suggested that the Pontiff was keeping Müller in place but effectively neutralised him by keeping his Congregation out of involvement in major decisions and minimising its contribution to important texts.
It is true that few major documents have emerged from the doctrine Congregation under Müller’s tenure. Then again, the same was true of the seven years when Levada was prefect under Benedict.
Perhaps more significant is that Müller has played little role in the central texts of this papacy. Francis chose Schönborn rather than Müller to present Amoris Laetitia, for example, while his preferred ghostwriter is the unconventional Argentine theologian Archbishop Victor Manuel Fernández. Suggested modifications for papal documents from the Congregation for doctrine have apparently been largely ignored.
In the controversy surrounding the interpretation of Amoris Laetitia, Müller’s role has been limited. In interviews he has implied that he would be willing to step in with a clarification aimed at resolving the dispute, but that the Pope has not invited him to do so. The resolution of unclear points of doctrine is part of his dicastery’s remit, but the famous dubia were submitted to the Pope in person, so Müller cannot intervene until Francis requests it. The invitation has not been forthcoming.
This is all the more puzzling in that Müller seems to have played a critical role in bringing us to this point. In the pivotal discussions during the acrimonious synod of 2015, the German language group was able to reach a compromise formula which ostensibly left the discipline on Communion for the divorced and remarried unchanged while admitting the possibility in restricted circumstances of allowing exceptions based on lack of subjective guilt. This formula was apparently decisive in shaping the final synod document and through this the final text of Amoris Laetitia itself.
If Müller’s role in the synod discussion was as decisive as many claim, he might be well placed to explain exactly what circumstances the group had in mind, and how this proposition differs from the “internal forum” solution rejected by St John Paul II’s Familiaris Consortio. Why, then, the reticence to allow him to intervene?
Müller’s principal concern, as evidenced by his writings and interviews, is to overcome excessive polarisation within Catholicism. His chief target is ideology, the tendency to allow prejudices and commitments which are more political than theological to skew our judgment of issues which are more properly judged in the light of faith. He sees this tendency as being at work in both “progressive” and “conservative” wings in the Church. The tendency to view Vatican II (and by extension the pontificate of Francis) as a rupture rather than an instance of “reform in continuity” is ironically common to both sides. It is an error which he boldly states can lead to heresy.
One example of this refusal of Müller to allow his thought to be imprisoned within the categories of right and left so beloved of the media is his attitude to Liberation Theology. The famous Instruction issued by Ratzinger in 1984 was not a blanket condemnation, but a repudiation only of “certain aspects” of the South American theological movement.
Müller maintains that these aspects have now been corrected, by replacing underlying Marxist concepts with a truly Christian conception of Man and his destiny. He sets out a fully orthodox theology of liberation and a commitment to social justice as a necessary part of Catholic witness.
On these points, says Müller, Francis is in perfect harmony with his predecessors. It is a harmony based on the centrality of Christ to their thought. Popes have different styles and emphases, he says. Benedict was a man of theological ideas and Francis is a man of ethical action. Choosing Christ over ideology will enable us to see the profound unity behind their different exercise of the Petrine ministry.
Can Müller’s theological insights give an intellectually rigorous basis to efforts to heal a divided Church? One way he might do this, if the Pope cannot be persuaded to allow him to work on a reply to the dubia, would be for him to make known what exactly he had in mind when he signed up to the German group’s report in the synod. Or he might attempt to mediate behind the scenes between the Pope and the disaffected cardinals.
According to Der Spiegel, Francis wondered out loud recently whether he might go down in history as the pope who split the Church. Allowing Cardinal Müller to use his gifts creatively might help defuse a tense situation.
This article first appeared in the January 6 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here