On Thursday, October 6, Cardinal Gerhard Müller discussed the ongoing Synod on Synodality and other topics in a roughly 30-minute interview on EWTN’s The World Over with Raymond Arroyo. At one point in the discussion, Cardinal Müller warned that the current synodal process could indicate a “hostile takeover of the Catholic Church,” and even seemed to suggest that it could destroy it. “If they will succeed, that will be the end of the Catholic Church,” Müller said.
Throughout the in-person interview, the former Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith responded to Arroyo’s leading questions with statements that ventured far beyond ordinary expressions of reservation or criticism. Granted, Arroyo’s questions seemed intentionally designed to elicit dire warnings and objections about the synod from the cardinal, but Müller repeatedly took the bait without hesitation. His answers were so cynical that some might be led to wonder how strongly he believes in Christ’s promises to protect the Church from destruction.
From the beginning of the interview, both Pope Francis’s vision and the Church’s understanding of the synodal process were ignored. Instead, their discussion centered around familiar talking points of papal critics who have been persistent in their attempts to undermine and discredit the aims of the global synod. For example, Arroyo introduced the Synod as essentially “polling” Catholics and non-Catholics about the Church, and Müller referred to it as a “plebiscite.” Somewhat ironically, Arroyo suggests that a “national survey” that only involved “an average of one to 10% of baptized Catholics” globally could not possibly be representative of the whole—a rather democratic assertion.
Both seemed to think of the Synod as a process designed to change the Church’s teachings on every controversial topic brought up during the local and national phases of the synod. Müller later said of the synod participants, “They think the doctrine is only like [a] program of a political party who can change it according to their votes.” Of course, Pope Francis has repeatedly made clear that synodality is not at all a democratic or parliamentary process, and that bishops ought not to treat it like one. That some may have still done so is not evidence of a program coming from the top. A counterfactual to the “hostile takeover” narrative is papal primacy itself: Pope Francis has shown himself willing to intervene in synodal processes gone astray (as he did in Germany’s Synodal Way), and not to take up each and every recommendation made during past synods (as in Francis’s answer to the question of ordaining the “viri probati” raised at the Pan-Amazonian Synod in Querida Amazonia).
Both Arroyo and Müller also came down hard on the Maltese Secretary General of the Synod of Bishops, Cardinal Mario Grech, with Müller at one point saying that Grech is “not a recognized theologian. He has no importance in the academic theology.” That said, Cardinal Grech has also publicly rejected the idea that the synod is a political body, such as in 2021, when he told the US bishops at their fall meeting, “The People of God can never be understood as a mass of people that finds the possibility to express itself within the dynamics of representation typical of democratic systems.”
They were especially critical of remarks by Cardinal Grech to the attendees of a recent gathering organized by the Leadership Roundtable where he said, “What has the Church to fear if” LGBT and divorced and civilly remarried Catholics “are given the opportunity to express their intimate sense of spiritual realities which they experience? Might this be an opportunity for the Church, to listen to the Holy Spirit, speaking through them also.” Müller understood this as “a hermeneutic of the old cultural Protestantism and modernism, that is, individual experience on the same level as the objective revelation of God.” They seem unable to comprehend the possibility that the Church might benefit in any way from hearing from people whose lives and experiences aren’t always aligned with Church doctrine, but who yet say they “need help, support, and clarity” from the Church.
Throughout the interview, Müller and Arroyo presented the synod as a political and ideologically driven undertaking, in which unchangeable moral doctrines were under assault by modernists and secularists. At one point, Arroyo asked, “As someone who has dedicated his life to protecting this doctrine and extending it, what must you think as you watch a system being created where all of that doctrine seems to be up for grabs, Your Eminence? Where anyone can, by a popular vote, we can toss out or pull in doctrines of the moment?” Arroyo and Müller both spoke of the leaders of the synodal process as if they are working towards a predetermined (and heterodox) outcome or are engineering a “play for Vatican III,” as Arroyo put it, adding—in perhaps a bit of projection—“to kind of create a ‘pop-culture’ Vatican III.”
Twice towards the end of the interview, Müller tells Arroyo, “we have to resist.” This language of resistance is frequently used against the pope by quasi-schismatic reactionary movements. Just days before, at the 2022 Catholic Identity Conference’s media event, a group of media personalities and bishops announced “Articles of Resistance” to the Holy Father in a Pittsburgh Doubletree Hotel ballroom.
Cardinal Müller’s talk of the “destruction” of the Church overshadowed his other statements, however. His first reference to destruction came when speaking about the committee undertaking the process of drafting the synod’s “Document for the Continental Stage.” Müller said, “the result was clear before all these investigations and questions. They had just formulated the end and then they are dreaming of another Church that has nothing to do with the Catholic Faith, absolutely against it. And they want [to] abuse this process for shifting the Catholic Church, and not only in the other direction, but in the destruction of the Catholic Church.”
Later, Arroyo asked Müller to respond to an Instagram post from the Synod.va account that included various artistic renderings from local reports that had been sent to Rome. One much-maligned image included, in Arroyo’s words, “a female priest prominently featured…in the center, along with a young man in a Pride shirt.” Müller described it as a “Marxistic form of creating the truth by presenting his own power…They have the intention to substitute their own subjective ideas against the revealed reality of Jesus Christ, and this is a destruction of the Catholic Church.” While one can certainly question why the synod’s social media account shared an illustration of a woman in a chasuble, the Church’s teaching on the ordination of women is one of the issues that has been most frequently raised by synod participants at the local levels. The role of women in the Church will almost certainly be discussed at the October 2023 meeting, including women’s ordination, if for no other reason than that it is a teaching that causes many Catholics to struggle.
In response to the interview, many of those who generally agreed with Müller did take note of his startling statement about the “destruction” of the Church. For example, in a Friday Facebook post, traditionalist Peter Kwasniewski praised the cardinal’s “astonishing forthrightness” and attempted to contextualize his comments, adding, “I take that last bit to mean that he expects the process somehow to be derailed by Divine Providence, since the Church cannot be destroyed.” It also raised questions with Rod Dreher’s podcasting sidekick Kale Zelden, who tweeted, “If Cdl. Mueller is correct and the [Synod on Synodality] could ‘destroy the church’ what does that then mean? That the whole indefectible boast was just wishful thinking?”
The National Catholic Register published a partial transcript of the interview (“edited for length and clarity”), blaring Müller’s take-home message as its headline: “A Hostile Takeover of the Church of Jesus Christ … We Must Resist.” As they have done in the past, the Register omitted some of Müller’s edgier statements. For example, they trimmed his comments two-thirds of the way through, when the cardinal likened Francis to a dictator, exercising his papal power as if he was running an “autocratic system.” He also suggested that Pope Francis sees his primacy as a “populistic dictatorship, the form of Peronism, when the power of the Führer depends on the applause of the masses.”
It is difficult to see Müller’s interview remarks and uncritical participation in EWTN’s framing of the Synod on Synodality as anything other than a political effort to discredit the work of the synod—a process implemented by the pope and by his authority—before next year’s assembly. It does not really take a cynic to believe this could be happening. After all, such media efforts have taken place for every synod since 2014. The unwillingness of papal critics to even engage in this synod—which, according to the Holy Father is a process of discernment with the assistance of the Holy Spirit—likely indicates a deep, underlying fear.
I found Cardinal Müller’s rash, unmeasured remarks—not to mention the ease with which his interviewer steered his responses—fairly shocking. Müller is, after all, a former Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith—someone expected to actually believe that “the gates of hell will not prevail.” It is scandalous that he made these statements to an international audience. This was especially scandalous given the likelihood, thanks to the usual content of Raymond Arroyo’s program, that EWTN’s viewers are likely already fearful about the future of the Church.
For a cardinal to suggest that the Church might be destroyed because of what he believes an Instagram post signifies should shock us all. It is certainly possible to express real concern about recent developments in the Church while also communicating that God is in control and remains faithful to his Church. Yet Cardinal Müller failed to make this true and vital distinction. He was willing to suggest that the Church might be destroyed.
Speaking personally, I have had to grapple with the promise of Jesus Christ that “the gates of hell will not prevail,” weighing it against the reality of my experience of being a Catholic confronted with the sins and scandals that permeate the Church. Like many other Catholics, I contend with the theology of the Church and the state of the Church in reality. We faithful are largely expected to trust a Church beset by clericalism, with our trust in the hierarchy decimated by an ongoing sexual abuse crisis. We are weakened by the consequences of a global pandemic, we are bleeding out members in a steady decline, and the faithful who remain seem ever more divided.
Many of us have had to wonder how any of this is true. How it could be, the facts being what they are? The Body of Christ expresses the Person of Christ, and when the Body looks marred, stained, and broken, crisis is inevitable. “How long, O Lord?” (Ps 13).
What’s just odd is that Müller’s crisis has reached a sort of apex at this particular moment. Does he really view women assisting in the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops (as he and Arroyo also discussed) as the Church’s breaking point? Does he truly think that the USCCB’s national synthesis report mentioning “LGBTQ+ persons” a handful of times (as he suggested in the interview) will “destroy the Church from within”? That these are the issues that most threaten the Church rather than, say, its long history of priestly sexual abuse and cover-ups, would seem to reveal quite a lot.
Unless we reflect on the current situation of the Church in light of history it is impossible to accept Christ’s promise that the Church, the Body of Christ, will endure, and to take that promise seriously. I have come to trust God that the Church won’t be destroyed by anything. This doesn’t mean glib resignation to the inevitability of our problems. It absolutely does not mean a trite “every little thing is gonna be alright.”
Everything is not okay. We are quite obviously not alright.
The Church very well may be on the brink of destruction. A survey of history indicates that’s always the case. Our position is precarious. But it is also secure, if we remember that God will not allow the Church to meet destruction. It also means that he won’t allow those of us who seek him through the Catholic Church—the means established for the governance and unity of the Church with and under Peter—to be lost, either. This isn’t merely an intellectual or doctrinal exercise, but divine revelation.
This understanding can frame our posture of “protecting” the Church and her doctrine, allowing us to be less frantic because we know the endurance of the Church is not entirely dependent on our efforts. It allows us to be more receptive, listening, and prophetic as we respond to the call to co-operate with God in this. One need not be an ultramontanist to suggest that patient obedience to the pope and the bishops in communion with him might be challenging, but is what God is calling us to do, rather than give into anxiety over the erratic, poorly-reasoned, and rash condemnations of those who are trying to persuade Catholics to resist the pope.
I’m just a laywoman, of course, and have no idea how to do a cardinal’s job. After all, as Arroyo put it in one remark, women are simply “naturally suited” to motherhood, and thus “wouldn’t know where to start” if tasked with something like helping to choose good bishops. I profess no expertise as to how the sausage is made in Rome. Cooperation with God’s work in the life of the Church on earth is obviously going to look differently for Cardinal Müller than it does for a layperson like me.
But I am a baptized person who takes discernment seriously, and who believes we can interpret the behavior and emotions of others, no matter their authority in the Church. I know a frantic attempt at controlling outcomes when I see it, and I know that fear is often underneath such anxiety—whether it’s fear of God’s judgment of our efforts, fear that God’s promises aren’t true, or fear that we have not done enough. If we aren’t aware of our fears, then we are going to have a hard time with discernment. Our fear will spill over into our work. We will work and speak as though the outcome does depend on us. We will seek to have others join us in our concerns. We will forget our core principles in our quest to right wrongs. We will confound our witness, living as though we don’t believe to our bones that God’s promises are true.
This, perhaps, is the central difference between Pope Francis and Cardinal Müller. Pope Francis has entered into crisis himself and has engaged with his own failures. He has been a realist about the failures of the Church. In fact, he has said that the Church “always is in crisis, because she’s alive. Living things go through crises. Only the dead don’t have crises.” Certainly he takes seriously his duty to protect the deposit of faith, and his interventions in the German Synodal Path do not indicate a hesitancy to put his foot down as needed. But Francis also accepts the limits of what he can do, so he has called on all of us to trust in the Holy Spirit as we come together in this synodal process. In what ways might our fears and anxieties prevent us from allowing the possibility that synodality could be moment of deepening faith for the Church? How might discomfort with our inability to control the outcome—or to prevent people from spouting heresy along the way—play out in our reactions to that process?
Christ’s promises can free us from both despair and anxiety over the Church on earth. Our prayerful cooperation, together with God, makes all the difference.
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Rachel Amiri serves as Production Editor for Where Peter Is and has also appeared as the host of WPI Live. She is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame with degrees in Theology and Political Science, and was deeply shaped by the thought of Pope Benedict XVI. She has worked in Catholic publishing as well as in healthcare as a FertilityCare Practitioner. Rachel is married to fellow WPI Contributor Daniel Amiri and resides in St. Louis, Missouri, where they are raising three children.