As much as I try to dismiss and ignore it, I must admit that Cardinal Müller’s endless pontificating often causes me pain. While it never undermines my trust in the Holy Father, it hurts me to think that it may be having that effect on others. Some, I know, actually find the sheer force of his absolutist rhetoric convincing, at least on an emotional level.
In his latest statement, published on LifeSite News on October 3 and ostensibly focused on the issue of ordination of women, Müller writes with typical bombast,
It is shocking what kind of dilettantism is currently to be seen in theology and what a brutal contempt of man is taking place in Church politics. He who has an independent mind is being mercilessly taken out and discarded in an inhuman way without taking into consideration his achievements for the Church and theology.
A “brutal contempt for man,” really? “Merciless” and “inhuman”? He doesn’t say exactly who or what he is talking about here, but it’s very difficult to avoid the conclusion that he is referring at least in part to his own abrupt dismissal from his position as Prefect of the CDF. This rhetoric certainly sounds like a product of resentment from someone who is not used to being out of sync with the dominant powers within an organization.
Reacting to this perceived persecution, Cardinal Müller lashes out and accuses others of doing exactly what he is doing himself. Speaking of the “progressivists” in the Church, he claims that “they use personal attacks, instead of putting forward for discussion their substantive arguments, and they help themselves in their embarrassment with the help of absurd insinuations that lack any intellectual honesty.” And yet he misrepresents the arguments of these “progressivists” (many of whom are not progressivists at all), and chooses to battle against straw men of his own making. His opponents are “Modernists,” “factionists,” and “ideologues” who create “political and media phantasies of [papal] omnipotence.” They believe that there is an “additional source of Revelation, either in the Pope or in the People of God, to whom the Shepherds should listen.” Is it any use explaining that many of the people Müller places in this “ideological camp” see the pope not as a source of revelation but as a teaching authority who is aided by the Holy Spirit? That they think the People of God should be listened to, not as a source of new revelation but as a source of insight and inspiration for deepening our understanding of the deposit of faith?
But it appears that Cardinal Müller is not interested in debate or dialogue, and simply wants retribution. For example, he can’t help but strike back at Cardinal Kasper for his response to Müller’s “Manifesto of Faith” from earlier this year. He writes (while advertising his new book) that
The Manifesto of Faith (as it can be found in my book: The Power of the Truth. The Challenges to Catholic Doctrine and Morals Today—Ignatius Press 2019), which I had issued in the face of the chaos in the teaching proclamation […] was demeaned as ‘half truths of a subjective and arbitrary character.’ Someone who usually is a glowing admirer of Luther then even had thought himself able to accuse me of being a Lutherus redivivus, that is to say a revenant Luther.
The quote about “half-truths” sounds like a paraphrase of Kasper’s response, and the part about Müller as a reborn Luther is certainly from Kasper. This swipe at Kasper, though, is itself based on half-truths. First, Kasper did not accuse Müller of being a reborn Luther, but said, in response to Müller’s ominous reference to the Antichrist, that he did not want to believe that there was a reborn Luther behind the manifesto. And here is how Kasper opened his response (my translation):
No doubt, the Manifesto of Faith that Cardinal Gerhard Müller published contains many statements of belief that every upright Catholic can wholeheartedly affirm. […] It is good to call these fundamental truths to mind, in order that they do not get lost in the seemingly more pressing controversies of the moment. So far so good.
What is not good, however, is that some truths are so trenchantly pointed out that the other half of the truth is hidden.
I see this as an entirely fair assessment of Cardinal Müller’s whole campaign, and not just the Manifesto of Faith. Müller proclaims certain truths, but in doing so he hides or warps others. The primary truths he harnesses are those of Tradition, to which he has turned as the rock upon which to build his oppositional enterprise, to the exclusion or distortion of much else. With his one-sided militancy, the larger Truth is sacrificed for particular truths.
Cardinal Müller’s militancy is what makes his pronouncements at once thunderous assertions of truth and fragmented score-settling diatribes that in my opinion (as a mere layperson) work against a more nuanced and truthful understanding of Church teaching. For example, while I agree that Ordinatio Sacerdotalis is probably definitive regarding the ordination of women as priests, I am troubled by Müller’s explanation for why this is definitive, since this explanation is true in part but not in whole. He writes,
It is certainly without doubt […] that this definitive decision from Pope John Paul II is indeed a dogma of the Faith of the Catholic Church and that this was of course the case already before this Pope defined this truth as contained in Revelation in the year 1994.
This suggests that one of the primary jobs of the pope is to confirm dogma that is already understood to be dogma. He explains,
When it comes to a dogma, one has to differentiate between the substantive and the formal side. The revealed truth which is being expressed in it—and whose denial is being sanctioned with an “anathema sit” or which is being pronounced “ex cathedra” by the Pope alone—does not therefore depend upon the external form of the definition.
Again, this is true in a certain sense. If the pope pronounces a doctrine or teaching to be dogmatic ex cathedra, then that dogma is true and has always been true. The problem is that definitive pronouncements are often made about issues that are in dispute—not just among ordinary Catholics but also among theologians and priests and bishops. The problem of determining what has always been true is not a simple one, especially if we do not confine ourselves to an idealized or partisan understanding of the history of Christianity. The final decision on what has always been true has to rest with some highest authority, if it is not to be a decision based on majority rule, and that highest authority is the pope in communion with the bishops. If that authority cannot be consulted, the pope himself may make a decision that while not necessarily infallible (if not spoken ex cathedra) is nevertheless binding upon the faithful. No matter how great his learning, no matter how far-ranging his experience and wisdom, it is not up to one bishop or a group of bishops alone to determine and proclaim what has always been true. And Cardinal Müller, unfortunately, has taken it upon himself to let us know what has always been true, no matter what the pope or other bishops might say. He seems to have lost all trust in the Church or pope to make this determination.
Müller asks us to read the CDF document on The Primacy of the Successor of Peter in the Mystery of the Church in order to understand his position. I did, and these are the passages that stood out to me:
The ultimate and absolute responsibility of the Pope is best guaranteed, on the one hand, by its relationship to Tradition and fraternal communion and, on the other, by trust in the assistance of the Holy Spirit who governs the Church.
And the closing sentence,
We are all invited to trust in the Holy Spirit, to trust in Christ, by trusting in Peter.
Speaking for myself, everything I have written in defense of Pope Francis is geared toward this idea that we should trust the pope—not that we have to take his every word as infallible. And so much of what I see that disturbs me in Catholic media or among a small segment of the Church hierarchy is a campaign to undermine this trust. LifeSite News, a publication to which Müller chose to deliver his recent statement, has been working for years now to diminish the trust of ordinary Catholics in Pope Francis. This should be clear to anyone with a basic critical understanding of media. Does Müller believe that LifeSite rises above the “fickle opinions of the people” that he refers to with such disdain? If so, I beg him to read what they publish on a daily basis.
I understand, though, that his thoughts may be clouded by anger. In his address at the Ordinary Public Consistory for the Creation of New Cardinals on October 5, Pope Francis stated to the new cardinals that
The readiness of a cardinal to shed his own blood—as signified by the scarlet colour of your robes—is secure if it is rooted in this awareness of having been shown compassion and in the ability to show compassion in turn. Otherwise, one cannot be loyal. So many disloyal actions on the part of ecclesiastics are born of the lack of a sense of having been shown compassion, and by the habit of averting one’s gaze, the habit of indifference.
If this is in any way a message to Cardinal Müller, then it may also represent some self-criticism on the part of Pope Francis. I don’t know much about the history of their personal interactions, but perhaps Pope Francis recognizes that he could have been more compassionate toward Müller, even if it was inevitable that they would not be able to work as close colleagues. In any case, I pray for Cardinal Müller—that his anger will subside, that his fears for the Church will ease, that his proclaimed loyalty to Pope Francis will one day become more apparent in his words and actions, and that he will be able to harness the power of truth by trusting in Peter as much as he trusts in Tradition.
Image: Gerhard Müller as Archbishop in 2012, by Jolanta Dyr. Creative Commons license
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D.W. Lafferty, PhD, is a Catholic husband, dad, and independent scholar from Ontario, Canada. He works in higher education and has published articles on the literature of Wyndham Lewis, the conspiracy theory of Douglas Reed, and the life and legacy of Engelbert Dollfuss. Online, he tweets as @rightscholar.