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An exclusive Register interview with the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, who became a new cardinal at last month’s consistory.
BY EDWARD PENTIN
Many of the faithful have become uneasy over reports speculating that the Vatican may change the Church’s approach to its teaching on the indissolubility of marriage — and in particular the status of divorced and remarried Catholics.
In an email interview with the Register, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, addressed the concern. The newly named cardinal also discusses his work as prefect, concerns among some Catholics that politics is increasingly emphasized over salvation in the Church’s preaching and the beneficial aspects of liberation theology.
Your Eminence, how will being a cardinal help you in your work as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith?
There are two central liturgical moments of the consistory that are, as you may imagine, still fresh in my mind: when the new cardinals were created and, the following day, Mass with the Holy Father.
The Holy Father’s homilies on both occasions are marked by his wisdom and zeal for the Church. On [Feb. 22], he challenged my brother cardinals and me, saying: “The Church needs your courage to proclaim the Gospel at all times, both in season and out of season, and to bear witness to the truth.” And I feel that challenge to witness to the truth of the Gospel in a particularly special way as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
In his homily the following day, Pope Francis said: “Dear brother cardinals, may we remain united in Christ and among ourselves! I ask you to remain close to me, with your prayers, your advice and your help.” Obviously, these words were directed to all the cardinals, but being united to the Pope takes on a special significance for those who work in close collaboration with the Holy Father in the Curia.
I think, therefore, these would be the two aspects of being made a cardinal that bear most specially on my role at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith: being united to the Holy Father in a uniquely binding way and also the call to be faithful to the Gospel, even usque effusionem sanguinis [unto the shedding of blood].
What is the most important priority for you at the moment, in terms of defending doctrine?
If you will allow me, there are three presuppositions in your question I would like to qualify.
First of all, you talk about “the most important priority for you.” I think it is important to point out that my role of the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is not dependent upon my priorities. This role has been entrusted to me by Pope Francis, and I carry it out in the service of the Pope and the universal Church. Moreover, as Pope Francis himself has said, in his recent address to the plenary session of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, “your dicastery is known for its practice of collegiality and dialogue.” The work of the CDF is the fruit of many people working in collaboration in the communion of the Church and in the service of the Holy Father.
Secondly, you talk about a “priority.” This way of speaking is open to misunderstandings, as if there is a single issue or point of doctrine that must be addressed. In his apostolic exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis has affirmed the “harmonious totality of the Christian message.” He stresses that “all of the truths [of the Catholic faith] are important and illumine one another” (39). Although, depending on circumstances, certain questions come more sharply into focus, nonetheless, the priority of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is the integrity, the wholeness, of the Gospel message.
Finally, you talk about “defending” the Church’s teaching. This is important, but the role of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, as laid out in Pastor Bonus, is also “to promote” the Church’s teaching.
In synthesis, then, the priority for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is to promote, to make better known and to foster a deeper understanding of the fullness of the Church’s teaching. In this way, the congregation performs a service to the Church, because, in promoting the integrity of the faith, it helps to bring to light the inner beauty and attractiveness of what God has, in his generosity, given to us in Jesus Christ.
Some are concerned that changes will be made with regards to the Church’s teaching on divorced and remarried Catholics. Can you reassure the faithful that the changes will be pastoral rather than doctrinal?
I would like to answer this question in three parts.
First, I am grateful that your question gives me the opportunity to clarify an important point. The idea that doctrine can be separated from the pastoral practice of the Church has become prevalent in some circles. This is not, and never has been, the Catholic faith.
Recent popes have been at pains to stress the personal lived reality of the Catholic faith. Pope Francis has written, “I never tire of repeating those words of Benedict XVI, which take us to the very heart of the Gospel: ‘Being a Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a Person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction’” (Evangelii Gaudium, 7). Within this personal relationship with Christ, which embraces our minds, our hearts, the totality of our lives even, we can grasp the profound unity between the doctrines we believe and how we live our lives, or what we might call the pastoral reality of our lived experience. Opposing the pastoral to the doctrinal is simply a false dichotomy.
Second, we have to be very careful when we talk about Church teaching. If by “change,” one meant denying or rejecting that which has gone before, then this would be misleading. I would prefer to talk about the “development” of Church teaching. The Church does not invent for herself that which she teaches. The teachings of the Church are rooted in the person of Christ, in the mystery of God’s self-revelation.
It may be that, in the course of time, the Church comes to a deeper appreciation of this mystery. It may also come to pass that new circumstances in human history throw a particular light on the implications of this mystery. But, because it is always rooted in the same mystery of Christ, there is always continuity in what the Church teaches.
Third, specifically on the issue of the admission of divorced and remarried Catholics being admitted to Communion, I would refer you to the article I published in the English edition of L’Osservatore Romano Oct. 25, 2013. However, I would like to reiterate several points I make there. First, the teaching of Christ and his Church is clear: A sacramental marriage is indissoluble. Second, those persons whose state of life contradicts the indissolubility of sacramental marriage cannot be admitted to the Eucharist. Third, pastors and parish communities are bound to stand by the faithful who find themselves in this situation with “attentive love” (Familiaris Consortio, 84).
The Church’s concern for her children who are divorced and remarried cannot be reduced to the question of receiving the Eucharist, and I am confident that, rooted in truth and in love, the Church will discover the right paths and approaches in constantly new ways.
There seems to be a growing sense that other aspects of Church teaching might be changed. Why, in your opinion, is there this feeling?
Sometimes it is necessary to distinguish between reality and its presentation in the media. In particular, the secular media often misunderstand the Church. Unfortunately, the media often apply the mindset of secular politics to the Church.
A newly elected leader of a political party might change or reverse that party’s policies. This is not how it works with the pope. When the pope is elected, his mission is to be faithful to the teachings of Christ and his Church. He may find new and creative ways of being faithful to these teachings, but for the pope, the deepest reality is the continuing fidelity to the person of Christ. If the media have created misplaced expectations, then this is unfortunate.
Others have also claimed that the Church has focused too much on politics instead of the salvific aspects of doctrine, leading to the adoption of socialist principles. Do you think this is true? And is this a concern of yours?
I would want to stress that salvation and the just ordering of society are not mutually exclusive concerns. On the contrary, Gaudium et Spes teaches us, “Far from diminishing our concern to develop this earth, the expectancy of a new earth should spur us on. […] [A]lthough we must be careful to distinguish earthly progress clearly from the increase of the kingdom of Christ, such progress is of vital concern to the kingdom of God, insofar as it can contribute to the better ordering of human society.” How we live in this life is, therefore, intimately related to our final end.
Moreover, I think it is certainly false to say the Church has ignored the issue of salvation. In fact, far from being ignored, just this question has been addressed in Benedict XVI’s encyclical Spe Salvi. There are cultural reasons, as diagnosed in this encyclical, that tend to obscure the true nature of Christian hope.
Our present culture tends to base all its hopes for the future on purely human ingenuity and activity, and this emphasis obscures the truth that salvation is not the fruit of man’s technical ingenuity; rather, it is won for us by Jesus Christ. This is the authentic teaching of the Church.
Confronted with the strident voices competing for our attention today, we Catholics must be more especially attentive to the authentic teachings of the Church.
You’ve supported a certain kind of liberation theology in the past. What aspects of it can the faithful embrace?
If one reduces liberation theology to a purely secular political ideology, then you deform and undermine its character as theology. For this reason, some aspects of liberation theology were rightly criticized by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1984, in its instruction Libertatis Nuntius. The categories of liberation theology are fundamentally theological and Christian. Although, in the secular world, the term “liberation” has many different nuances, for a Christian theologian, this term can never be removed from its scriptural roots. It was this Christian understanding of freedom that was emphasized in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s instruction of 1986, Libertatis Conscientia.
In the Bible, liberation most profoundly means the freedom from the forces of sin and death won for us by Jesus Christ. True Christian freedom is, therefore, not license; it is freedom from sin, the freedom to become the children of God. Sin always undermines our humanity, and sin’s ultimate fruit is death; that is, the destruction of our humanity. Whereas, our destiny as children of God involves the full realization of our humanity and in fact the lifting of our humanity to a new and more privileged way of existing.
Liberation theology was born in the context of Latin America and born out of the question: How can we talk about God in the face of suffering, premature death and the continual violation of the human dignity of the poor in South America? It, therefore, addresses the question of human dignity in the light of the dehumanizing forces of unjust economic oppression. These forces, precisely because they are dehumanizing, are, in the light of the redemption won for us in Christ, revealed not just as purely secular evils, but also as opposed to God’s will for his children.
In so far as liberation theology concerns itself with that liberation brought to us through Jesus Christ — what St. Paul calls “the freedom of the children of God” (Romans 8:21) — it is of enduring interest to the Church.
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.