Cardinal Müller on Amoris Laetitia: 12 Things to Know and Share

It appears that Cardinal Müller has his own views about how ‘Amoris Laetitia’ should be interpreted and that these views differ from the way Pope Francis would like to see the document interpreted.

Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller speaks at a presentation in the Vatican Press Office on June 14, 2016. (Daniel Ibáñez/Catholic News Agency)
Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller speaks at a presentation in the Vatican Press Office on June 14, 2016. (Daniel Ibáñez/Catholic News Agency) (photo: Screenshot)

Cardinal Gerhard Müller has made public comments on Pope Francis’s document Amoris Laetitia and the controversy surrounding it.

Here are 12 things to know and share . . .


1) What is Amoris Laetitia?

It’s a document issued by Pope Francis in April of 2016.

It deals with marriage and how the Church can help married couples.

The text of the document is online here, and a discussion of it is here.

More commentary, from a Catholic perspective, here.


2) Why has there been controversy around Amoris Laetitia?

Certain passages in it have been taken to mean that couples who are divorced and civilly remarried can continue to have sex and receive the sacraments of confession and the Eucharist.

This would be at variance with the historic Catholic understanding because such couples would not be validly married to each other and thus sexual relations between them would be adulterous.

Because of different interpretations of the document, a group of four cardinals recently asked Pope Francis to answer several clarifying questions on the document and how it relates to Catholic teaching. Info on that here.

Thus far, Pope Francis has not publicly responded to these queries.


3) Who is Cardinal Müller?

He’s the head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which is the department at the Vatican charged with correcting doctrinal errors.

This is the same department that Pope Benedict XVI was head of before he was elected pope.

Cardinal Müller is thus, in terms of his office, Pope Francis’s right-hand man when it comes to doctrine.


4) Where did Cardinal Müller make his remarks?

Most recently he did so in an interview that was published in the Italian apologetics magazine Il Timone (“The Rudder”).

That issue is available for purchase online here.

Thus far, I haven’t found a complete English translation of the interview, but key sections of it are provided here.


5) What does Cardinal Müller say in this interview?

He addresses several issues, including:

  • Whether there can be a conflict between doctrine and personal conscience
  • How Amoris Laetitia is to be interpreted
  • Whether the requirement that divorced and remarried couples who cannot separate for practical reasons must live as brother and sister to receive the sacraments
  • How to resolve the chaos surrounding the different interpretations of Amoris Laetitia


6) What did Cardinal Müller say on the conflict between doctrine and personal conscience?

This was the exchange on that point:

Q: Can there be a contradiction between doctrine and personal conscience?

A: No, that is impossible. For example, it cannot be said that there are circumstances according to which an act of adultery does not constitute a mortal sin. For Catholic doctrine, it is impossible for mortal sin to coexist with sanctifying grace. In order to overcome this absurd contradiction, Christ has instituted for the faithful the Sacrament of penance and reconciliation with God and with the Church.

I find this response somewhat puzzling. There may be a problem with the transcription or translation of the question or answer.

First, it is obvious that sometimes people’s consciences contradict Church teaching. In this situation they have what is termed an erroneous conscience.

I assume that Cardinal Müller means that there cannot be a contradiction between a person’s conscience and the Church’s teaching unless their conscience is in error.

Second, the Church holds that three conditions must be met for a mortal sin to be committed: It must have (1) grave matter and be committed with both (2) full knowledge of its moral status and (3) deliberate consent in spite of this knowledge.

An adulterous act always has grave matter, but there are cases in which a person may lack full knowledge or deliberate consent, in which case the sin is objectively grave but not mortal.

I assume that the cardinal is speaking of an adulterous act in which these two conditions are also met.


7) What did Cardinal Müller say on how Amoris Laetitia is to be interpreted?

The exchange on this point was:

Q: This [see the previous Q and A] is a question that is being extensively discussed with regard to the debate surrounding the post-synodal exhortation “Amoris Laetitia.”

A: “Amoris Laetitia” must clearly be interpreted in the light of the whole doctrine of the Church. [...] I don’t like it, it is not right that so many bishops are interpreting “Amoris Laetitia” according to their way of understanding the pope’s teaching. This does not keep to the line of Catholic doctrine. The magisterium of the pope is interpreted only by him or through the congregation for the doctrine of the faith. The pope interprets the bishops, it is not the bishops who interpret the pope, this would constitute an inversion of the structure of the Catholic Church. To all these who are talking too much, I urge them to study first the doctrine [of the councils] on the papacy and the episcopate. The bishop, as teacher of the Word, must himself be the first to be well-formed so as not to fall into the risk of the blind leading the blind. [...]

Again, Cardinal Müller’s response contains what might seem like puzzling elements that may be due to a problem with transcription or translation.

Obviously, anyone reading Amoris Laetitia must seek to understand what the pope is saying and in that sense interpret it.

Therefore, I assume what the cardinal is referring to is what is known in ecclesiastical circles as an “authentic interpretation.”

“Authentic” is a term of art in ecclesiastical documents that means authoritative. An authentic interpretation is thus an authoritative declaration concerning the meaning of a text.

Cardinal Müller thus seems to be saying that bishops (and others) do not have the ability to make authoritative declarations about the meaning of the pope’s teachings. Only the pope himself and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (as authorized by the pope) are capable of doing so.

Authentic interpretations are periodically issued by the Holy See in official documents.

Thus an authoritative interpretation of Amoris Laetitia would only be made in a new, public proclamation by the pope or the CDF.

Unless and until such a declaration is made, Amoris is to be interpreted “in the light of the whole doctrine of the Church,” including its historic understanding of the effects of divorce and civil remarriage.


8) What did Cardinal Müller say about the obligation of those who are divorced and civilly remarried to live continently if they are to receive the sacraments?

Here is the exchange on that point:

Q: The exhortation of Saint John Paul II, “Familiaris Consortio,” stipulates that divorced and remarried couples that cannot separate, in order to receive the sacraments must commit to live in continence. Is this requirement still valid?

A: Of course, it is not dispensable, because it is not only a positive law of John Paul II, but he expressed an essential element of Christian moral theology and the theology of the sacraments. The confusion on this point also concerns the failure to accept the encyclical “Veritatis Splendor,” with the clear doctrine of the “intrinsece malum.” [“intrinsically evil (act)”] [...] For us marriage is the expression of participation in the unity between Christ the bridegroom and the Church his bride. This is not, as some said during the Synod, a simple vague analogy. No! This is the substance of the sacrament, and no power in heaven or on earth, neither an angel, nor the pope, nor a council, nor a law of the bishops, has the faculty to change it.

In this context, a “positive law” refers to a law that is made by humans (as opposed to “natural law,” which refers to the laws God built into human nature).

Cardinal Müller thus means that the principle in question is not simply a law John Paul II made up and that therefore would be capable of being changed. It belongs to divine law and cannot be changed by man.

He comments that confusion on this area is rooted in the refusal of some to accept the teaching John Paul II articulated in Veritatis Splendor that some acts are intrinsically evil and can never be done—such as an act of adultery.

He says that marriage “for us” (meaning either “from a Catholic point of view” or “marriage between the baptized”) has a sacramental nature that participates in the unity between Christ and the Church.

Such unity requires fidelity and thus absolutely excludes adultery—something he indicates nobody, including the pope, can change.


9) What did Cardinal Müller say regarding how to deal with the confusion surrounding Amoris Laetitia?

Here is the exchange on this point:

Q: How can one resolve the chaos that is being generated on account of the different interpretations that are given of this passage of Amoris Laetitia?

A: I urge everyone to reflect, studying the doctrine of the Church first, starting from the Word of God in Sacred Scripture, which is very clear on marriage. I would also advise not entering into any casuistry that can easily generate misunderstandings, above all that according to which if love dies, then the marriage bond is dead. These are sophistries: the Word of God is very clear and the Church does not accept the secularization of marriage. The task of priests and bishops is not that of creating confusion, but of bringing clarity. One cannot refer only to little passages present in “Amoris Laetitia,” but it has to be read as a whole, with the purpose of making the Gospel of marriage and the family more attractive for persons. It is not “Amoris Laetitia” that has provoked a confused interpretation, but some confused interpreters of it. All of us must understand and accept the doctrine of Christ and of his Church, and at the same time be ready to help others to understand it and put it into practice even in difficult situations.


10) Since Cardinal Müller is the head of the CDF, does this mean his remarks can be taken as an authentic (authoritative) interpretation of Amoris Laetitia?

No. Authentic interpretations by the CDF are issued in documents published by the Congregation and approved by the pope.

They are not made in interviews with apologetics magazines.


11) Could we see Cardinal Müller’s remarks as an unofficial response to the questions submitted by the four cardinals? I.e., that the pope doesn’t want to respond officially at this time, so he asked Cardinal Müller to give an unofficial response?

This is not likely. If we knew nothing else about Pope Francis’s views on the interpretation of Amoris Laetitia, this would be a reasonable conjecture. However, we do know more.

We have significant evidence that Pope Francis has a different view (as acknowledged even in this piece by Fr. Raymond de Sousa, which is perhaps the most optimistic I have read).

However, thus far Pope Francis has not issued an authentic interpretation of the disputed points in Amoris Laetitia, nor has he authorized the CDF to publish one.

It therefore appears that Cardinal Müller is giving his own views about how the document should be interpreted and that these views differ from the way Pope Francis would like to see the document interpreted.


12) For the pope and the head of the CDF to disagree on a point like this seems very serious. What should we do?

Pray for them both—and for the Church as a whole.