Archbishop Gerhard Müller: 'The Church Is Not a Fortress'

In an exclusive two-part interview with the Register, the new prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith discusses his new job and highlights the Church’s positive message of hope.

Archbishop Gerhard Müller
Archbishop Gerhard Müller (photo: Wikipedia)

On July 2, the Vatican announced that Pope Benedict XVI had appointed Bishop Gerhard Müller the new prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, arguably the most influential and prestigious of all the Vatican’s departments. The 64-year-old native of Mainz in central Germany was subsequently elevated to archbishop and made ex officio president of the Pontifical Biblical Commission and the International Theological Commission. He also now heads the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei — the body charged with bringing the Society of St. Pius X into communion with Rome.

In this exclusive interview, given last month at the congregation, Archbishop Müller discusses his new role and how he expects to work with the Holy Father. He also reflects on the Second Vatican Council, discusses the sensitive discussions with the SSPX, explains his statements on Mary and the Eucharist that caused controversy in some quarters, and offers an update on the current situation regarding talks between the congregation and the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. (Part 2 can be read here).


How are you settling in to your post, and what are your impressions of it, now that you have arrived in Rome?

So far, so good! We have plenty of work and plenty of problems to resolve, but I am not here for a holiday! I came here to assist the Holy Father and to work for the Kingdom of God. We believe that Jesus Christ founded his Church on the rock of St. Peter. Certainly, the Holy Father relies on the help of the congregations and dicasteries of the Roman Curia, particularly our dicastery, which concerns the promotion of our faith in Jesus Christ, what we believe in the Creed.


You’ve known the Holy Father for some time. What is your working relationship with him like?

We have a professional relationship, and I now have regular audiences with the Holy Father. But before my appointment here, I already had a lot to do with the theologian Joseph Ratzinger, and now I am the editor of his collected works, which hopefully will also be published in English soon.

So we have been linked for a long time, which does help our continued working together. I also worked closely with him on the International Theological Commission, of which he was the president.


Did the appointment come at all as a surprise to you?

Given that I had been a member of this congregation for a number of years, and that I had been a professor of dogmatics for years before that, it was not entirely surprising. There are, of course, plenty of other people who could have been appointed, but I am the editor of his collected works, he knows me very well, and he knows where I stand on things — so the Pope decided to appoint me.


Will the Holy Father be giving you plenty of freedom in your work?

The Holy Father will give me for my part all the freedom I need, and there is no opposition or contradiction, because our respective roles are very clear. The Holy Father is the Successor of Peter, the Vicar of Christ. I am a bishop, and in this position of responsibility, I am charged with assisting the Holy Father in this specific area of competence. The Pope has to defend and promote the Catholic faith; the sole reason for the existence of this congregation is to assist the Holy Father in that task. We are not here to carry out our own activities or make our own judgments apart from him. That would be absolutely contradictory to our mission.


What will be your priorities as prefect, in terms of defending doctrine? Will your main focus, for example, be on post-Christian Europe?

Defending the faith is the second task we have. Our primary role is to promote the faith. The Church is not a fortress, but, rather, a sacrament, a sign, a symbol and an instrument for the salvation for all people. The apostles were sent into the world to preach the Gospel and to edify and instill hope in people. So we are the witnesses and missionaries of that faith, hope and love, and this is the first task of the whole Church.

The role of the congregation, therefore, is first and foremost to support that mission of the whole Church. Obviously, to do that today means that we have to defend the faith from the assault of secularism and materialism, which denies the transcendent dimension of human existence and therefore distorts the ethical, moral and intellectual orientation of society.


The Year of Faith begins Oct. 11. What will be your role during this special year?

There will be the Synod of Bishops regarding the Year of Faith in which I will participate, but, clearly, this congregation has its own priorities. Above all we need to address the challenges posed by the so-called new atheism, which in reality is aggressive in its intolerance of Christianity. The new atheists want to establish a world without God, which we can never accept. The Church needs to regain its confidence and once again find her own role in this world. We need to stop looking inward, towards ourselves, always discussing the same inter-ecclesiastical questions. We must concentrate our forces on the New Evangelization, especially in the old Christian countries of the West, which have lost their way a little.


The 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council also takes place Oct. 11. Some would argue that the Church has been hampered in its mission to evangelize by the confusion that followed the Council. Will there be initiatives during this Year of Faith to help remove some of that confusion?

The problems that we had after the Council were not caused by the Council. The development of the secularist mentality, for instance, had nothing to do with the Council. It came about before the Council, in the 19th century, when we had secularism promoted by liberals who denied the supernatural and saw the Church only in terms of a charitable institution.

But the role of the Church is not only to help in the social field; its secondary mission is to help the bonum commune [the common good]. But the first reason for its existence is to preach the Gospel and thus give hope to the world. Therefore, we have an interlinking between the event of the Council and assault of secularism. The waves of secularism began to undermine the Church long before the Council, but they accumulated into a tsunami at the same time as the great event of the Council. Partly because of this coincidence, a certain type of secularism then found its way into the inner circles of the Church.

The result is that we now not only have secularism coming from outside the Church, but we have a type of liberalism within the Church which has caused us to lose our direction a little. We must look to our own resources — the Scriptures, the Fathers, the dogmatic teachings of the Church — and, like a good captain, steer the way ahead.


As there continues to be a lack of clarity over the Council, particularly in its interpretation, could an encyclical from the Pope clarify matters?

Yes, we need an authentic interpretation of the magisterium of the Council. The Pope offered a good and faithful interpretation of the Council when he said it did not create a new Church. Like every other ecumenical council, Vatican II must be interpreted according to the Tradition, based on Revelation and on Scripture.

The great achievement of Vatican II was that it brought the doctrine of the Church into a whole; it provided an overview. In other words, it didn’t underline only some aspects of doctrine like in other councils, but, rather, summarized the main contents of our belief. What it says in Dei Verbum about divine Revelation, for example, is a summary of all that is said in the magisterium about personal revelation. And in Lumen Gentium we have a comprehensive vision of all the dimensions belonging to ecclesiology, the sacraments founded by Jesus Christ, the hierarchy, the laity, the people of God, the body of Christ, the temple of the Holy Spirit. We have a unified ecclesiology. Also in Gaudium et Spes and in other documents, we can say that the Second Vatican Council collected together the basic elements of our doctrine in one place.


But if it does present such a comprehensive view of ecclesiology, why are there groups such as the Society of St. Pius X who want to stick to “frozen tradition,” as it were, rather than come into full communion? Does this suggest errors in this comprehensive vision?

We have breakaway groups, not only on the traditionalist wing, but also on the liberal wing. I think that some have developed sets of ideas, which they have formed into an ideology, and then they judge all things in the context of this one set of ideas. The traditionalists, for instance, focus heavily on the liturgy. But we cannot say that there is only one form in which the liturgy can be celebrated, that the extraordinary form is the only form of the Mass. We also cannot change the content of the holy Mass — it’s the same content — but some elements of the liturgy have developed. We have had a lot of rites, Roman, Byzantine, etc., and all are valid, and all have had a certain growth.


The SSPX and some traditionalists in communion with the Church have trouble reconciling the fact that we’ve had popes in the past who have categorically stated teachings that appeared to be refuted by the Council, religious freedom being one example. What do you say in response to this concern?

That is not true — it’s a false interpretation of history. In the 19th century, the freemasons or liberals interpreted religious freedom as the freedom to reject the truth given by God. It was this false notion of religious freedom that the popes of the 19th century rejected, and the Second Vatican Council repeats that we are not free to reject the truth. It is on another level, on the level of human rights, that everyone has to be true to himself or herself and act according to his or her own conscience.

Furthermore, the Church cannot, on the doctrinal level, contradict herself — that is impossible. Any perceived contradiction is caused by false interpretation. We cannot say today, “Jesus is the Son of God, he has a divine nature,” and then tomorrow accept what the Arians said [that Christ was distinctly separate from God the Father]. That would be a real contradiction.

What they [SSPX] are proposing is, in essence, a tension arising from the use of terminology, but the Church never contradicted herself. If you study the texts of different centuries, of different contexts, of different languages, you must do so on the basis of established Catholic doctrine.


Do you, nevertheless, accept there’s been a weakening of the Church’s teaching because of this underlying confusion of terminology? One example sometimes cited is that the teaching of “no salvation outside the Church” seems to have become less prominent.

That has been discussed, but here, too, there has been a development of all that was said in the Church, beginning with St. Cyprian, one of the Fathers of the Church, in the third century. Again, the perspective is different between then and now. In the third century, some Christian groups wanted to be outside the Church, and what St. Cyprian said is that without the Church a Christian cannot be saved. The Second Vatican Council also said this: Lumen Gentium 14 says: “Whosoever, therefore, knowing that the Catholic Church was made necessary by Christ, would refuse to enter or to remain in it, could not be saved.” He who is aware of the presence of Revelation is obliged by his conscience to belong publicly — and not only in his conscience, in his heart — to this Catholic Church by remaining in communion with the Pope and those bishops in communion with him.

But we cannot say that those who are inculpably ignorant of this truth are necessarily condemned for that reason. We must hope that those who do not belong to the Church through no fault of their own, but who follow the dictates of their God-given conscience, will be saved by Jesus Christ whom they do not yet know. Every person has the right to act according to his or her own conscience. However, if a Catholic says today, “I am going to put myself outside the Church,” we would have to respond that without the Church that person is in danger of losing salvation.

Therefore, we must always examine the context of these statements. The problem that many people have is that they are linking statements of doctrine from different centuries and different contexts — and this cannot be done rationally without a hermeneutic of interpretation. We need a theological hermeneutic for an authentic interpretation, but interpretation does not change the content of the teaching.

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.

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