Archbishop Müller on the SSPX and His Controversial Writings

In part 2 of an exclusive interview with the Register, the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith discusses his new job and highlights the Church’s positive message of hope.

The Vatican headquarters of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith
The Vatican headquarters of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (photo: Wikipedia)

In the second part of this interview with Archbishop Gerhard Ludwig Müller (Part 1 can be read here), the new CDF prefect discusses the latest on efforts to bring the Society of St. Pius X back into full communion with the Church, the current situation regarding the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, and responds to what some saw as controversies over some of his previous writings on the perpetual virginity of the Blessed Virgin Mary and on the Eucharist.


What stage have we reached in the dialogue between the Vatican and the Society of St. Pius X?

I wouldn’t call it a dialogue between two Church partners. This was a brotherly colloquium to overcome difficulties with an authentic interpretation of Catholic doctrine. This authentic interpretation is guaranteed by the Pope. The SSPX must accept the Holy Father, the Pope, as the visible head of the Church. They have a great respect for Tradition. They must, therefore, accept the position of the Pope as stated in the First Vatican Council. They must also accept the doctrinal pronouncements made since the Second Vatican Council, which have been authorized officially by the Pope.

Part of the problem is that, after 30 or more years of separation from the Church, some groups or persons can be very closed in their own dynamic, in their own groups, and very fixed on these points. I believe that these questions will be resolved in the long term.


Is it possible for reconciliation with Bishop Richard Williamson within the society?

Williamson is a separate problem to this reconciliation process. It is simply unacceptable that a Christian or even  more a bishop — of course he is not a Catholic bishop, as a bishop is only Catholic when he is in full communion with the Pope, the Successor of Peter, which Williamson is not — denies all that the Nazis had done against the Jewish people, their exterminations. How is it possible to be so cold-hearted about this? It is absolutely unacceptable, but this is a separate problem.

They [SSPX] need to accept the complete doctrine of the Catholic Church: the confession of faith, the Creed, and also accept the magisterium of the Pope as it is authentically interpreted. That is necessary. They also need to accept some forms of development in the liturgy. The Holy Father recognized the perennial validity of the extraordinary form of the liturgy, but they also must accept that the new ordinary form of the liturgy, developed after the Council, is valid and legitimate.


Some argue the Second Vatican Council was merely pastoral and, therefore, not binding. How do you respond to this?

The problem here is the interpretation of the word “pastoral.” All councils are pastoral, in that they are concerned with the work of the Church — but this does not mean that they are merely “poetic” and therefore not binding. Vatican II is an official ecumenical council, and all that was said in the Council is therefore binding for everyone, but at different levels. We have dogmatic constitutions, and you are certainly obliged to accept them if you are Catholic. Dei Verbum discusses divine Revelation; it speaks about the Trinitarian God revealing himself and about the Incarnation as fundamental teaching. These are not only pastoral teachings — they are basic elements of our Catholic faith.

Some practical elements contained in the various documents could be changed, but the body of the doctrine of the Council is binding for everyone.


In view of all this, are you nevertheless confident and optimistic there will be reconciliation with the Society of St. Pius X?

I’m always confident in our faith and optimistic. We have to pray for goodwill and for unity in the Church. The SSPX is not the only breakaway group in the Church. There are worse ones on the opposite side, too. These movements are worse because they are often denying essentials of Christianity. We must work for unity, and so it is also my task to invite all to come back into full communion with the Catholic Church, which is led by the supreme shepherd, the pope — who is the Vicar of Christ.


If they do come back, what positive aspects could they bring to the Church?

They could underline what Tradition is, but they also must become broader in their perspective, because the apostolic Tradition of the Church is not only about a few elements. The Tradition of the Church is large and wide. On the other hand, there must also be a renewal in the celebration of the liturgy, because we have had a lot of abuses of the liturgy, which have damaged the faith of many people.


Could they perhaps help correct some of the abuses?

That is not their task, but ours. One extreme cannot be the equivalent of the other. The extremes must be corrected by the center.


There were some controversies surrounding your appointment regarding your previous teachings on Mary and the Eucharist. Could you tell us more about this?

Editor’s note: On the perpetual virginity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Archbishop Müller wrote that the doctrine is “not so much concerned with specific physiological proprieties in the natural process of birth (such as the birth canal not having been opened, the hymen not being broken, or the absence of birth pangs), but with the healing and saving influence of the grace of the Savior on human nature.” On the Eucharist, he stated: “In reality, the body and blood of Christ do not mean the material components of the human person of Jesus during his lifetime or in his transfigured corporality. Here, body and blood mean the presence of Christ in the signs of the medium of bread and wine.”)

These were not so much criticisms as baseless provocations aimed at discrediting me, but everyone can read what I have written in context and systematically. Why should I deny the doctrines of transubstantiation or the perpetual virginity of Mary? I have written whole books in defense of these doctrines. Concerning miracles, we have to remember that the primary object of our faith is the action of God; the secondary object is what God did inclusively in the material dimension. It is not enough to say that miracles are an inexplicable action — something totally exceptional within the material world — that prove God’s existence. Rather, the miracles performed by Jesus reveal that he is our divine Savior who came to heal a world wounded by sin.

So, for instance, when Jesus performed a miracle, such as the healing of the sick man, the first aspect to look at is not the mere suspension of the natural order. The first priority is to examine the fact that God has healed this person who needed to be healed; the suspension of the laws of nature are a consequence of this divine intervention. Often, people don’t understand this perspective of the faith.


Some have suggested you were trying to push the boundaries, to come up with new thinking, as scholars often do. Does this have something to do with the controversy?

Look, the basis of our faith is revelation. But we need theological explanations, interpretation, to explain the historical truth of revelation and to present and defend it against errors and heresy. So, for instance, the Christological dogmas of the early councils were absolutely necessary to explain in another way the truths about Christ witnessed to and contained in the New Testament. If you want to conserve the content of the truth in other contexts, you must sometimes explain it in other categories.

In the Gospel, Jesus said: “This is my blood; this is my body.” What is the meaning of this? It refers to the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, but in the New Testament, you don’t find this expression — “Real Presence.” It is a later theological term used to explain the truth contained in the Gospel. Then, in the context of the 12th and 13th centuries, the Church had to defend the doctrine of the Real Presence, and she did this by expressing it in philosophical terms to explain the difference between substance and appearance. This is the doctrine of transubstantiation — a word which you will not find in the New Testament but which was necessary in order to explain and defend what had been revealed in the New Testament. Often, people do not understand the relationship between revelation and theology.


Finally, what is the situation regarding the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR)? The congregation recently issued a doctrinal assessment calling for a renewal of this American organization. Is there a continuing struggle between the CDF and the organization?

There is no struggle between the Holy See and this organization, but we do want to help the LCWR in its renewal of religious life — precisely because of the importance of religious life for the Church. In our times, such renewal will only be possible if there is a renewed commitment to the three vows [chastity, poverty and obedience] and a new identification with our Catholic faith and life. We cannot fulfill our mission if we are split, everyone speaking against one another, working against one another, or accepting ideas from outside that don’t belong to our faith. And we cannot accept doctrines about sexuality that don’t respect the fundamental essentials of revealed anthropology. So we must find new ways to serve the society of today, not waste our time with “civil wars” inside the Catholic Church. We must work together and have confidence.

But it is important to remember that at no time in the history of the Church has a group or a movement in one country ever been successful when it has taken an attitude against Rome, when it has been “anti-Rome.” Setting oneself up against “Rome” has never brought authentic reform or renewal to the Church. Only through a renewed commitment to the full teaching of Christ and his Church, and through a renewed spirit of collaboration with the Holy Father and the bishops in communion with him, will there be renewal and new life in the Catholic Church and a new evangelization of our society. Preaching the Gospel of Christ to a weary world so desperately in need of its liberating truth — this must be our priority.

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.

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