The new head of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith says he wants the department to play a positive role in the New Evangelization, rather than simply responding to doctrinal problems as they arise.
“The task of this congregation is not only to defend the Catholic faith but to promote it, to give the positive aspects and possibilities of the whole richness of the Catholic faith,” Archbishop Gerhard Ludwig Muller told CNA in a July 20 interview.
“We must speak about God the Father, the Lord Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit, and also about Holy Scripture, the great Tradition of the Church, our Creed and our belief. In this way our hearts will be more open and our thinking more profound,” he said.
The 64-year-old former Bishop of Regensburg, Germany was appointed to his new Vatican post by Pope Benedict on July 2.
“The Holy Father did not ask me. He nominated me without discussion,” he laughed. The Pope said, “‘you have to do it,’ and you cannot give a negative answer to the wishes of the Holy Father!”
The two German theologians have had a long association. Archbishop Muller hesitates to use the word “friendship,” since in German it usually refers to someone of the same age bracket, whereas Pope Benedict “is one generation older than me.”
However, Archbishop Muller does still consider their relationship “a friendship ... but he has the role of father and I have the role of son.”
Archbishop Muller still recalls the intellectual impact of Father Joseph Ratzinger’s “Introduction to Christianity,” published in 1968 at the height of the campus rebellions across the western world. “He re-vindicated our faith and convinced us of the reasonableness of Catholic belief; he re-established our confidence in the Church,” the archbishop remarked.
He is now in charge of editing the writings or “Omnia Opera” of Pope Benedict XVI, a grand project that will stretch to 16 volumes.
He described Pope Benedict as “a great intellectual and an important thinker for today,” particularly when it comes to “explaining the depth and richness of our Christian faith” to contemporary society.
“It’s too early to speak about the legacy of this papacy, but in a certain sense we can compare our present Holy Father with the great intellectual pontiffs of history, such as Pope Leo the Great in 5th century and Benedict XIV in the 18th century.”
Archbishop Gerhard Muller was born in 1947 in the Mainz region of Germany into a family of four – one brother and two sisters. He is still very much a family man, and boasts of being an uncle to 22 nephews and nieces, with “number 23 coming soon.”
He studied philosophy and theology in the German cities of Mainz, Munich, and Freiburg, producing not one but two doctorates. The first focused on the work of the 20th-century Protestant theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, while the second explored the veneration of saints, “a very Catholic subject,” he noted.
After his studies, he was named a professor of dogmatic theology at the University of Munich “for 16 happy years,” he recalled with a laugh. A decade ago, Pope John Paul II appointed him the Bishop of Regensburg.
His trajectory in life has been almost identical to his mentor Pope Benedict – an academic career followed by an episcopal appointment, followed by a transfer to the Roman Curia. In fact, he now occupies the same Vatican job that Pope Benedict fulfilled from 1981 to 2005.
Archbishop Muller’s latest appointment, however, has been met with a degree of criticism from some who allege he holds unorthodox views on a range of issues – from the perpetual virginity of Our Lady, to the real presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist, to the relationship of non-Catholic Christians to the Church.
“These are not criticisms, they are provocations. And not very intelligent provocations at that,” he said. “Either they have not read what I have written or they have not understood it.”
“Our Catholic faith is very clear,” he explained,“that at the consecration during Mass a change occurs so that the whole substance of the bread and wine is changed into the whole substance body and blood of Jesus Christ, and that this change is rightly called transubstantiation. And we have refused to accept all the other interpretations, consubstantiation, transignification, transfinalisation and so on.”
The Church is also equally clear on the “virginity of Mary, mother of Jesus, mother of God, before, during and after the birth of Christ,” Archbishop Muller stated.
As for inter-Christian relations, the archbishop noted that in his 4-5th century debates with the Donatists, St. Augustine underscored that the Church recognizes“everybody who is validly baptized is incorporated into Christ,” even if they are not in full communion with the Catholic Church.
But on a more pressing note, Archbishop Muller has to deal with the issue of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious in the United States. In April 2012 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith called for a reform of America’s largest female religious group, after a four-year audit or “doctrinal assessment” concluded there was a “crisis” of belief throughout its ranks.
Earlier this month group’s president, Sister Pat Farrell, suggested that the key question in their discussions with the Vatican is, “Can one be Catholic and have a questioning mind?”
Archbishop Muller’s answer is a clear: “Because faith and reason belong together, it is obviously not incompatible to be Catholic and to have a questioning mind - but we cannot have negotiations about revealed truth,” he said. “We are in communion with the Church only in so far as we accept the whole and the complete revelation of Jesus Christ, all the doctrine of the Church.”
He is extremely reluctant, though, to go to war with the American religious sisters. Instead, Archbishop Muller wants to “come together and not to struggle against each other or be suspicious of each other.”
“We are sisters and brothers of Christ and we want to work together, not like a political party or a human organization, but we are the family of God, the body of Christ,” he said.
Another matter that has raised questions is his long standing friendship with the Peruvian theologian Father Gustavo Gutiérrez, one of the principle founders of “Liberation Theology,” Archbishop Muller was similarly robust.
He explained that there are various schools of “Liberation Theology,” stressing that “we have to make differences between them” as some are “in the line of a Marxist and communist analysis of reality” which the Catholic Church would condemn.
“I think that Gustavo Gutiérrez, I know him personally, he is not of this line. He is a very good Catholic,” said Archbishop Muller, who spent 15 summers teaching and working in South America.
He sees the matter as one of not dividing or separating “the love (of) God and the love towards our neighbor.”
As a native of Mainz, Archbishop Muller said he takes great inspiration from the region’s 19th-century bishop, Wilhelm Emmanuel von Ketteler, a pioneer of modern Catholic social thinking. His work subsequently influenced the pontificate of Pope Leo XIII and, in particular, his 1891 social encyclical “Rerum Novarum.”
It is this vision of Catholic social teaching, the archbishop believes, that “helped to rebuild a democratic Germany after the war” and which has been repeatedly reflected in more recent Church documents such as the Second Vatican Council’s “Gaudium et Spes” and Pope Paul VI’s 1967 encyclical “Populorum Progressio.”