INTERVIEW WITH H.E. ARCHBISHOP GERHARD LUDWIG MÜLLER
13 September 2012
National Catholic Register / The Catholic Herald
How are you settling in to your post and what are your impressions of your new position now 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 it 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 his collected works, he knows me very well and he knows where I stand on things – so the Pope decided to appoint me.
With your predecessor, Cardinal William Levada, it was said that the Pope was still very much in charge of his former Dicastery, and that His Eminence merely had to carry out his instructions. Will the Holy Father be giving you plenty of freedom in your work?
As you perhaps know, when Cardinal Levada was a young priest he worked as an official of this Dicastery under the then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. In the years that followed, he became Archbishop of Portland (Oregon) and later Archbishop of San Francisco. As a member of the Congregation and later its Prefect, he continued to work very closely with the Holy Father in this new role.
In relation to your question about our distinctive roles, 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 judgements 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 instil 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, which begins in October, aims to be important in readdressing this. 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.
As you know, the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council also takes place in October. Some would argue that the Church has been hampered in its mission to evangelize by the confusion that came after the Council. Will there be some initiative 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 co-incidence, 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 loose 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.
Does this by necessity perhaps point towards an encyclical from the Pope on the Council? There continues to be confusion over the Council, particularly its interpretation. Could an encyclical perhaps clarify that?
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 summarised 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 perhaps point to 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.
Many of the traditionalists have trouble reconciling the fact that we’ve had Popes in the past who’ve categorically stated teachings that then 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 free masons 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 him 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.
But do you feel 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. Can that be attributed to the Council in your view?
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 3rd century. Again, the perspective is different between then and now. In the 3rd 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.
What stage have we reached in the dialogue between the Vatican and the SSPX?
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, which 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 authorised 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 when you have someone such as Bishop Williamson within the Society?
Williamson is a separate problem to this reconciliation process. It is simply unacceptable that a Christian or even 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 recognised 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.
Was the Council binding or merely pastoral?
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.
So in view of all of this, are you nevertheless confident and optimistic there will be reconciliation?
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 is 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.
And 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 centre.
There were some controversies when you were appointed over your previous teachings on Mary and the Eucharist. Could you explain more about this?
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 defence 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 which prove God’s existence. Rather, the miracles performed by Jesus reveal that he is our divine Saviour 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 say 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 12thand 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 its renewal]. Is there an on-going struggle between the CDF and the organization?
There is no struggle between the Holy See and this organisation, 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 fulfil 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 evangelisation 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. We cannot waste any more time with these struggles inside the Church.