- Trying to square the circle
The opening days of the Synod on the Family have revealed distinct differences of opinion between the participants. How can their commitment to church teaching be matched with compassion for those who struggle with it?
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Two key Vatican figures, Archbishop Gerhard Müller and Cardinal Reinhard Marx, are openly at odds on one of the most neuralgic issues facing the Church. Muller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, staunchly argues that Catholics who divorce and remarry should be forever barred from Communion. Marx, appointed by Pope Francis to his Council of Cardinals, disagrees, and says that Müller cannot block continuing debate on the subject. Here we profile the protagonists whose public clash offers a rare glimpse of tensions at the top of the Church
Archbishop Gerhard Ludwig Müller – the Pope’s Defender of the Faith
The present prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), Archbishop Gerhard Ludwig Müller, not only appears to live in two completely different worlds but has actually done so for many years. The man who lays down the law with such rigour in Rome bears little similarity to the figure known as “Padre” or Monsignor Müller of the Lima slums.
Müller was born into a working-class family in Mainz on 31 December 1947. His father worked for Opel, the German auto-maker, where he was a shop steward.
The family were practising Catholics. Müller has always emphasised that he and his siblings were brought up “quite normally, without exaggeration in one direction or the other and with the right mixture of freedom and obligation”.
The priests he met while working with young people in his own parish after leaving school so inspired him that he decided to study theology, first at Mainz University and later at Freiburg and Munich. He wrote a thesis in 1977, under the guidance of the then Bishop (now Cardinal) Karl Lehmann, on the Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was hanged by the Nazis in April 1945. Müller’s recent accusation that Catholics who were in favour of the ordination of married priests wanted to “protestantise the Catholic priesthood” is a little difficult to understand given his fascination with Bonhoeffer and ecumenism.
Ordained in 1978, Müller worked as a curate while studying for his PhD on “Community and the Veneration of Saints”, which he again wrote under guidance of the liberal Lehmann. He obtained his licence to teach dogmatics and ecumenical theology in 1985. A year later, at the age of 38, he became professor of dogmatics at the Catholic Theological Faculty of Munich University, the youngest professor at the university at the time.
It was in 1988 that he got to know Gustavo Gutiérrez, regarded as the father of liberation theology, at a seminar in Peru. Until then, Müller had had his reservations about liberation theology – and he was well aware of (the then) Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s critical CDF declarations of 1984 and 1986. But Gutiérrez completely changed not only Müller’s views but also brought out a very different side to him. Of that visit to Peru, Müller has described not only coming under the influence of Gutiérrez but also encountering the “poorest of the poor”.
“We spent quite some time in the Lima slums and with the campesinos on Lake Titicaca,” he recalled in 2008 when receiving an honorary doctorate from the Pontifical Catholic University of Peru.
“Since then I’ve been back to Peru and other Latin American countries about 15 times … Gustavo’s theology is orthodox because it is orthopractical and it teaches us how to behave as Christians because it stems from true and assured faith.”
When Müller speaks about the suffering of the poor, he adopts a very different tone and language to that which he uses when he is laying down the law. Catholics – particularly those eager for reform – discovered this when he was consecrated Bishop of Regensburg in 2002. For instance, at the German Katholikentag in 2012, he said of the reform movements, “We cannot have people who haven’t achieved anything in life coming to big church events and behaving as parasites.” On the other had, he staunchly defended the Second Vatican Council and, above all, Nostra Aetate, against attacks by the Society of St Pius X, whose headquarters were in Regensburg.
His pronouncements on priestly sexual abuse have come in for criticism. In 2010, the year the priestly sex-abuse tsunami swept across Germany – and 180,000 German Catholics left the Church as a consequence – he spoke constantly of a conspiracy against the Church, particularly on the part of the media. In his eyes, neither the Church nor the bishops are responsible for abuse, as only the perpetrators are the guilty party.
Müller has repeated these conspiracy accusations since moving to Rome when he was made CDF prefect in 2012. Earlier this year, he accused the media of creating a “pogrom atmosphere against the Catholic Church”. The German Minister of Justice sharply criticised him for “comparisons with the Holocaust that were in very bad taste and lacked a feeling for history”.
Whether Müller’s blunt language is really the best way of explaining canon law to twenty-first-century Catholics is debatable. Even the staunchly conservative were deeply upset by the way he explained that remarried divorcees could never expect God’s mercy. Especially as he did so with Pope Francis at his side.