Cardinal Müller in the Netherlands – On forced retirement (of sorts), the Church’s response to secularism and criticising the Pope

“I am now simply a cardinal without a specific assignment. That is somewhat unusual. Bishops normally remain active until they are 75. The Pope apparently has better advisors than me at his disposal. As priest, bishop and cardinal I can keep serving the Church as usual. I give lectures and write books.”

Words from Cardinal Gerhard Müller in a recent interview for Dutch newspaper Trouw. The 70-year-old German prelate has been Prefect emeritus of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith for almost 18 months now, but still looks with mild amazement at his letting go as the head of the premier Curia dicastery. He assumes that some of the pope’s “so-called friends” made him believe certain things, which let to his early retirement. Perhaps, the cardinal, wonders, his “attempts at interpreting the document Amoris laetitia in an orthodox way was not well received either”.

But Cardinal Müller is not a bitter man.

“My sense of self-worth and my identity do not depend on an office in the Church. I have achieved a few things theologically. Forty students received their doctorates with me. In total, 120 students graduated under me. I have written books. I don’t think that is all insignificant.”

CRK-dag_2018_Katholiek_Nieuwsblad_Jan_Peeters08Early last week, Cardinal Müller was in the Netherlands to speak at a congress about recently canonised Pope Paul VI and Vatican II. Katholiek Nieuwsblad (which, as an aside, has recently been expanding its media work abroad, providing translated articles to Crux) has published excerpts from the cardinal’s comments. One snippet, which was shared on social media, was taken by some as a critique on Pope Francis’ focus on certain issues. Reality is a but more nuanced, although Cardinal Müller, in the aforementioned Trouw interview, did not shy away from such criticism.

At the conference, organised in ‘s-Hertogenbosch by the CRK (Contact Rooms Katholieken), Cardinal Müller said:

“We can not make the mistake that, as the world becomes more secular, we only provide such answers. The Church is not just important because of her answers to social and environmental problems. Those are secondary matters. The first and foremost task of the Church is to bring people to God. He who is with God can contribute to the development of society from there. We can not replace the Church of Jesus Christ, the sacraments, with a social organisation.

And later:

“We can not make the mistake of responding to the secularisation  of the world with a secularisation of the Church. The Church must be a visible sign of a higher reality, and bear witness that man has a higher calling, to see God amidst the community of saints. That is the greatest calling of man.”

Returning to the issue of criticism, in the Trouw interview reporter Stijn Fens asked Cardinal Müller about the accusation, from among others Cardinal Wim Eijk, that the pope is causing confusion by refusing to offer clarity in the case of Communion for divorced and remarried faithful. Cardinal Müller answered:

“Yes, there is a great confusion in the Church at this time. The reason is that the relationship between the doctrine of the Church and the pastoral care for people in difficult situations is not clear. You can’t accompany and help faithful when you start from the wrong basis. We all know that there are people who are in a bad marriage through no fault of their own.

You see, a priest is like a doctor who cares for souls in the name of Jesus Christ. But a good doctor can only offer help when he prescribes the correct medication. You can’t comfort a patient and say, “Listen, you have broken a bone, so I’ll slap a band-aid on it.” You must use the right medication. That means, then, that a priest must explain doctrine in a clear way, whether people accept it or not.

What happens now is that those who are out to “improve” Catholic doctrine and partly falsify it, are not being disciplined. While others, who are clearly loyal to the Word of Christ, are being disregarded as “rigid” and “Pharisaic”. Is that a way to lead a Church?”

Whatever one may think of Pope Francis and his actions – and I do not consider myself to be among his detractors – it is hard to deny that the confusion described by Cardinal Müller – and others with him – exists. But, I wonder, is it up to the Pope alone to resolve this? Of course, when people are confused by his statements, it is not unreasonable to ask for clarification. But, as Cardinal Müller has asserted in the past, we must read papal statements in continuity with the teachings that came before. In that respect, it becomes an obligation to read them in an orthodox way, as the cardinal has tried with Amoris laetitia. Past doctrine does not suddenly become invalid just because the pope who promulgated it is no longer alive. So when we are faced with questions regarding communion, divorce, marriage or whatever matter of doctrine or pastoral care we like, we do ourselves and the persons involved a disservice if we look no further than one document or statement. The Code of Canon law, the social teachings of the Church, even, dare I say it, the Gospels (to name but a few sources) offer clarity and explanations and indications on how to interpret what we may not understand immediately. That is a duty for all Catholics, not just the Pope. 

In a more lengthy interview that was published in the printed version of Katholiek Nieuwsblad on Friday, Cardinal Müller also shared some thoughts about the Netherlands and the state of the Church there. Asked about the reasons for the extreme and rapid secularisation here, he said:

“The Netherlands is one of the countries which has understood the Council as a sort of liberalisation or secularisation of the Church. But in reality the Council had a further Christianisation of society as its goal.”

But hope always remains:

“There may still be a new flourishing. We must pray for it and bear good witness. I hope and pray that a new spring for the Church may perhaps begin in the Netherlands.”

Photo credit: Jan Peeters/Katholiek Nieuwsblad

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