Of the nineteen cardinals Pope Francis created in his first consistory, none have been talked about as much as Gerhard Ludwig Müller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. A friend of both Benedict XVI and Gustavo Gutierrez – and a prodigy – his theological worldview is consistent, one in which there is ample love for the truth and firm solidarity with the poor.
Recalling how the media once caricatured Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as a German Panzerkardinal, combating heresy with Prussian discipline, we are experiencing déjà vu with Müller. He has drawn criticism not only from secularist media, but also from Catholics who want a feel-good Catholicism that avoids “culture wars.” Criticizing Müller’s defense of Church teaching on Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics, Honduran Cardinal Oscar Rodriguez Maradiaga said that Müller “sees things in black-and-white,” as a “German professor of theology.”
Despite Maradiaga’s words, the German Church hasn’t been particularly orthodox recently. It was German Cardinal Walter Kasper who started the push to redefine the Church’s practice on Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics. Müller understands that the Church’s teaching on moral issues cannot change and has brilliantly dismissed such attempts in L’Osservatore Romano and elsewhere.
In a book-length interview with Spanish journalist Carlos Granados (to be published in English in the fall), he said that: “The Church cannot respond to the challenges of the modern world with a pragmatic adaptation. . . .We are called to choose the prophetic audacity of martyrdom.” Similarly, he opposes Communion for pro-abortion politicians, and has defended the right of doctors to refuse to perform legal abortions.
Müller is an intimate friend of Benedict XVI, and is the editor of his complete works. Like the German pope, he has repeatedly stressed the West’s need to return to its roots. Last year, during a homily constantly interrupted by applause in Warsaw’s National Temple of Divine Providence, he beckoned the West to return to its roots: “Poland has not yet perished! Europe has not yet perished as long as we believe, trust, and love!”
Meanwhile, Müller is committed to cleansing the Church of elements that distort its teachings. For example, while American LCWR nuns continue to reject Church teaching on almost everything, Müller has continued his predecessor Cardinal William Levada’s investigation. He has repeatedly called them to be obedient and accused them of engaging in “open provocation” towards Rome.
Müller rebuked the LCWR for honoring feminist dissident nun Elizabeth Johnson, who advocates women’s ordination. Unlike the wayward American nuns, Müller explains in his masterpiece Priesthood and Diaconate that being male is intrinsic to the sacrament of Holy Orders, as it results from a Biblical theology of the sexes enhanced by Aquinas according to which priests represent Christ, the bridegroom of the mother Church.
In Priesthood and Diaconate and several interviews and articles, the German cardinal has vigorously defended celibacy as the imitation of Christ and complete surrender in the service of the Church, and has slammed calls to relax the vow of chastity as “Protestantization” of the priesthood.
Gerhard Ludwig Müller
Müller’s has written and lectured extensively about Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German Lutheran clergyman whose involvement in the plot to assassinate Hitler led to his martyrdom. Like Bonhoeffer, the German cardinal’s theology is not limited to academia, but is intricately linked with the struggle for a more just world.
Specifically, Müller has become one of the Church’s staunchest defenders of the poor. For Müller, mere theological study of our responsibility to aid the poor is insufficient. He has visited South America for extended periods fifteen times. And during these times, he lived not in comfortable bishops’ palaces, but among the poor in shantytowns and Andean villages. He sometimes wears a Quechua poncho over his vestments while celebrating Mass.
Since 1988, he has been a close friend of Peruvian theologian Gustavo Gutierrez, one of the earliest and most prominent proponents of liberation theology. Does this friendship contradict Müller’s passionate orthodoxy?
In 1984, Cardinal Ratzinger published an “Instruction on Certain Aspects of Liberation Theology,” which didn’t dismiss the theology fully, just certain currents. Gutierrez was orthodox; he never fully embraced Marxism, violent uprisings, or the view of Christ as a political revolutionary, as extreme exponents of liberation theology such as Leonardo Boff or Jon Sobrino did. The Vatican never censored Gutierrez; Ratzinger only asked him to modify some of his writings, which he obediently did.
In a conversation with Peter Seewald, the future Pope Benedict XVI claimed the Peruvian Dominican obeyed him and “developed [his work] further in the direction of a suitable form of liberation theology that really had a future.”
In their book An der seite der armen. Theologie der Befreiung (“On the Side of the Poor: Liberation Theology”) Müller and Gutierrez condemn Marxism as “totalitarian” and based on “deficient anthropology.” They also dismantle Marx’s materialism, and reject the notion that the Church must exclude the rich. The volume extensively quotes the social teaching of Pope St. John Paul II, whose opposition to Marxist liberation theology is famous. When they refer to the exploitation of poor countries, they don’t only discuss economics: Müller and Gutierrez blast the American government’s promotion of contraception in Peru.
It is tempting to speculate whether Müller, like his compatriot predecessor Joseph Ratzinger, might someday be elected pope. He is qualified as few other cardinals and knows the problems of the Church in both secularized rich countries and societies marked by income inequality. He’s battled de-Christianization in Germany and lived among Peru’s poor. An erudite theologian and skillful curialist, Müller, far from being a bureaucrat, also has rich pastoral experience in Germany and Peru, and is a charismatic homilist with a popular touch. He speaks impeccable German, English, Spanish and Italian, and is among the most media-savvy cardinals.
Of course, whether Gerhard Ludwig Müller will someday ascend to a higher position remains to be seen. Yet his academic brilliance, solidarity with the disenfranchised, and dynamism make him one of today’s great Catholic leaders.