Arriving in Regensburg from Stockholm, the pandemic was omnipresent. Even at St Wolfgang’s, the 19th-century seminary building where I met Gerhard Cardinal Müller, one could not escape this moment in history. The corridors were empty; the normally imposing cardinal entered the small parlour wearing a face mask and simple clerical dress.
We were speaking in the middle of the pandemic, and we began with the Church’s response to it. Many have asked how the abrogation of the obligation of Sunday Mass has affected the life of the Church. The Cardinal was clear: there are many negative effects, he said. “People are getting used to the idea that it is not so important to be present bodily. Some think it is enough to be present virtually.”
This juxtaposition of the virtual and the real was a recurring theme in the Cardinal’s explanation. “We believe in the Real Presence. God became flesh and lived amongst us. It is not a symbol, it is a real and absolute change from death to life. He is present in the Church, which is His body. Above all we have the Eucharist, the real bodily presence of Christ amongst us, and the nourishment of our life.” This is why we have an obligation to participate bodily at Mass, because it follows from our human nature that physicality is essential to our life. The Cardinal was emphatic on this point: attending Mass “is not a disciplinary matter but has to do with the substance of our faith”.
Speaking about the need to attend Mass, our conversation turned naturally to the recently promulgated motu proprio from Pope Francis, Traditionis custodes, which restricts the celebration of the so-called Tridentine rite, and its contrast with Pope Benedict XVI’s Summorum Pontificum which was more liberal in allowing the extraordinary rite to be celebrated. Sitting in a town so vividly associated with Benedict, and the home diocese of the Cardinal, I asked whether the Pope Emeritus overcame divisions in the Church, or as the new motu proprio claims, widened them? “Pope Benedict”, he said, “overcame the divisions in the Church regarding the form of the rite in Latin. There are over 20 legitimate rites in the Church and within the Latin rite we have subdivisions like the Ambrosian liturgy. The substance did not change at the Council, only the form. But this does not suppress the other rites. It was wise [of Pope Benedict] to speak of an extraordinary and ordinary form because they are versions of the one liturgy.”
For the Cardinal, the same argument as for Pope Benedict holds: what has been considered the ordinary form for over 500 years cannot be suppressed, and it is certainly not dogmatically erroneous. After the Second Vatican Council the form changed, but the faith behind both forms remains the same.
Turning to Traditionis custodes, Cardinal Müller considers it is “not a deeply reflected decision, and it is wrong to say that the reformed liturgy is the only ‘lex orandi’.” The cardinal, former prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith continued: “There is no good and reflective theology behind these documents; it is ideology and someone saying they don’t respect the Second Vatican Council. We can’t govern the Church merely by reaction. We need exact argumentation.”
Our discussion took place on the same day that further clarifications on the Extraordinary Form were published by the Vatican. We spoke about how the new motu proprio has been implemented around the Church, in the experience of Cardinal Müller.
“Lefebvre separated from the Church with arguments to do with the liturgy, but others remained in the Church, with the same faith, but they loved this [traditional] form of the liturgy which has been ours for 500 years or more. The argument of Ratzinger was that what has been organic and growing all the time, and not representing an abrupt change made by some bureaucrats, represents an organic evolution.”
What we should be worried about, he added, is not differing views on the liturgy, but rather those who deny the divinity of Christ. In this context he was referring to the German Synodal Way. This is an initiative within the German church where conferences discuss ed a range of issues relating to the theology and discipline of the Church. It is led by a Synodal Assembly of 230 members, including all the German bishops. Among other things they proposed the ordination of women and the blessing of same-sex relations in church.
“Those who don’t accept the Council, what the Church is, what the priesthood is, the episcopacy, are found in the Synodal Way. They discuss if we need priesthood or not. This is absolutely against the doctrine of the Church. The priesthood is expressed in all councils, but especially in Lumen gentium. The Synodal Way refuses this, and speaks of the ‘democratisation of the Church’. The Church has nothing to do with a political system. Democracy has a sense that all power is from the people; the people hold the state accountable. This is not the way of the Church.”
The recent developments in the German Church represent for the Cardinal a move towards an Anglican understanding of the Church, where there is a respect for the Pope in an honorary sense, but no clear view of him as the highest teacher with responsibility for the unity of the Church.
However, the Cardinal – becoming far more relaxed and enthusiastic in his answers, leaning back comfortably in his chair – does not believe the Synodal Way is representative of the German Church at large. There are dangerous and alarming developments within the Synodal Way, he says, with Bishops misunderstanding or refusing to defend the faith they are meant to protect. They see potential for development, but development has to do with how we understand the faith and not a substantial change of the same faith.
I ask if the German tradition of paying for the church through taxes levied by the state may have anything to do with the negative trajectory of the Church in Germany. The Cardinal denies any connection. There is an understanding and agreement between the Church and state in Germany that the state will help coordinate the distribution of taxes to all recognised faiths in Germany, but the money does not belong to the state. However, the Cardinal said, one can rightly be suspicious of the way the Bishops have used the money. “The homepage of the German Bishops Conference is directly against the Catholic faith.”
Moreover, some of the money goes to the Synodal Way, a movement seeking to introduce blessings for same-sex couples and female clergy. They want to modernise the Church, but “Jesus Christ is the most modern man, as he overcame death and gave us life, giving a new creation. This is the full modernity of the Church which can’t be overcome by our own agendas. They [the Synodal Way] want to remake the Church, with people joining only for a political agenda.” They build their arguments according to a faulty premise, namely that people will want to join the Church because of political agendas, thinking, “If we have women priests, people will come because they will see the woman as priest. But a Catholic comes to receive the body and blood of Christ and to offer his life in the same way as Christ on the Cross, to the Father and to receive the grace of God. Not to see a woman or a better-looking priest.”
Divisions are clear not only within the Church, but also regarding the Church and its relation to self-proclaimed Catholic politicians. Recently Joe Biden, who openly supports abortion laws and was supported by Planned Parenthood during his presidential campaign, was received by the Pope in the Vatican and declared that the Holy Father had confirmed that he should “keep receiving communion”. The Cardinal, clearly annoyed, said, “Nobody is in a position to declare anybody a good Catholic. It is only the judgement of God if we are.” We recognise that we are sinners, and hence we begin every Mass with mea culpa, but “the conditions for sacraments cannot be declared by a personal decision of a Church authority. They are objective, not subjective conditions: are you in a state of grace? Are you confessing the faith of the Church? Have you received baptism [and are therefore a full member of Church] and living morally according to the commandments, at least without mortal sin? These are the objective conditions. If you openly contradict Catholic doctrine or act actively against the moral commandments, you are in objective contradiction to the Church and the sacraments. We can’t say in the morning we believe in God and later in our work we are atheists or act like atheists.”
Having recently returned from the United States, he spoke about his impressions from his trip. The Church seems hopeful, he said, with many young people at universities discussing the intellectual positions of the Church. He saw a vibrant theological faculty in Notre Dame and Hillsdale College and met many fervent monks. “People in a crisis or in rebellion against doctrine will not invite me,” he joked. But while his view of the Church in America was positive, he recognises the deep challenges it faces from the secular world.
“They [young Catholics in America] do not follow LGBT or homosexual propaganda”.Promoters of such ideologies, he added, do not have the interest of the people they claim to help in mind. They use sexuality for political ends, and they do so by changing our principal understanding of what it means to be human, of our understanding of masculine and feminine. Those they claim to help are completely “instrumentalised and used for political ends”.
Many people in the West seem to be leaving the Church, but the Cardinal sees this as a sign that they were not living with the Church in the first place. They partake in the trappings of Christianity, participating in carol services and similar ceremonies, but rarely believe in the substance behind them. Young people are placed in a position where they more than ever have to ask themselves if they believe or not.
The history behind this development is long, and the Cardinal points to the Reformation, Enlightenment and 19th-century ideologies and thinkers such as Marx, Nietzsche and Freud as the foundations for deChristianisation in the West. Marx had said we are the product of our social conditions, but this denies personal responsibility.
Associating this with the theme of the pandemic, the Cardinal speaks of those who are in charge: “The organisers of the new world want to unify everyone according to their systems. They are the New World Order, seeing themselves as architects of a new world. ‘Creation wasn’t well made, so we must create a new world without problems, where everybody is unified’, they say.”
Our interview came just days after the Cardinal was criticised for speaking out about the tech-billionaires and the Great Reset, the agenda for social and economic change established at the World Economic Forum in 2020 “They called me a conspiracy theorist,” he said, “but they are the conspirators.”
He pointed to the wish of global elites to introduce home offices and “social distancing”, which is an oxymoron. “Distance is contradictory to socialising, which is to be together.” The criticism he levels is not against measures addressing the pandemic, which should be taken seriously; it is a critique of self-proclaimed financial elites who jet around the world, attending grand meetings such as Cop26 in Glasgow, while nobody holds them accountable for blatant hypocrisy.
So, what is needed to combat these divisions within and without the Church. The Cardinal, drawing a deep breath, responded with one word: “courage”.
“We must remember that Christians have always lived in the end times. Every day is in a sense an end day: what we await is the absolutely last day which we cannot know. Therefore we must be alert and prepare. Christians in the Roman Empire, in the Third Reich and in the Soviet Union lived under persecution: For them, every day was the last day.”
This article first appeared in the February 2022 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.
Having been unable to sell in churches for well over a year due to the pandemic, we are now inviting readers to support the Herald by investing in our future. We have been a bold and influential voice in the church since 1888, standing up for traditional Catholic culture and values.
Please join us on our 130 year mission by supporting us. We are raising £250,000 to safeguard the Herald as a world-leading voice in Catholic journalism and teaching. For more information from our chairman on contributing to the Herald Patron's Fund, click here
Donors giving £500 or more will automatically become sponsor patrons of the Herald. This includes two complimentary print/digital gift subscriptions, invitations to Patron events, pilgrimages and dinners, and 6 gift subscriptions sent to priests, seminaries, Catholic schools, religious care homes and prison and university chaplaincies. Click here for more information on becoming a Patron Sponsor. Click here for more information about contributing to the Herald Patron's Fund