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‘Catholics ought to avoid extremes’

Archbishop Gerhard Müller (CNS)

The scariest thing about visiting the office of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith was getting past the Swiss Guard. It was a wet December day in Rome as I ambled across the cobbled streets, polished with rain, towards the guard who manned the side of the CDF offices, near St Peter’s. The thought of interviewing one of the top members of the Church hierarchy, Archbishop Gerhard Müller, was making my nerves tingle.

Just as I was about to speak to the Swiss Guard, a lady stepped in front of me and started asking him if there was any chance she could meet the Pope. Some minutes passed and, eventually, I had to interrupt: “I have an appointment with Archbishop Müller, may I pass through?” The guard looked at me sceptically. I told him my name and offered him my passport. He nodded and said that I would have to go through security. Going into a little cabin, I met two jolly security officers who gave me less trouble than one receives at an airport. The Swiss Guard was satisfied that I was trustworthy, and let me pass into the Palazzo del Sant’Uffizio.

There was an aura of absolute calm and stillness about the hallowed marble halls of the former Holy Office. Archbishop Müller’s secretary, a young, energetic Polish priest, welcomed me into a majestically decorated meeting room with gold-patterned walls. The secretary lit the Advent wreath, which he then placed in the centre of the table. A door opened and in strode the tall figure of Archbishop Müller. He had a poker-straight posture, a shock of white hair, lively brown eyes and a warm smile. His handshake was firm, gentle and not at all harsh. Most disarmingly, he was evidently keen to do an interview with a journalist who had just flown in from London.

Archbishop Müller said he was happy to answer “all the questions” and didn’t make any specifications of the “you can’t ask me that” variety. His openness was so refreshing that my nervousness disappeared. If it were possible, he would spend half an hour answering each question, but because we didn’t have days at our disposal he answered quickly and didn’t mince his words.

I asked him about the first time he showed signs of wanting to be a priest. “When I was four, the Bishop of Mainz came to our local village of Finthen to administer the sacrament of Confirmations,” he said. “When I saw the bishop with his staff and mitre, apparently I said to my mother: ‘That’s what I’d like to be! A bishop!’”

The 65-year-old, whom Pope Benedict appointed as Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith in July, said his parents were “very surprised” to learn that he had a vocation, because “they were humble people and couldn’t imagine that their son would become a priest”. His father was “a simple worker” at the German car manufacturer Opel. The youngest of four children, he grew up in a close-knit, working-class family in a village that had been a Roman settlement. He emphasised that his parents were very diligent in their practice of faith and “always, always practised every detail of the faith, not leaving anything out”. Initially, his mother was the biggest influence on his faith, and as a family they recited the rosary every day. With a tinge of sorrow in his voice, he said that his parents did not live to see him consecrated Bishop of Regensburg in 2002.

Getting into a deeper discussion about how he realised his priestly vocation, I asked if there was any conflict of interest between his life in the world and his religious calling, to which he answered plainly: “No. It was a very harmonious transition. Growing up, I had been an altar server and always involved in Catholic youth groups. Before seminary I was taught by priests in secondary school, and so going to live with them in the seminary in order to train as a priest was not so different.” But he did stress that he put himself through much rigorous self-examination to make sure that he had “a true vocation, which only comes from Jesus, and not just mental imaginings of a vocation. I asked myself if I was willing to make a sacrifice of my life for God.” 

The archbishop developed this, in a way that showed he was ever mindful of the essential foundations of Catholicity. “Of course you must ask yourself if you can live without wife and family,” he said. “You must find out if you are willing to sacrifice your life, in the Christological sense of sacrifice.  Every mother or father gives their life for their children and their family. The priest, as father of the family of God, has to give his life and must not remain self-centred or egoistic. We must live as Jesus did, to give our life for the other.”

Ordained in 1978, Fr Müller was an assistant priest in three parishes and taught catechism in surrounding secondary schools. In 1977, he submitted a dissertation on the Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s sacramental theology. In 1985, so that he would be eligible to be a professor of theology, he wrote a second doctoral thesis on Catholic devotion to the saints. The “Karl Rahner connection” is that Archbishop Müller’s doctoral supervisor for both his theses was Professor Karl Lehmann, who received his doctorate under Karl Rahner. In 1986, Fr Müller was made professor of Catholic dogmatic theology in Munich, a position he held until John Paul II appointed him Bishop of Regensburg.

Pope Benedict appointed him the Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith 10 years after he became a bishop. At the same time, he was elevated to archbishop. One thing in particular from his priestly formation guides him to present day: he recalls that he read Joseph Ratzinger’s book Introduction to Christianity when he was a seminarian. “It was a new book at the time, and the concentrated theological insights are ever present in my mind to this day,” he said.

I invited him to comment on what he enjoyed most about his prestigious post. He said with deep seriousness: “Being in the service of the Holy Father. And trying to make unity possible for all believers.” 

He added: “This Congregation is also a very enjoyable place to work. There is a high level of professionalism and a real spirit of collaboration among the officials here.”

As Prefect of the CDF, Archbishop Müller is responsible for the implementation of the apostolic constitution  Anglicanorum Coetibus. He was keen to talk about the great benefits which have come to the Church through the inclusion of these communities of Anglicans, with their pastors, into Catholic life. Commenting on the ecumenical dimension of the personal ordinariates, he said: “It’s not only the will of the Holy Father, but it is the will of Jesus Christ that all the baptised are drawn together into full visible communion. In this way Anglicanorum Coetibus is both a fruit of the ecumenical dialogues of the last 40 years and an expression of the ultimate goal of the ecumenical movement. 

“What we notice particularly from the clergy who are applying for ordination in the various ordinariates is that there has been a rediscovery in some Anglican and Protestant circles of the importance and the necessity of the papacy in order to maintain the authentic link with biblical Christianity against the pressures of secularism and liberalism. Many of those who have entered into full communion through the ordinariates have sacrificed a great deal in order to be true to their consciences. They should be welcomed wholeheartedly by the Catholic community – not as prodigals but as brothers and sisters in Christ who bring with them into the Church a worthy patrimony of worship and spirituality.”

One of Archbishop Müller’s trickier tasks is overseeing the reconciliation process with the Society of St Pius X. When I probed to get an idea of the current situation between Rome
and the SSPX, Archbishop Müller answered pithily: “There remain misunderstandings about Vatican II, and these must be agreed upon. The SSPX must accept the fullness of the Catholic faith, and its practice.

“Disunity always damages the proclamation of the Gospel by darkening the testimony of Jesus Christ.

“The SSPX need to distinguish between the true teaching of the Second Vatican Council and specific abuses that occurred after the Council, but which are not founded in the Council’s documents.”

Archbishop Müller stressed that he is in no way “against” traditionalist Catholics and does not have a personal dislike of the SSPX. “But we need to address the practical issues that cannot be ignored. Many in the SSPX have learned theological errors, and they must learn the true sense of the tradition of the Catholic Church. It’s not about conserving a certain time stage in history, it’s a living tradition.”

Our discussion then touched on the invalidity of ordaining women to the priesthood and why same-sex marriage could only ever be marriage in name and not reality. Archbishop Müller is
by profession and nature a theology professor and that love of teaching has never left him.

Focusing on a difficulty experienced by ordinary Catholics in parishes, I asked his advice on what to do when one is stuck in the middle between traditionalists and progressives. I told him that it was something that I was grappling with and that often I found myself caught in the crossfire between warring traditionalists and progressives, both in social media and in real life. Archbishop Müller responded: “Catholics must avoid these extremes, because such extremes are against the mission of the Church. In the world of politics, you have extremes of Right and Left. But the Church is united in Jesus Christ and in our common faith. We must avoid the politicisation of the Church.”

Did he have a message for people on the extreme fringes? “Everyone who is Catholic must ask themselves if they are cherry-picking points from the Church’s teachings for the sake of supporting an ideology. Which is more important, an ideology or the faith? I want to say to people in extreme groups to put their ideology to one side and come to Jesus Christ.”

The interview was running over time, so he asked me if I had any other questions. I piped up: “Will you be going on Twitter?”

He chuckled and replied: “No, I won’t ever go on Twitter! But the Pope will reach many more people by his Twitter account.”

Archbishop Müller has been an ardent admirer of the Holy Father since his seminary years and now they work side by side. They are also good friends. Talking about his working relationship with the Pope since he took over from Cardinal William Levada as Prefect of the CDF, Archbishop Müller said: “Every week, we meet for one hour. In private, we speak in our mother tongue, German, but in an official context we must speak Italian.”

Before leaving, I asked Archbishop Müller for his blessing, which he gave very reverently in Latin. He smiled brightly at me and we wished each other a happy Christmas.

After the interview I reflected that meeting the Prefect in the flesh was an altogether different experience from what I had expected when reading about him. The kindly archbishop is very friendly and good-humoured, and not the figure who is painted as hard and indifferent by progressives whose agenda he criticises. Nor is he the woolly liberal he is painted as by ultra-traditionalists, who have taken brief lines out of context from his huge collection of theological writings. Instead, he has a steadfast, steely determination to heals divisions in the Church.  

If Benedict XVI is “the Pope of Christian unity”, then it is to his eternal credit that he has appointed as Prefect of the most important Congregation in Rome a man so totally dedicated to the unity of the Church.