Cardinal Gerhard Müller, the Vatican’s doctrinal chief, has said that local bishops cannot reinterpet Church teaching subjectively.
In an interview with the German magazine Rheinische Post, Cardinal Müller said it was “not his style” to criticise publications by bishops. However, he added, “I do not think it is particularly beneficial for each individual bishop to comment on papal documents to explain how he subjectively understands the document.”
In recent weeks, the bishops of Malta and Germany have issued guidelines permitting Communion for the remarried. The Maltese bishops said that it might be “impossible” for some couples to avoid sex, and that people could not be refused Communion if they discerned that they were “at peace with God”.
However, several bishops have affirmed the traditional teaching that the remarried cannot receive Communion, except when they endeavour to live “in complete continence”.
Cardinal Müller has recently endorsed the traditional teaching. He has also pointed to magisterial teaching, most recently that of John Paul II, Benedict XVI and the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, which says continence is necessary. The cardinal told an Italian magazine that this teaching was “not dispensable, because it is not only a positive law of John Paul II, but he expressed an essential element of Christian moral theology and the theology of the sacraments.”
Theologians distinguish between positive ecclesiastical law, which can be changed, and divine law, which cannot. Cardinal Müller thus effectively said that Communion for the remarried was against God’s law.
In the new interview, he said: “It cannot be that the universally binding doctrine of the Church, formulated by the Pope, is given different and even contradictory regional interpretations. The basis of the Church is the unity of faith. The Church no longer experiences a new revelation.”
Cardinal Müller also said that, in order to be absolved of adultery, a penitent must resolve not to sin again. He said: “No one can alter the sacraments as a means of grace according to their own choice – for example, so that the sacrament of Confession can be given without the intention to sin no more.”
Elsewhere in the interview, the cardinal said that he thought papal resignations would remain a rare exception in future. He also said that it was important to honour Church leaders because of their role, not just because of their human qualities. “Everyone is weak and mortal,” the cardinal said. “Jesus did not choose the wisest, the richest, and the most prominent among his apostles, but simple people, craftsmen, fishermen. We depend on the grace of God and not on what we achieve every day.
“That is why it is important not to look for supermen in the pope, the bishops, or priests, and, if they cannot fulfil these exaggerated expectations, turn away disappointed in the Gospel and the Church. Everyone needs forgiveness. But the grace of God proves itself in human weakness. We give honour to the Pope not because of his human achievements, but because Christ has given him a special ministry for the whole Church.”
The cardinal paid tribute to Pope Francis’s “moral authority”, pointing out that the Pope was recognised by atheists as “an authentic guide”.