Interview with Archbisop Gerhard Ludwig Müller, Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith
We must make what is entrusted to us shine out, overcoming ideological conflicts in the Church
"Faith is characterized by the greatest openness. It is a personal relationship with God which contains all the treasures of wisdom. For this reason our finite reason is in perpetual motion towards the infinite God. We can always learn something new and acquire an ever deeper understanding of the riches of the Revelation. We shall never be able to exhaust them". Archbishop Gerhard Ludwig Müller, the new Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said this in a long conversation with our newspaper. At the meeting in the ancient palace of the Holy Office Archbishop Müller also spoke of his arrival at the Dicastery of the Roman Curia, of his determination to become a priest, of the time he has spent as a lecturer in theology and as a bishop, of his repeated visits to Latin America. And he explained that he had learned to know and appreciate Joseph Ratzinger from his Introduction to Christianity which in 1968 was already a bestseller.
Can you tell us your first impressions on taking up the office as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in a context with which you were already well-acquainted as a member of various bodies of the Roman Curia for so long?
As a member of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, for five years I was able to take part in the meetings of the Cardinals and Bishops, admiring their conscientious and collegial approach to work. This Dicastery's tasks are therefore not unknown to me. For years too I was a member of the International Theological Commission and was also able to collaborate with other dicasteries. Overall, however, many things are new and strange to me. It will take me a little time to learn the ropes in the complex structure of the Curia. It is of course the actual role of Prefect that is new. As a member I had studied the documents prepared by the Congregation and taken part in the consultations.
Now, instead, I must carry out and coordinate the daily tasks of those who work in the Dicastery, preparing and implementing the decisions correctly. I am grateful to the Holy Father for trusting me and for entrusting this office to me. The problems we are facing seem immense, if we look at the universal Church, with the many challenges to be met, as well as a certain despondency which is spreading in certain milieus and which we must combat. We also have the problem of groups — right- or left-wing, as we say —which take up much of our time and attention. This may cause us to lose sight of our main task, which is to proclaim the Gospel and to explain the doctrine of the Church in a practical manner. We are convinced that there is no alternative to the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. The Revelation answers the great questions of the people of every time. What is the meaning of my life? How can I face suffering? Is there a hope that goes beyond death, given that life is short and difficult? We are fundamentally convinced that the secular and immanentist vision does not suffice. We cannot find a convincing answer by ourselves. For this reason the Revelation is a relief, since we do not have to seek answers at all costs. Yet our abilities are so great that .they make the human being capax infiniti. In Christ, the infinite God has revealed himself to us. Christ is the answer to our deepest questions. Let us therefore face the future with joy and strength.
Much has been written about the new Prefect. Instead, would you like to tell us something about yourself, your family, your studies, your decision to become a priest, your experience as a theology scholar and teacher and as a bishop?
My father was a simple worker at the Opel factory in Rüsselsheim. We lived close by at Mainz-Finthen, a small town founded by the Romans and still today the ruins of an aqueduct they built can be seen. From this point of view our background is essentially Roman. People in Mainz are still very conscious of this legacy and we are proud of it. Having a Roman outlook in the heart of Germany has left its mark. And when one is Catholic the two realities automatically converge. My mother was a housewife. I am grateful to my parents for bringing us up in a normal way from the human point of view, without exaggerating in one direction or in another. Thus we grew up as practising Catholics, with a proper balance between freedom and restrictions with clear principles. Still today I am in complete agreement with my parents.
Then came the theological studies, thanks to which I acquired a deeper dimension of the faith. For my decision to become a priest it was important to have continued to meet priests who led an exemplary spiritual life and were intellectually demanding.
In this regard I never felt any contradiction between being a priest and being a student. I have always been convinced that the Catholic faith corresponds with the loftiest intellectual requirements and that we should not hide ourselves. The Church can boast great figures in the history of culture. This is what enables us to respond with certainty to the great challenges of the natural sciences, of history, of sociology and of politics. Faith is characterized by the greatest openness. It is a personal relationship with God which contains in itself all the treasures of wisdom. Consequently our finite reason is always in motion toward the infinite God.
We can always learn something new and understand the riches of the Revelation ever more deeply. They can never be exhausted. As a bishop I have made a point of telling seminarians that the identity of the vocation to the priesthood stands in need of the encounter with authentic priests. Faith begins with personal meetings, starting with the parents, priests, friends, in the parish, in the diocese, in that great family which is the universal Church. We must never be afraid of intellectual confrontation; we do not have a blind faith but faith cannot be reduced rationalistically. My wish is that everyone may have an experience similar to mine: I mean, identifying oneself simply and unproblematically with the Catholic faith and practising it. It is very beautiful.
Pope Benedict has entrusted you with editing his "Gesammelte Schriften". He has also left you his fiat in Rome, where, as Cardinal Ratzinger, he lived until the Conclave in 2005 and where there are still many of his books. How did you meet Joseph Ratzinger?
As a young student I read a book of his, Introduction to Christianity. It was published in 1968, and we virtually absorbed it like a sponge. In fact in those years an uncertainty existed in seminaries. In this book the profession of the faith of the Church is expounded convincingly, analysed with the help of reason and masterfully explained. This important subject characterizes the entire theological opus of Joseph Ratzinger: fides et ratio, faith and reason. I then also became acquainted with Ratzinger personally and learned to appreciate him. He was a support and a clear reference point for me in my task as a lecturer and as a bishop. I would describe him as a paternal friend, since he is one generation older than I am. And I think that the reason for my coming to Rome was certainly not to burden him with various issues. It is my job to relieve him of some of the work and not to bring up problems that we can solve at our own level. The Holy Father has the all important mission of proclaiming the Gospel and of strengthening the brethren in the faith. It is up to us to deal with all the more unpleasant matters, so that he is not burdened by too many things, although he will of course always be kept up to date with essentials.
Shortly before the conclusion of the Council Paul VI turned the Holy Office into the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. What do you think about this change and the Dicastery's role today?
The Church is first and foremost a community of faith. Hence the revealed faith is the most important good which we must pass on, proclaim and preserve. Jesus entrusted the universal Magisterium to Peter and his Successors, and it is this that the Dicastery must serve. Therefore the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is responsible for what concerns the whole Church in depth: the faith, which leads us to salvation and to communion with God and with each other. I think that the most important aspect of the Dicastery's transformation did not involve its relations with the other institutions of the Holy See but rather the principal orientation of its work. Pope Paul VI wished the positive aspect to be brought to the fore: the Congregation must first of all promote the faith and make it understandable. This is the crucial factor. In addition is the fact that faith must be defended against errors and debasement. Today, especially, we need hope and signs in order to start out afresh. If we look at the world, especially at our European countries which are naturally those we know best, we see many politicians and economists doing extraordinary things; but they are not the first to whom to look when it is a question of communicating hope and trust. It is here that I see one of the great tasks of the Congregation and of the Church in general: we must rediscover the faith and make it shine out anew, as a positive power, as the force of hope and a potential for overcoming conflict and tension and continuing to encounter each other in our common profession of God, Three in One.
The Pope's concern for proclaiming the faith is well known and is also expressed by his establishment of the Pontcal Council for Promoting the New Evangelization and the proclamation of the "Year of Faith". What are his new Dicastery's plans?
Faith is fulfilled in Holy Mass, in Christian life, in families. In fact we can do no more than contribute our support. There are many praiseworthy texts for children, young people and adults, in addition to theological studies and Magisterial documents. The upcoming Synod of Bishops must give the participants and the whole Church a new impetus in passing on the faith. I consider it my personal task to encourage the bishops and theologians in this regard. We must strengthen one another. The Lord himself said to Peter, strengthen your brothers and sisters. This applies in particular, but not exclusively, to the Pope. Precisely for those who proclaim the faith it is important to be on the terrain of faith, to draw from its sources, from Sacred Scripture, from the Fathers of the Church, from the Documents of the Councils and Pontiffs, from the great theologians and from the spiritual writers.
When this does not occur everything remains arid and empty. Instead, when faith is accepted with joy and determination, life is born. Scripture suggests to us some beautiful images: the light set on the lampstand, the salt that gives flavour to everything, the Gospel as leaven in the world. As the bishop of a diocese, as a priest who cares for souls, we look people in the face. We see them concretely in their own walk of life. We cannot proclaim the Gospel to them if we do not love them and do not see that each one of them is a mystery, in the image and likeness of God. It is necessary to continue to repeat to ourselves that Christ died on the Cross for us. We know that our vocation is to be friends of God and to discover in this way the hope for which we are truly destined. This dispels doubt from the heart. Even atheists or enemies of the Church must ask themselves in a self-critical spirit whether they themselves have the means of salvation to offer men and women today.
You are frequently in touch with Latin America. How did this relationship come into being?
I have often been to Latin America, to Peru but also to other countries. In 1988 I was invited to take part in a seminar with Gustavo Gutiérrez. As a German theologian I went there with certain reservations, partly because I was well acquainted with the two Declarations of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on Liberation Theology that were published in 1984 and 1986. Yet I could see that it was necessary to distinguish between an erroneous liberation theology and a correct one. I consider that all good theology must deal with the freedom and glory of God's children. Clearly, however, on the one hand a mixture of the Marxist doctrine of self-redemption with the salvation given by God must be rejected. On the other hand we must ask ourselves sincerely: how we can speak of God's love and mercy in the face of the suffering of so many people who have no food, no water and no health care, who do not know how to offer their children a future, when human dignity is truly lacking and when the powerful have no regard for human rights? All things considered, this is possible only if one is prepared to be with people, to accept them as brothers and sisters, without a superior sense of paternalism. If we consider ourselves as God's family we can help to ensure that these situations unworthy of the human being are changed and improved.
In Europe, after the Second World War and the dictatorships, we have built a new democratic society partly thanks to Catholic social teaching. As Christians we must emphasize that it is from Christianity that the values of justice, solidarity and personal dignity have been introduced into our Constitutions. I myself am a native of Mainz. At the beginning of the 19th century Mainz had a great bishop, Baron Wilhelm Emmanuel von Ketteler, who was at the root of the social teaching and encyclicals. As a Catholic child from Mainz, I had a passion for the welfare of society in my blood and I am proud of it. It was without any doubt in this perspective that I went to the Latin American countries. For the past 15 years I have always spent two or three months a year there, living in very simple conditions. Initially this entails a tremendous effort on the part of a citizen from Central Europe. However, when one learns to know the people personally and to see how they live, one is able to accept it. I also went to South Africa with our Domspatzen, the famous choir that the Pope's brother conducted for 30 years. I was able to give lectures at various seminaries and universities, not only in Latin America but also in Europe and North America. And this is what I have experienced: at home everywhere; wherever there is an altar Christ is present; wherever one is, one belongs to God's great family.
What do you think of the discussions with the Lefebvrians and with the American Sisters?
For the Church's future it is important to overcome ideological clashes wherever they surface. There is one revelation of God in Jesus Christ which has been entrusted to the entire Church. Thus the word of God is not negotiable and it is impossible to believe and not believe at the same time. It is not possible to make the three religious vows and then not take them seriously. I cannot refer to the Tradition of the Church and then accept only some parts of it. The Church moves ahead and all are asked not to withdraw into a self-referential way of thinking but, on the contrary, to accept the full life and full faith of the Church. For the Catholic Church it is quite obvious that men and women have equal value: the Creation narrative already said so and the order of salvation confirms it. Human beings have no need to be emancipated, that is to say to create or invent themselves on their own. They are already emancipated and freed through God's grace.
Many declarations concerning the admission of women to the sacrament of Orders, ignoring one important aspect of the ministerial priesthood. Being a priest does not mean creating a position for oneself. The ministerial priesthood cannot be seen as a sort of position with earthly power and it is impossible to think that emancipation only exists when everyone can be involved in it. The Catholic faith knows that it is not we who dictate the conditions for admission to the priestly ministry and that Christ's will and his call are always at the origin of being a priest. I ask people to give up polemics and ideology and to immerse themselves in the doctrine of the Church. Precisely in America men and women religious have achieved extraordinary things for the Church, as well as for the education and formation of youth. Christ needs young people who follow this path and who identify with their own fundamental decision. The Second Vatican Council said marvellous things for the renewal of religious life as well as on the common vocation to holiness. It is important to strengthen reciprocal trust rather than to work against each other.
With the exception of Cardinal Merry del Val from 1914 to 1930, the Dicastery was always headed by Italians. Since 1968, Seper, Ratzinger, Levada — and now you — have been appointed Prefect. What does this new trend indicate?
Earlier it was not possible to make frequent journeys, which is why people in the Curia came from the environs of Rome or from Italy. Today, modern technology helps us live the Church's catholicity in a more concrete way, but since the Primacy of the Pope is bound to the Church of Rome, it is obvious that there are still many Italians in the Curia. Yet internationalization has to do with the Church's catholicity. At the times of the Empire, there were already many Christians in Rome and even Popes from other places,such as, for example, from the East. In the Church today, as in those days, we are members of one family and must be, as it were, the driving force of humanity's authentic progress. Indeed no other organization has this international dimension which embraces humanity and makes such a great effort for the unity of people and peoples. Wherever we celebrate the Eucharist, we share the deepest part of our belief and we have the same communion of life with Christ, in spite of the different cultures and languages. We immediately feel that we are one, we are members of one body and build God's temple together. In a certain way this is a continuation of the Pentecost experience: we come from every country and can praise God all together, we can listen in our own language to the one Word of God. The Holy Spirit speaks to us in the language of love that unites all of us in God, our Father.