by Gjergji Evangjeli
On February 22, Pope Francis added nineteen new Cardinals to the roster of the Princes of the Church. Though there is a wealth of themes to talk about in his choices, one notable name among the new group is Archbishop Gerhard Müller, who is currently serving as the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF). Cardinal Müller has been a public and vocal figure in the past few months.
In November, Müller slammed the Archdiocese of Freiburg in Germany for its teaching that civilly-divorced and remarried couples could decide for themselves whether they would wish to participate in Holy Communion. In a letter written in consultation with and by the approval of Pope Francis, Müller stressed the importance of a proper understanding of the role of marriage in the Catholic Church, arguing that the assertion that the reception of the sacraments would be, for persons under these circumstances, a “responsibly reached decision of conscience,” was a break from Tradition, incorrect, and would “cause confusion among the faithful about the Church's teaching about the indissolubility of marriage.”
In fact, the Freiburg document went so far as to suggest that there could be the possibility of some form of prayer service for those entering in non-sacramental civil unions, which would bear a significant resemblance to a wedding ceremony. In opposing this, Cardinal Müller quoted form Pope John Paul II’s Familiaris Consortio pointing out that, “The respect due to the sacrament of Matrimony, to the couples themselves and their families, and also to the community of the faithful, forbids any pastor, for whatever reason or pretext even of a pastoral nature, to perform ceremonies of any kind for divorced people who remarry.”
In a February 13 lecture given to the Theological Faculty of Northern Italy in Milan, Müller seemed to hold the recent survey that has made much noise in the Catholic world in little regard. While he once again reaffirmed his position on the circumstances of those divorced and remarried, the cardinal did not seem to be bothered by the fact that the survey shows a substantial number of Catholics going against official Church teachings, especially in the matter of sexual and marital ethics. In response to this seeming controversy, Müller calmly responded that, “There’s no one who can’t see the mistake and the myopia of using e-mail to indiscriminately sound out everyone’s opinions on the Internet.” Such a statement comes in contrast with that of other German bishops, including Walter Cardinal Casper, who has recently gone on record saying that the Church’s position on these issues can and will be changed.
The gist of the lecture given in Milan was a proper understanding of sensus fidelium, which refers to the belief that the Church should reflect the beliefs of the people. He, however, rejected the idea that this somehow constitutes an ecclesiastical democracy and pointed out that the proper understanding of that phrase should be sensus fidelium in Ecclesia, which stresses the importance that the popular understanding of the people must be rooted in the “insuperable and indispensable” sources of doctrine in the Church, i.e. Scripture and Tradition.
Given this background and the fact that Cardinal Müller is currently in the process of editing the collected works of the Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, many people have chosen to cast him as a problematic figure for what they say is a more moderate and doctrinally-lax pope. The Pope’s decision to include Müller in the first group of new cardinals for his pontificate, however, may help one to correctly understand the position of both the head of the CDF and the Holy Father. It seems that despite what some may have suggested, the difference between Pope Francis and his predecessor may be only a difference in pastoral tone and style rather than a substantial difference in doctrine. The Pope’s decision to name Müller a cardinal may, moreover, serve to bolster Müller’s authority as head of the CDF while he continues to spar intellectually with his fellow German bishops in the lead up to this fall’s synod on issues of family life.