Panzerkardinal; or the Enigma of Bishop Gerhard Ludwig Müller

Reading the Frankfurter Allgemeine on the Holy Father’s appointment of Gerhard Ludwig Müller as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is a bit like going back in time; it is so similar to the sort of thing that they wrote about the Holy Father himself when he was prefect of the CDF:

Combined with his stern gaze and determined body language the bishop’s scarlet choir robes give the impression of a suit of armor (Panzer)  for the fight against the enemies of the Faith and the Church.

They list his acts against pro-choice politicians and the praise that his Handbook of Dogmatiks received from the original “Panzerkardinal”. But then there bring up the enigma: is this the same guy who is friends with Gustavo Gutiérrez, the hero of progressive, “socially conscious” Catholicism?

This time though, one must admit that the caricature is nearer to the truth than last time. No one could hear the Pope Benedict XVI speak without be astonished at how such a gentle,  soft-spoken man could be the kind of heretic-hunting fanatic that he was made out to be. But when I heard G-L M a few years back, he sounded just like the sort of old-style religious energumen that showed up in media reports. But it wasn’t just the 1930s style top-of-the-voice noise of his sermon, but also its triumphalisticly anti-Protestant argument — he was preaching on the sacrificial character of the Mass– that gave this impression. It has been said that in his professorial days Müller used to write letters denouncing his colleagues to the CDF, and it is certainly true that as bishop he used the rod far more vigorously than one expects in Germany. He is constantly bringing cononical sanctions against heterodox theologians, suspending priests, and otherwise annoying the liberals.  It seems that in Bishop Gerhard-Ludwig Müller the CDF at last has a prefect who relishes a fight. He he has also gone after the SSPX. This has caused concern for traditionalists, who are also concerned about some of his doctrinal positions.

As Modestinus has pointed out (with unnecessary brusqueness) some of their concerns might be based on too hasty interpretations of Müller’s Handbook of Dogmatik Theology.

In my studies I read a few sections of Müller’s book, and didn’t discover anything so very shocking at the time. His method is “encyclopedic.” After introducing a topic he gives a long history of what everyone from the fathers and doctors to Protestant Reformers, and from Nouvelle Theologie theologians to the Magisterium of the Roman Church has said on it, before giving his own ideas. The advantage that he has over most “encyclopedic” theologians is that he is better read than them, and has a better sense of what he has to pick out from the history of thought on a subject so that he can make the sythesis that he wants at the end. David Berger has criticised him on this point for often willifully misunderstanding texts to make them fit his narrative better. Berger’s review of Müller’s book is well worth reading (for those who can read German).

David Berger is a very strange figure in his own right. He was one of the leaders of German speaking neo-neo-Thomism and wrote a highly regarded book attacking the anti-neo-Thomist cliches of post-conciliar German theology. Later however it was revealed that he was involved in “gay” circles, and he wrote a bizarre book about homosexuality and the Church.

Berger’s review of Müller falls within his “neo-neo-Thomist standard bearer” period. He bashes Müller for a number of things– including for following De Lubac’s account of the relation of nature and grace. His main criticism though is that Müller abandons the idea of theology as a science “from the top down” (Berger’s expression): a participation in the science of God and the blessed, which can thus proceed demonstratively from first revealed principles. According to Berger, Müller tries instead to build a bottom-up theology, beginning with the human experience of divine revelation as described by Karl Rahner in Hearers of the Word. 

Another way of reading Müller though is in the light of Joseph Ratzinger’s account of revelation in his book on Bonaventure. According to Ratzinger “revelation” was not understood by Bonaventure and the other medievals as referring to the “content” of divine teaching – not to a set of propositions giving information about the Divine life – but rather to the activity of God showing Himself to His people. From this he concludes that there is no revelation “going on” unless someone is receiving it; God has to be revealed to someone.  Ratzinger develops his whole theory of tradition of this, and as far as I can remember that is the tack that Müller takes as well. The Holy Father hints as much in the preface to the Festschrift for Müller’s 60th birthday.” I want to end with a passage of effusive praise from that preface:

We [in the International Theological Commission] were all deeply impressed by your comprehensive knowledge of the history of dogma and theology, which your interventions always showed, and which were the foundation of your ever reliable judgement (immer zuverlässiges Urteil). In everything we sensed that your theology was not just academic learning, but that it was and is – as the essence of theology demands – a thinking-with the word of the Faith, thinking-with the “we” of the Church as the communal subject of the Faith. […] You made great efforts to explain the true meaning of the document “Dominus Jesus” which had so often been distorted in the reduction to a few slogans. As bishop of Regensburg you took the foundational biblical title “Dominus Jesus: Jesus is the Lord” (Rom 10:9; 1 Cor 12:3) as your motto, and by so doing you determined an agenda: Christ stands at the center of the episcopal ministry; He is the center of our Christian existence. (Pope Benedict XVI)

Let us hope and pray that Bishop Müller does indeed show an “ever reliable judgement” in his new office, and – when necessary – the courage to pick a fight.