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.

21 thoughts on “Panzerkardinal; or the Enigma of Bishop Gerhard Ludwig Müller

  1. Pingback: More Commentary on Gerhard Ludwig Müller And Other Appointments | The Anglo-Catholic

  2. This conversation should not even be occurring.

    The mere fact that the new prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith has to be defended as being orthodox is simply not acceptable by any reasonable standard.

    I hope the man is orthodox, but I have my doubts. Far too often we are sent wolves to defend us.


  3. Pingback: Here We Go Again II « Opus Publicum

  4. I liked your original construction: “Mülleresque brusqueness”


    I think most people who read my blog know that I am sympathetic toward the SSPX and want them canonically integrated into the Church ASAP. At the same time, I can’t suppress my nausea that traditionalists — including the Society — engage in the same childish games traditionalist Orthodox do: They pound the table for literalness because they fear taxing their own understanding. If the Faith doesn’t read like the Baltimore Catechism — a work meant for children and adolescents — then it automatically reeks of heresy.

    I understand that not every Catholic is a theologian, and that most of the laity in the pews — whether at an SSPX chapel or a Clown Mass — couldn’t care less about these sorts of disputes. That’s fine; they don’t have to. But I see no sense in the SSPX and other traddies expending what little theological capital they have left to do battle with a man it seems that they have never read (or have read poorly). But I shouldn’t be surprised, particularly since there are more than a few traddies who have to exercise great restraint in not muttering “heretic” every time the Pope’s name is mentioned.


    • I can definitely understand your annoyance. I’m just a little uncomfortable with the way you sometimes seem to dismiss everyone who indulges in a little too much hasty trad-hyperbole as basically an ignorant liturgy-nerd with no desire to seek a deeper understanding of the faith.


      • I don’t think most traddies are liturgy nerds, and the ones I have met have nothing on the liturgy nerds I knew (and probably could be counted among) when I was in the Orthodox Church for 7 years. Trust me, no Catholic liturgy nerd has anything on what you can find on some of the Orthodox listservs out there.

        With that said, I would hazard to guess that most traditionalists who aren’t liturgy nerds are probably not that interested in theology. This is probably due to the fact that their sector of the Catholic Church promotes the idea — which is not entirely false — that most theology from the last century is, at best, “problematic” and, at worst, “heretical.” So, instead, they stick to “safe” things: simplified catechisms; post-Reformation spiritual writings; 19th/early 20th C. Papal Encyclicals; etc. These are the sorts of folks who keep TAN Books and Angelus Press in business. Of course, some of them will drop in Aquinas’ name now and again, or speak about Scholasticism being the “true theology” of the Church, but most have never read Aquinas or any other Scholastic for that matter. Again, that’s fine; it’s not for everybody and no man went to Heaven just because he read the Summa. Even so, for traddies to get indignant over contemporary theologians they haven’t read never rubs me the right way.

        With all that said, I am certainly pleased to see a traditionalist — or what I and others have called a “neo-traditionalist” — pushback against the excesses of 20th C. Catholic theology. But these people aren’t read by a lot of traddies, either, which to me is just inexcusable.


        • As a young person in the traditional sphere, who was not raised traditional, I can certainly agree with parts of this comment. The problem is simple though. How can we really expect these people to be reading Aquinas and on top of that de Lubac et. al. A lot of these people are not academic types, or don’t have time to spend reading hundreds of pages of theology. This isn’t a defense of calling Abp. Muller a heretic, which is inappropriate. However, I think from reading some of the quotes, I don’t think it is wrong for someone to be a bit concerned.

          Btw Rorate-Caeli should be given credit for chastising their readers who did go to far in their criticisms of +Müller


  5. I find the brushing aside of all criticism of Müller a bit strange. I certainly don’t countenance calling the Bishop a heretic, however it does seem that he has been influenced at least in the past by some stange strands of thought

    For example someone recently translated his writings on the Ressurection:
    “So Müller re Resurrection – Kath. Dogmatik, Freiburg: Herder 1995 (²1996), 300f. (translation and emphases mine):

    “A shooting film camera could neither have hold/shooted in picture and sound the resurrection-ongoing/occurrence (“Auferstehungsereignis”), that is in essence the carrying out/actualisation of the personal relation of the father with the Son in the Holy Ghost, nor the easter-apparitions of Jesus in front of his disciples. Technical apparatuses or also animals lack – in contrast to the human intellect – the possibility of transcendental experience and therefore of beeing adressed by the Word of God via sensuously perceptible phenomena and signs. Only the human intellect in its inner unity of categoriality and transcendentality is determinable by the spirit of God, in order to perceive the person-reality (“Personwirklichkeit”) of Jesus as the cause of the sensible-mental (perceptional) notion/image in the sensible perceptional image, that is caused by the revelation-ongoing/occurrence (“Offenbarungsereignis”).”

    Well, Müller goes on and affirms that the resurrection and the apparitions were not pure subjective things, some hallucination, pure imagination or sth. like that.

    But they are events only for the minds of beeings that are able of “transcendent(al) experiences” resp. perceptions – and perhaps only for believers, because later he states (301) that the resurged Jesus “could not be seen or recognized in a natural manner / by natural means (“auf natürliche Weise”). A medicinal-empirical verification of the occurrence/event is neither possible nor were it an adequate criterion…

    (or shortly before (300, bottom): “The occurrence/event of the resurrection of Jesus is therefore transcendent re the possibilities of beeing and of knowledge/cognition of the created world…)”


    • I wouldn’t say that I am “brushing aside of all criticism of Müller.” I think there is a lot to David Berger’s critique of him for example. But there are things that can be said in his defense as well.


    • That reads like an excellent defense of the Resurrection if there were camera on hand 2,000 years ago and the footage was found to be lacking . . .

      There’s something not only “very German,” but very modern, about going to great lengths to solve non-problems such as the absence of evidence for certain events which could not have been produced at the time the event occurred. But I also suspect there is more buried in Muller’s writings which pivots on this “transcendent experience” stuff, which is perhaps why he is at pains to introduce it in the context of an absolutely pointless debate over whether or not a camera could have “captured” the Resurrection of Christ. Of course, the simpler response to such a “debate” (if there really ever was one) is to say, “Yeah, sure, why not?” I mean, there’s no Biblical-theological basis for denying that a camera can record a miraculous event, even the miraculous event of all time.

      This wouldn’t be the first time in history an academic has lived in his own head and produced “answers” to “questions” nobody was ever asking.


      • Vaguely related fact: there are a lot of people (including a German Jesuit) who argue that the Holy Shroud of Turin and the Volto Santo of Manopello are photographs of the Resurrection.


        • Oh, yes, I read that. Wasn’t there some test done that showed the Shroud’s image could only have been created by a high powered camera or some sort of electronic waves? I’m not tech savvy, so I can’t recall the details, but yeah, they came to the conclusion that the Shroud could only be replicated with high powered equipment and a substantial energy source — both of which were obviously unavailable in 1st C. Palestine.


  6. On a lighter note, I would like to thank you for linking to the letter of Charles De Koninck to Mortimer Adler, I have treasured since I first read it.


  7. Why does Müller bring up the concept of the camera?

    To me it seems pretty clear the reason is because he does not think that Christ’s resurrected body ate the fish in a manner that could be captured on film.

    Which means that he did not eat the fish in the same manner as eating is commonly understood.

    Müller reads just like most modern theologians. What they really are, are gnostics searching for meanings that don’t exist.

    Perhaps he’s not a heretic. But I sure don’t want him explaining the Faith to my children. I’ll take the Baltimore Catechism modestinus finds so shameful to follow. It;s simple and doesn’t mislead.


    • Good point about the fish. Unfortunately I’m in France till the 21st of July, so I don’t have access to Bishop Müller’s, book but when I get back to Austria I’ll take another look at it.


  8. Hans Küng’s perspective on Müller is hilarious–he calls him ‘the new Ottaviani’ LOL! “Es war die reaktionäre Strategie gerade der Glaubenskongregation, welche die Kirche in die aktuelle Krise geführt hat und den Auszug von Millionen aus der Kirche zur Folge hatte, besonders all der wiederverheirateten Geschiedenen. Es wäre ein gewaltiger Schaden, wenn sich 50 Jahre nach dem Zweiten Vatikanischen Konzil ein neuer Kardinal Ottaviani, damals Chef der Glaubenskongregation, etablieren könnte, der sich berufen fühlt, seine konservative Glaubensmeinung Papst und Konzil, ja der ganzen Kirche aufzudrängen.”


  9. Pingback: A Note on Renewing SSPX/Rome Talks | Opus Publicum

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