The Holy Father on Bishop Gerhard Ludwig Müller

The following is a full translation of the salutation written by Pope Benedict XVI for a Festschrift celebrating the 60th birthday of Bishop Gerhard Ludwig Müller.

Dear Bishop Gerhard Ludwig,

I wanted to contribute at least a salutation to the Festschrift for your 60th birthday. I well remember our first meeting when you gave me your dissertation on the Sacraments in the thought of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. That was an ecumenical work of a unusual kind; everyone thinks that they know at least the main theses of that great Protestant thinker, but you showed surprising aspects of his thought, thereby inviting an encounter of a special kind. In the year 1995 you sent me your Dogmatic Theology. As far as I can see it is the only handbook of our field on the market written by a single author. It is thus able to reveal the whole structure of the world of the Catholic Faith in its inner unity. It also has the particular advantage of being limited to a size which makes it suitable as a text book for students. You thereby sent an important signal; theology, and even the field of dogmatic theology, is in danger of dissolving into specializations which obscure the greater whole, but every part of our Faith is only really intelligible in the light of the whole.

These encounters were primarily literary, but we became personally close in the years in which you were a member of the International Theological Commission, of which I (as prefect of the CDF) was president. We were all deeply impressed by your comprehensive knowledge of the whole history of dogma and theology, which your interventions always showed, and which was the foundation of your ever-reliable judgment. 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 took care to make the work of the International Theological Commission better known in Germany, and in all those years you continually published important contributions on the pressing theological questions of the day. 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 expression “Dominus Jesus: Jesus is the Lord” (Rom 10:9; 1 Cor 12:3) as your motto, and by so doing you determined your agenda: Christ stands at the center of the episcopal ministry; He is the center of our Christian existence. At the time of your episcopal ordination, when the debate about the document beginning with those words was raging, your motto was a reminder that the Magisterium wanted thereby to call us back to the center of our Faith.

Now it has already been five years since the See of St Wolfgang was entrusted to you. You have had to endure many storms and more will surely come. But during this time no one could doubt that you wanted only the one thing: to give witness to Jesus Christ, in whom God has turned His Face toward us and opened His Heart for us. And so on your 60th birthday I hope pray that the Lord might help you to always remain His faithful witness and thus to be a “co-worker of our joy” (cf. 2 Cor 1:24)

Given at Rome on the Feast of St Hilary, 2007

Benedictus PP. XVI

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.