Wisdom from departed cardinals: Caffarra on truth and conscience, Müller on the Roman Curia

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Sep 21, 2017

Cardinal Carlo Caffarra died earlier this month, just days before he was scheduled to speak at a conference in Milan. But Catholic World Report has posted the full text of the address that the Italian cardinal had prepared for the occasion, and it is brilliant!

Cardinal Caffarra opens by recounting one of the most powerful scenes in the Gospel: Peter’s denial, his realization of what he has done, and his repentance. (“And he broke down and wept.” Mk 14: 72) The cardinal remarks that by denying Jesus, Peter denied the truth; by denying the truth, he denied himself. When he acknowledges the truth—that he is a disciple of the Lord—he recovers his dignity, even amid his tears.

From that starting point, Cardinal Caffarra goes on to explain how modern society has lost contact with the truth, with disastrous consequences for our culture, our freedom of thought and of action, and ultimately for our souls:

Due to long and complex cultural processes, today the bond between truth and freedom has been broken either by affirming a truth about man without freedom or a freedom without truth. This double affirmation can occur in ecological ideologies, in the contemporary vision of sexuality, in economic doctrines, in the reduction of law to a mere normative technique.

The cardinal’s address is challenging—not just because it is intellectually demanding, but also because he avoids simplistic answers to profound questions. If you are tempted to think of Cardinal Caffarra as an ally of “conservative” forces within the Church, you might have trouble explaining this provocative sentence: “Everything that makes up what we call ‘Western civilization’ leads to atheism or to the expulsion of religion from the horizon of life.”

The cardinal’s address is entitled “The Restoration of Man.” And his prescription is stated in simple terms: “It is dramatically urgent for the Church to put an end to its silence on the subject of the supernatural.”

Read it. And weep.


Cardinal Gerhard Müller remains very much alive, although he no longer serves as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. In fact he has hinted that he might someday return to active service in the Curia. In the same talk in which he dropped that hint, he also spoke about what he sees as a fundamental problem in the structure of the Vatican bureaucracy: the dominant position of the Secretariat of State.

“Diplomacy and power issues have priority today and that is a wrong strategic move which must be corrected,” Cardinal Müller said. “Something has always gone wrong when the Church seeks power. The belief in Jesus Christ should be center stage and the Pope should be a ‘servant of salvation.’”

Regular readers may recall that I have made the same argument:

Second, the odd mixture of diplomacy and internal Church affairs creates an unhealthy dynamic. Of all the offices at the Vatican, the Secretariat of State—the office that deals with secular governments, the office staffed by clerics trained in the arts of diplomacy—is the office most likely to be influenced by worldly concerns.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: shrink - Sep. 22, 2017 2:45 PM ET USA

    A very cogent essay. But the "Everything that…" sentence doesn't make sense in the context of his own words on Socrates and St Paul, and, certainly what we know of the Church Fathers and Doctors that are the Catholic pillars of "Western Civilization." Is Caffarra a fideist? The "Everything that…" quote skates onto the fideist ice. Certainly, if we look from Descartes or Luther onward, the "Everything that…" statement makes sense, but not before.

  • Posted by: Randal Mandock - Sep. 22, 2017 10:41 AM ET USA

    "If you are tempted to think of...Caffarra as an ally of 'conservative' forces within the Church, you might have trouble explaining... 'Everything that makes up what we call 'Western civilization' leads to atheism or to the expulsion of religion from the horizon of life.'" I suppose that a political conservative or a Protestant could have a problem with that, but an observer with eyes open to reality and truth will recognize Western civilization for what it is: a protest against true religion.

  • Posted by: Elan - Sep. 21, 2017 11:46 PM ET USA

    That final quote hit me hard.