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Cardinal Müller on the Truth

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | May 10, 2019 | In Reviews

Gerhard Cardinal Müller, who served as Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith from 2012 to 2017, has sometimes been compared with his great predecessor, Joseph Ratzinger (Benedict XVI), who not only appointed him but filled that position himself from 1981 until his election to the papacy in 2005. To some degree, Müller has also tried to follow in Ratzinger’s footsteps. He is a serious theologian who is deeply concerned about the state of the Church. In 2017, he published The Cardinal Müller Report, which was deliberately reminiscent of the more famous Ratzinger Report of 1985 (published by Ignatius in a revised edition in 1987).

In preparation for the synods on the family, Müller also published The Hope of the Family, and earlier he had written on the controversial topic of Priesthood and Diaconate, arguing that the ordination of males mirrors the spousal relationship between Christ and His Church. In other words, Cardinal Müller works hard, in his practice of theology, to guide Catholics into a deeper and more transformative faith, rather than accommodating it constantly to the prejudices of the age.

His most recent book, which just came across my desk from Ignatius, is The Power of Truth. True to form, it is subtitled “The Challenges to Catholic Doctrine and Morals Today”. This book consists primarily of essays and lectures which originally appeared elsewhere between 2013 and 2018. The chapter titles provide a concise overview of the doctrinal and moral issues which seem to haunt the modern world:

  • By What Authority?
  • Development or Corruption? Can There Be “Paradigm Shifts” in the Interpretation of the Deposit of Faith?
  • Is There a Saving Truth? The Salvific Relevance of the Rule of Faith
  • What Does It Mean to Say, I Absolve You?
  • Who May Receive Communion?
  • Testimony to the Power of Grace: On the Indissolubility of Marriage and the Debate Concerning the Civilly Remarried and the Sacraments
  • Humanae Vitae and the Revolution of Love
  • The Church in Dialogue: Vatican II Today
  • Faith’s Political Witness: The Demands of Justice and Love

The “Manifesto of Faith” which Müller issued in February of this year is included as an appendix. It suggests something of the serenity of this theologian that the opening Scripture quote for the Manifesto is John 14:1: “Let not your hearts be troubled.” This is good advice for our time.

The Value of Gerhard Müller

The impact of all this is unclear. I would say that Cardinal Müller does not equal Ratzinger’s surpassing brilliance, and it is certain that his thoughts are doomed to impact our consciousness only through the turgid waters stirred by Pope Francis. Moreover, Pope Francis held Müller to the standard five-year term as head of the CDF, whereas Pope St. John Paul II relied on Ratzinger for theological clarity for a quarter of a century—giving him a far larger pulpit even before he was elected pope. As far as The Power of Truth goes, which I have just read, the syntax of the English text is sometimes awkward. This is largely a matter of editing, but it does not possess the crystalline quality we associate with Ratzinger.

But a patient theological explication of today’s contentious issues is always on display and well worth exploring. As with Ratzinger, Müller is capable of deploying contemporary theological insights in perfectly orthodox ways. Just as Benedict XVI was able to draw on historical and form criticism to good effect in his deep reflection on Jesus of Nazareth, so too is Müller able to deploy the concept of dialogic theology in his assessment of the documents of the Second Vatican Council. I will take up this matter of “theology as a dialogue” as an example which should illuminate the value of the entire book.

The practice of dialogic theology has often proved to be an abuse of a legitimate insight. We can see that, yes, throughout salvation history God has engaged in a dialogue with men, first with the Jews, then in a more intimate way through the Church, and finally as He prompts an ever deeper response to grace in each soul. There are plenty of Scriptural examples of the give-and-take which can exist in this dialogue, whether we are speaking of the LORD’s communications with Abraham, Moses and David or Christ’s conversations with His disciples and those who sought His miraculous intervention. Consider the apostles Peter, James and John; the father of the boy with a dumb spirit in Mark 9; and the Canaanite woman in Matthew 15. In fact, even the Magisterium of the Church frequently works in this way, engaging with a variety of voices in order to prod the Church toward a more perfect understanding of a difficult issue.

The problem with the concept of dialogue in our time, of course, is the Modernist error which exaggerates the need of each person to respond to and appropriate God’s disclosure in his own way, particularly through the lens of human culture, to such a degree that the human side of the dialogue takes on the character of teaching, and the dominant cultural consensus determines what is true. But that is not God’s purpose in conversing with us. Rather, in terms of both salvation history and the progress of each soul, the dialogue is ultimately a matter of: “If today you hear His voice, harden not your hearts” (Ps 95:7-8; Heb 3:15). Indeed, Psalm 95 is telling for dialogic theology:

O come, let us worship and bow down,
 let us kneel before the LORD, our Maker!
For he is our God,
 and we are the people of his pasture,
 and the sheep of his hand.
O that today you would listen to his voice!
 Harden not your hearts, as at Meribah,
 as on the day at Massah in the wilderness,
When your fathers tested me,
 and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work.
For forty years I was wearied of that generation;
 and said, “They are a people who err in heart,
 and they do not regard my ways.”
Therefore I swore in my anger
 that they should not enter my rest. [Ps 95:6-11]


In exactly the same way, Cardinal Müller sheds light on the whole program of the Second Vatican Council, which combines the doctrinal and pastoral in various ways, all for the sake of mission. Thus the Council makes use of both dogmatic and dialogic theology, but all to the same end. How, then, are these approaches reconciled?

Quoting Benedict XVI on the dialogue between Gabriel and Mary, Müller explains:

“It is the obedience of Mary,” Benedict XVI says, “that opens the door for God. God’s Word, His Spirit creates the child in her. He creates it through the door of her obedience.” For the believer, this is the point, as is the event of the Resurrection as well, where faith visibly interacts with the material world. This is where the contrast with the philosophical dialégomai is most clear. Neither by questioning and answering nor by following the path of pure thinking does man get to logos, idea. On the contrary, it is the consent to a choice, the oboeditio fidei (the obedience of faith) (cf. Rom 5:1; 16:26), that brings the Word of God into the world. [p. 128]

Thus does God converse constantly with our souls, and the Church converse constantly with the world, in a dialogue not of equals, but a dialogue initiated through a Divine condescension on the part of the Teacher, “helping the pupil to recognize something that the pupil does not yet know, to get him to the place, speaking in terms of knowledge and experience, where he has not been yet, and to which he was anxious to go all by himself” (p. 131).

As with Benedict XVI, Gerhard Cardinal Müller is worth reading because he is so capable of drawing on what is good in contemporary theology not to further but to overcome the cultural narcissism which binds us—restoring the human person both to himself and to his God.

Reviewed here: Gerhard Cardinal Müller, The Power of Truth (Ignatius, 2019)

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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