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In Trip to D.C., Church’s Doctrinal Czar Walks a Political Line

Mgr Gerhard Müller, Préfet de la Congrégation pour la doctrine de la foi – en

© Katharina EBEL / KNA-Bild / CIRIC

Mark Stricherz - published on 11/06/14

Cardinal Gerhard Müller spoke much, but his communication was tightly controlled.

WASHINGTON – In a dim alley Sunday afternoon, the Church’s doctrinal czar did no more than shake the hand of a reporter who had waited more than an hour after Mass to speak with him.

Cardinal Gerhard Müller, the prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, had stepped out of a door at the back of St. Matthew’s Cathedral into an alley between N Street and Rhode Island Avenue, NW. To his left was Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington. Behind the prelates were two priests in their 20s or 30s. 

It was 1:55 p.m., and a stiff breeze conspired with the shadows from a low-hanging, autumnal sun to drive the temperature into the 40s. But the group not only wore thick hats and coats but also was well-fortified. After Cardinal Müller served as the principal celebrant and homilist at the 11:30 a.m. Mass, the men repaired to the rectory for lunch. Now they were marching toward a parking lot where a black, late-model, four-door sedan awaited them. 

“May I speak with the cardinal?” the reporter asked, extending his right hand to the Vatican’s high-ranking official. The German cardinal stopped. With a blank expression on his face, he extended his right hand to the reporter’s. Then he tilted his large frame toward his host in deference to him. Cardinal Wuerl smiled. “Not today!” Wuerl replied.

“What about tomorrow?” the reporter asked.

“Maybe,” Wuerl said, resuming his stride toward the parking lot.

The next day, Cardinal Müller delivered a speech at the Catholic University of America. But again, he declined to speak to reporters or take questions from the public. 

The reticence of a man whose job is to use words to defend the Catholic faith from heresy and error struck members of the audience as unusual. “I was disappointed he didn’t have a Q & A session. I heard other people grumble and make that comment,” said John Gehring, the Catholic program director at Faith in Public Life, a progressive nonprofit.

Cardinals Müller and Wuerl serve on the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, a joint task Wuerl noted in his brief remarks during the concluding rites of the 11:30 a.m. Mass Sunday.  The two prelates attended the Extraordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on the family in Rome last month. Cardinal Walter Kasper of Germany also attended the Synod, and he too is scheduled to deliver a lecture at Catholic University, on Thursday afternoon. 

Unlike Cardinals Wuerl and Kasper, Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller adopts a traditionalist position on Christian family life. Months before the Synod convened, Müller blessed the publication of not one book but two books that explained his orthodox interpretation of Church teaching about marriage and divorce. 

“One cannot declare a marriage to be extinct on the pretext that the love between the spouses is ‘dead’,’” Müller said in “The Hope of the Family.” Indissolubility “does not depend on human sentiments, whether permanent or transitory. This property of marriage is intended by God himself. The Lord is involved in marriage between man and woman, which is why the bond exists and has its origin in God. This is the difference."

At the Synod, the Italian newspaper La Repubblica reported that Cardinal Müller denounced the publication of an interim report that adopted more culturally liberal positions on homosexual and non-married couples and administering Communion to Catholics who remarry after a divorce if the first marriage is actually valid.  Müller expressed his “disappointment with the undignified and shameful report,” according to the paper.

Müller has a reputation as orthodox on cultural issues; he opposes giving Communion to politicians who support abortion rights and befriended Pope Benedict XVI, for example. Yet he studied under the Peruvian Dominican Gustavo Gutierrez, the founder of liberation theology. Müller has defended Gutierrez from accusations of being a Marxist, as he has said Gutierrez seeks to help the poor without recourse to violence.

In the sanctuary of St. Matthew’s Cathedral Sunday, Müller projected an image of stolidity. After Cardinal Wuerl thanked him for celebrating the Mass, the parishioners clapped. Only Müller’s head moved; his face remained expressionless.  At 6’3” or 6’4” and 240 pounds at least, the 66-year-old looks like he could have tried out to be a goalie for a Bundesliga futbol team two generations ago.  

But Müller was no silent participant on his Sunday and Monday visit in Washington. He talked and talked. The prelate delivered a 15- or 20-minute homily at the All Soul’s Day Mass. In mostly un-inflected English, Müller urged parishioners to grow closer to the faithful departed.

“So love the dead. Pray for the dead. Talk with the dead, and ask for their forgiveness. In that way, we find purification and eternal rest gained through Him,” he said.

After the dismissal of Mass, Müller walked down the long, marble aisle of the cathedral and stopped four or five times to chat with young parents and bless their children. Maurizio Luise, 35, said Müller sought out him and his infant daughter Scarlett Rose. “He gestured, he looked at her, and he blessed her,” a glowing Luise said in an interview.  

At Catholic University, Müller delivered a long lecture, “Donum Veritatis: The Contribution of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to the Theological Enterprise.” His talk emphasized that theologians must not be content with a “desk-bound theology” but rather seek to go out into the world to spread the Gospel. “The person proclaiming the truth has as his or her object not simply something intellectual, but human communion. That means that the truth must be transmitted in a way that offers an opportunity for people to give themselves unreservedly,” Müller said, according to the Catholic News Agency.

Although Müller talked and talked, he chose his words with care. Like a political candidate who fears that a verbal gaffe will alienate supporters, in Washington Müller avoided any mention of the work of the Synod on the Family.

To be sure, in his talk at Catholic University Müller invoked the name of the current Pontiff, but his speech was an erudite theological address rather than a plain religious talk. “He quoted Pope Francis extensively. I think he reached the audience. They were very well versed in Catholic theology, but I think it might have gone over their heads,” Gehring said.

"But the Pope is reaching so many inside and outside the Church because he speaks to people’s hearts and experiences," Gehring continued. "As Pope Francis says in the Joy of the Gospel, ‘realities are more powerful than ideas.’"

Müller revealed little else during his stay in Washington. No reporters managed to procure an interview with him. In the world’s most powerful political town, the Vatican’s chief enforcer of orthodoxy showed a rhetorical discipline the envy of any politician. 

Mark Stricherz covers Washington for Aleteia. He is author of Why the Democrats are Blue.

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