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

© 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.

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