The New Man at the Helm of the Holy Office

What Catholics should know about the work and thought of Abp. Gerhard Ludwig Müller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith

The New Man at the Helm of the Holy Office

In May of 2005, Archbishop William Levada—who had headed the Archdioceses of Portland (Oregon) and San Francisco—was appointed prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. In July of 2011, having reached the age of 75, Cardinal Levada duly submitted his resignation from that important curial post. Almost a year later, on July 2, the Holy See announced that Levada’s successor at the CDF would be Bishop Gerhard Ludwig Müller of Regensburg. 

This widely anticipated appointment was greeted by the liberal theological establishment in Germany with howls of “Panzerkardinal!” (as though Müller were so belligerently authoritarian that he would arrive in St. Peter’s Square in an armored tank) and by ultra-conservative Catholics with the equivalent of a negative ad campaign calling Müller’s orthodoxy into question on the basis of a few passages from his voluminous writings. 

To paraphrase a remark that G.K. Chesterton once made about the contradictory accusations leveled at the Catholic Church:  Bishop Müller must have done something right! 


Gerhard Ludwig Müller was born in Mainz-Finthen on December 31, 1947, one of four children of a working-class family. He studied philosophy and theology in Mainz, Munich, and Freiburg im Breisgau and in 1977 completed a dissertation on the subject of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s sacramental theology. His doctoral advisor was Professor (now Cardinal) Karl Lehmann, who had earned his own doctorate under Karl Rahner, SJ, an influential expert at Vatican II. 

After his ordination in 1978 Müller served as assistant priest in three parishes and taught religious education in the secondary schools. In order to qualify as a professor of theology, he wrote a second doctoral thesis in 1985 (again under Lehmann) on Catholic devotion to the saints. He was appointed Professor of Catholic Dogmatic Theology at the Ludwig-Maximilian University in Munich in 1986, a position that he held for 16 years. 

During his teaching career, Father Müller was visiting professor at the archdiocesan seminary in Philadelphia and at universities in Spain, Brazil, Peru, and India. In 1988 he accepted an invitation from Gustavo Gutierrez to participate in a seminar and later collaborated with him in writing a book on liberation theology. In Germany, Herr Professor Doktor Doktor Müller became the center of an international circle of students, personally providing financial assistance for some of them. A prolific writer, he has published 400 articles in academic journals in addition to his many books, including Katholische Dogmatik, a textbook on dogmatic theology (1995) that has gone through seven editions. 

Recurring themes in his scholarly work are divine revelation, hermeneutics, the sacrament of Holy Orders and ecumenism. As multiculturalism and religious pluralism became fundamental components of political correctness at European universities, Professor Müller’s articles in the 1990s about the uniqueness of Christian revelation anticipated the CDF declaration Dominus Iesus in 2000 on the universality of Christ’s salvific mission. In his book Priesthood and Diaconate Father Müller also defended Ordinatio Sacerdotalis, the extremely unpopular 1994 apostolic letter of Pope John Paul II declaring that the Church cannot ordain women. He was a member of the International Theological Commission at the Vatican from 1998 to 2003. 

When he was appointed bishop of Regensburg in 2002, Gerhard Ludwig Müller took as his episcopal motto “Dominus Iesus”—“Jesus is Lord” (Rom 10:9). In November 2003 he founded a church school trust to ensure the long-term survival of financially needy diocesan schools. In 2004 and 2005 he made week-long pastoral visits to the eight regions of his diocese, coming in contact with his flock at parish liturgies, schools, and charitable institutions and even on factory tours. He reformed lay apostolic associations to bring them into conformity with canon law and Vatican II guidelines, cutting off Church funding for dissident groups despite fierce resistance and slanted media coverage. He promoted the re-evangelization of his diocese by organizing a “Regensburg City Mission.” 

At the national level, Bishop Müller held positions of leadership within the doctrinal and ecumenical committees of the German Bishops’ Conference and was also on the subcommittee for international charitable work (e.g. Misereor). The presence of a seminary run by the Society of Saint Pius X within the geographical limits of the Regensburg diocese was an ongoing source of controversy for the local ordinary, who tried several times to forbid ordinations there (see the CWR article “Showdown in Zaitzkofen,” August 2009). Nevertheless, when the 2007 motu proprio making the traditional Latin Mass more widely available went into effect, Bishop Müller instituted a several-day training session in the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite, and now there is one weekly Sunday Mass celebrated in that form at St. Rupert Church in Regensburg. 

Bishop Müller worked with another Vatican dicastery—in December 2008 the president of the Council for Promoting Christian Unity, Cardinal Walter Kasper, appointed him the Catholic head of the International Lutheran-Roman Catholic Commission on Unity for the dialogue phase on baptism that began in 2009.

Pope Benedict XVI entrusted to Bishop Müller the task of editing the original German edition of Joseph Ratzinger: The Complete Works; the first volume, an anthology of writings on the “Theology of the Liturgy,” was published in October 2008. 

On July 2, 2012, Pope Benedict appointed Bishop Müller the new prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and made him a titular archbishop. 

Statements to the media

During the next few weeks, a flurry of interviews with Archbishop Müller followed, the more substantial ones being with L’Osservatore Romano, Vatican Radio, KNA (Katholische Nachrichten-Agentur, the news agency of the German Bishops’ Conference), and the Eternal Word Television Network. The leitmotivs, or recurring themes, in his answers to reporters’ questions were: Catholic doctrine is based on the Word of God and is therefore non-negotiable and transcends ideology; one cannot pick and choose among Church teachings; the Church is not a political arena but a family of faith; the CDF serves the Church by helping the Holy Father and to preserve, defend, and proclaim that faith in terms that people today can understand. 

Ultra-conservative Catholic critics created a media stir even before Müller was officially appointed CDF prefect, claiming that he was so influenced by the New Theology of the mid-20th century that his writings departed from several important traditional Church teachings. Father Matthias Gaudron, a dogmatic theologian and seminary professor with the SSPX, singled out three statements in particular: a sentence in the textbook Dogmatik about Mary’s perpetual virginity, a vague passage from a book on the Eucharist that seems to question the Real Presence, and remarks during a 2011 speech in honor of a Lutheran “bishop” that appear to say that Lutherans belong to a full-fledged “Church” of their own. The same few lines of text were widely circulated over the Internet, in the original German and in English, Italian, and French translations, as “evidence” that the new prefect was not qualified to defend the Catholic faith. 

A careful reader would note that the emphasize-the-positive ecumenical language in the after-dinner speech acknowledged generally the existence of Churches (e.g. the Orthodox Churches) and of communities with an “ecclesial character” (e.g. the Lutherans) outside the confines of the Catholic Church. The passage on the Eucharist is inconclusive, because it does not articulate Catholic teaching but rather contrasts it with something else that is omitted from the excerpt. The one sentence from the Dogmatik was taken completely out of context (and mistranslated in English to boot). It actually says that the Virgin Birth “is not about anomalous physiological peculiarities in the natural process of birth (such as the birth canal not being opened, the hymen not being broken, and the absence of birth pangs), but rather about the healing and saving influence of the Redeemer’s grace on human nature, which had been ‘wounded’ by original sin.” 

When questioned by interviewers, Archbishop Müller dismissed the challenges as “provocations” by individuals who had not read or else not understood his writings, and he reaffirmed the three Catholic teachings at issue.  

Msgr. Nicola Bux, a CDF consultor, defended Archbishop Müller against charges of unorthodoxy. “The Church professes the real and perpetual virginity of Mary but does not go into the physical details; nor does it seem that the councils and the Church Fathers ever said otherwise,” Msgr. Bux said in an interview with Vatican Insider. In a long and very technical article, theologian Klaus Obenauer surveyed the history of the Church’s teaching on the subject; he too notes the prudent reserve of the councils and popes in their authoritative statements about Mary’s virginity before, during, and after she gave birth to her Son. In the mid-20th century a German theologian developed the theory that while Mary’s perpetual virginity is an article of faith, the exact physical details of Jesus’ miraculous birth are not. This theological opinion was discussed extensively during the pontificate of Pius XII but never condemned. This is exactly the position that Professor Müller takes on page 498 of his Dogmatik

A German canonist put the whole kerfuffle in perspective in a comment at the blog Summorum Pontificum: “Three or four unclear points that somebody of good or not-so-good will can attack, out of a lifetime of scholarly work covering several thousand pages, are not the sort of material that you can make a scandal out of. If the theology professor Müller in his day had resisted the temptation to present many of his remarks in figurative, academic jargon, even these few misunderstandings and misinterpretations would not have been possible.” 

Archbishop Müller was more vocal in responding to charges of guilt by association with Latin American liberation theologians. “It is necessary to distinguish between a mistaken liberation theology and a correct one,” he told L’Osservatore Romano. “I believe that every good theology has to do with the freedom and glory of the children of God. However, certainly a mixture of the doctrine of Marxist self-redemption with the salvation given by God must be rejected.” In an interview on Astra Digital Radio he stated bluntly, “Taking a social approach is not somehow flirting with Communism.” After all, he  told EWTN, Catholic social teaching “helped to rebuild a democratic Germany after the [Second World] War.”

As prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Archbishop Müller is ex officio president of the Pontifical Commission Ecclesia Dei, which is responsible for priestly societies devoted to the traditional liturgy and for the dialogue aimed at reconciling the Society of St. Pius X with Rome. The ongoing CDF-SSPX theological dialogue has narrowed the Society’s differences with Rome down to several specific teachings of Vatican II. 

In his interview on Vatican Radio, the new prefect commented:  “One can be Catholic only when one acknowledges the Church’s faith wholly and entirely. That includes the Magisterium, and the Second Vatican Council is also a very significant part of the Magisterium.… The unity of the Church and the truth of the faith are two sides of the same coin.” 

Speaking to KNA, he said:  “We don’t need a hermeneutic that is applied to the Council from outside. The important thing is to discover the hermeneutic that is contained in the Council itself: the hermeneutic of reform in continuity, as the Holy Father has repeatedly emphasized. A council is the exercise of the supreme Magisterium of the Church in the college of bishops together with the pope.” Yet as a theologian Müller is well aware that not everything in the Vatican II documents is infallible dogma; for example, he edited a book of essays for the International Theological Commission, published in 2004, that unsparingly critiques the Council’s disorganized and sometimes conflicting statements about the permanent diaconate.   

Despite his towering intellect, Gerhard Ludwig Müller is capable of down-to-earth humor. He observed that in the world of theology professors there are “prima donnas,” but added that “that is precisely my job, to separate the professional from the personal.” When asked how he liked his new job, he admitted to Vatican Radio that leaving a diocesan see for full-time work in the Curia made him “feel like a first-grader.”

Catholics will be hearing a lot more from Archbishop Müller as the Church commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council with a “Year of Faith,” and as it prepares to reflect with our separated Lutheran brethren on the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. 

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About Michael J. Miller 127 Articles
Michael J. Miller Michael J. Miller translated Priesthood and Diaconate by Gerhard Ludwig Müller for Ignatius Press and Eucharist and Divorce: A Change in Doctrine? for the Pontifical John Paul II Institute.