At the opening of the Year of Mercy called by Pope Francis, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, has granted to CNA an exclusive interview touching on mercy in several of its aspects.
Please find below the full text of the conversation:
CNA: What is mercy for a theologian?
Cardinal Müller: Above all the theologian, every theologian, is a human being, a baptized person who experiences mercy just as does everyone else. Without this in mind, without the living experience of mercy, paraphrasing what St. Paul said on charity, even our words that were spoken would be like “a resounding gong,” as a mere breath of sound… Mercy for us is inseparable from the face of Jesus. That Jesus who first made himself known to us through the face of the families into which we are born and then in the context of the Church that we have lived. After, we learn to know him in Scripture, in the Sacraments, through the life of his witnesses, of the saints more or less known that are present in history in every age. And then also through the teaching of the great ecclesial tradition, with the word of theologians, of teachers and doctors of the Church, through the teaching of the Magisterium. But all of this is necessary in reference to a vital experience, with the aim of making us deepen that experience and the the deep gaze that we have over that experience.
So the theologian is an aid in deepening this gaze on that fact which is the mercy of God, a fact which is manifested to us in many ways, so that the field of God’s action is the entire world. It can be manifested with the gesture of someone who supports us or corrects us, or even with the fact that they remind us to live in the truth of our existence. In any case, mercy is for me an event through which my life is called with renewed strength to the good and to truth, with which I feel called to live in that goodness and in that truth, which recreates my life and re-energizes in me that interior face that I received from God and which puts me into relationship with him, continuously opening me to the good of my brothers and sisters. The mercy with which Jesus invests our hearts, at times strongly, a times with tenderness, is a surge of goodness and of truth with which he urges us to change our lives for the better and to be open to those around us, making them feel close, like a neighbor. Mercy makes us continuously know that God who is revealed in Jesus and who increasingly reveals us to ourselves and to others. And it teaches us to look, to love ourselves and others in that perspective of goodness and truth with which Jesus himself looks at us.
In this sense, the act of sacramental confession is for me paradigmatic of mercy: each time that we confess, we get closer to the Lord with a gaze burdened by our sins and we can leave rejoicing, affected by his gaze upon us, a gaze that is just and good at the same time, which doesn’t give cheap discounts, yet never abandons us to the mercy of our miseries. A gaze that demands much from us because it knows we can give a lot when we receive from him; but he does it like a good father who knows how to be patient with his children and never tires of accompanying them and therefore never abandons them.
CNA: God frees us from sin with mercy. Is this the only true liberation theology?
Cardinal Müller: This is the first liberation theology, from which many others result. When the heart is freed from sin, then also the rest of our personality receives the benefit. Freedom begins to dilate and take on its true dimensions, which are sustained and powered by the intellect and the will. Thanks to forgiveness and mercy, man learns to accept that his freedom begins by depending on God, learning the taste of gratuity, to recognize that everything he has was not his right but was given, and to love the good and the truth more than his own comforts and immediate advantages, to desire life without end … that is, to already love the things of heaven while on this earth! All the works of mercy, both spiritual and corporal, that the Church teaches and which educate us, tracing their origins from here: we can live mercy only because we have first received it.
CNA: You are also president of the International Theological Commission; what does this have to do with mercy?
Cardinal Müller: Mercy isn’t just free-market loving each other. When God bursts into the life of man, in the measure of his acceptance, it tends to change also the way he looks at things, his attitude, the criteria of his actions and thus, by grace, also his behavior. Theology, thanks to faith, is an aid to looking at our lives from the point of view of God, (who) revealing himself, opens us up to ourselves, to other men, to the world. And it does so by way of a critical and systematic reflection on everything that God gives us, in this way the gifts of God can be accepted by man with ever more clarity and depth. In this way, knowing God and the gifts of his mercy in an ever greater way, we can respond in an ever better way to his love and love him ever more in (our) actions.
The International Theological Commission attempts to aid this with a specific service rendered to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and the Pope, with the participation of some experts from the entire world, proposed by different bishops’ conferences. The fact that the experts come from all the continents helps to look at the issues with a particular openness and a universal consideration of the problems. It is important that this theological vision reflects the universal character of the Church and puts it into practice, also because theology is at the service of doctrine and, in turn, doctrine is at the service of pastoral care, which at the same time helps theology and pastoral care to better specify the object of their attention. It is an uninterrupted circularity of theology, doctrine, and pastoral care in which doctrine has a certain precedence because it authoritatively marks the path to theology and pastoral care.
Currently, the Commission is deepening its study on some themes that are very close to Pope Francis’ heart, such as synodality, that is, the necessity that ecclesial life may be ever more conceived as a walking together after the Lord and toward the challenges that he opens up to us. Additionally, (there is) the relationship between faith and sacraments, an issue that was recently closely associated to the discussions that took place in the last two synods on the family. Or also on religious liberty, that is, the concrete point that is the order of the day for so many Christians in the world, persecuted for their faith. It’s a high-level reflection that has the aim of assisting the entire Church to look with ever greater truth at some important points in its life, because mercy doesn’t end with the gesture of forgiveness but it is an impetus to renewal that regards (one’s) entire life!
CNA: How can one be merciful and also correct doctrinal errors?
Cardinal Müller: How can a father be merciful and correct his children? In reality, if a father doesn’t correct his children, but justifies or minimizes their mistakes, he wouldn’t love them and would drive them to disaster. In the end, a father who doesn’t help his children to recognize their mistakes doesn’t really esteem them and doesn’t have trust in their ability to change.
Because mercy brings inscribed in itself, indelibly and inseparably, love and truth. It belongs to the Christian tradition, from the Scriptures through the Magisterium of recent Popes, that love and truth go together, or together they fall: it isn’t love without truth and it’s not authentic truth without love. And because of this, shouldn’t doctrine also apply?
Mercy is contrary to the laissez-faire… is this not God’s attitude toward man: it is enough to read the Gospel and see how Jesus acted, who was good but at the same time didn’t make cheap discounts on the truth. And doctrine has the precise goal of helping us to know the truth and to accept it in its entirety and not to cheat on truth. Today one tires of understanding the importance and the utility of doctrine also in the Church for two reasons: on one hand, because the worldview in which we live gives importance above all to that which man can immediately touch, and on the other because doctrine is heard, and many times taught, in an enlightened and idealistic way, as an abstract set of ideas that crystallize and imprison the richness of life. In reality doctrine, for us Christians, doesn’t have as its final reference of ideas on God and salvation that he offers us, but the same life of God and his ‘irruption’ in the life of man: it is an aid in understanding who God is and what is going on with the salvation God offers to the concrete life of man. But to understand this requires a humble reason which doesn’t stand presumptuously as the measure of all things. Unfortunately the thought that comes from modernity, which has left us a legacy also of many beautiful things, has deprived us of precisely that humility…
CNA: The jubilee, every jubilee, begins by opening the “holy door” of Saint Peter’s. This year the Pope began the jubilee opening the “holy door of mercy” in Africa. What does all this mean?
Cardinal Müller: The “door” to salvation is Jesus Christ himself. To open the “holy door” means to open wide to man the path that leads to Jesus and to invite everyone to grow closer to him without fear, as John Paul II and Benedict XVI have reminded us since the beginning of their pontificates. There is no salvation for man without Jesus: it is he who mysteriously moves the heart of every man to the good and to the true, because he is the truth and the good in person! Each jubilee is an occasion: a renewed occasion that is born from the heart of God and leads to the heart of God, because man’s life will be changed for the better and a little bit of life in heaven is already anticipated here on earth. Pope Francis gave this gesture a special meaning: since the beginning of his pontificate he has insisted on the peripheries, on reality seen from the geographic and human peripheries of the world, in order to give relief to the human condition lived there, to put into relief the needs of the people who live in those conditions, as kairos to encounter and announce the face of Christ today. Where lives the face of Jesus crucified and disfigured – from which our gaze would gladly turn elsewhere – it is exactly there that the Pope invites us to look. Perhaps also discovering a human richness that we wouldn’t imagine.
This is why, I believe, Pope Francis wanted to open the holy door first of all in Africa, and specifically in an area troubled by conflict and violence. I remember the gesture of John Paul II when he wanted to celebrate Mass in Sarajevo, where war was raging, a fratricidal war. It is a prophetic call to recognize the face of Jesus where we would never go to look for it. And it’s also an invitation to serve Jesus there, wherever the most pressing and essential needs of man arise. Knowing full well that along with bread and even more than bread, man needs Jesus, and that the first poverty is the absence of God, from which derive all other forms of poverty. So the jubilee is a great occasion to rediscover all of that and to break the silence on this fact, on the face that the first poverty of man is the lack of God in his life.
CNA: What do you hope for from this Year of Mercy?
Cardinal Müller: I desire that the Church and all of us follow Jesus with increasing fidelity, so that we no longer remain prisoners of our fragility and misery, and in this way we will be able to better serve our brothers and sisters, both inside and outside the Church. Because the entire world needs Christ, needs to be relieved and renewed by his love. And because mercy is a grace that comes from on high and changes our lives: it takes us as we are but doesn’t leave us as we are. Thank God! This is what I hope for above all in my life, as for the Church and the entire world: to continuously experience this love which doesn’t leave us at ease, but opens wide our heart and changes us.
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