The original German edition of Gerhard Cardinal Müller’s book was entitled, Was ist katholisch? Translated into English that is the sub-title of the English edition.
The book, published recently by Emmaus Academic, has five chapters:
• Being Catholic in the contemporary spiritual situation.
• Catholic life with God in the Church.
• The origin and profile of the concept of “catholic.”
• “Catholic”: the attribute of the one Church of Christ that links all Christian communions.
• Quo vadis, ecclesia catholica?
Cardinal Müller appeals to “epistemological principles of Catholic theology” to justify his vision of Catholicism. Warrants such as Sacred Scripture, Tradition—which includes ecumenical councils, doctors of the Church, faithful theologians of one mind with the Church—and the Magisterium. Cardinal Müller is a man of the Second Vatican Council, implicitly drawing on the principles that the “Council must be interpreted in continuity with the great tradition of the Church, including earlier councils. The Church is one and the same throughout all the councils” and “No opposition may be made between the spirit and the letter of Vatican II.”
Of course, this principle is consistent with doctrinal development. “The devastating consequences of a modernist and a traditionalist reception of Vatican II are there for all to see, because both parties are not merely unwilling to engage in dialogue either with God in his revealed Word or with each other but they also fight each other tooth and nail.” He adds, “A faithful Catholic—and not one who just belongs out of convention—will always have the words of Vatican II ringing in his ears and heart.”
This review focuses on three areas of inquiry in this book. One is Müller’s response to the question of what it means to be Catholic in the first-quarter of the twenty-first century. There is a second area that I will call the apologetical—the defense of the Christian faith—dimension of Müller vision of Catholic Christianity. The third area is the meta-theological and philosophical question regarding the development of Christian doctrine.
Throughout his book, Müller makes clear the philosophical realism that undergirds Catholicism. “The realistic view of God’s revelation and saving will, which embraces the whole human being, implies a realistic epistemology and insight into the identity of truth and reality.” This view presumes an epistemic realism, namely, that we can know the truth about reality, and, also, the identity of truth and reality: a proposition is true if and only if what it asserts is in fact the case about objective reality; otherwise, it is false.
Fundamental to doctrinal development is the idea of “propositional revelation.” John Henry Newman held that revealed truths, what he called “supernatural truths of dogma,” have been “irrevocably committed to human language.” God’s written revelation, according to the late Ian Ker’s reading of Newman, “necessarily involves propositional revelation.” This propositional revelation in verbalized form, or what Newman called the “dogmatical principle,” is at once true though not exhaustive, “imperfect because it is human,” adds Newman, “but definitive and necessary because given from above.”
Newman is, arguably, clearly inspired by the fifth century monk, St. Vincent of Lérins. So, too, is Vatican II. John XXIII in Gaudet Mater Ecclesia (his address opening the Council) said:
For the deposit of faith [2 Tim 1:14], the truths contained in our sacred teaching, are one thing; the mode in which they are expressed, but with the same meaning and the same judgment [eodem sensu eademque sententia], is another thing.
The subordinate clause in this passage is part of a larger passage from the constitution of Vatican Council I, Dei Filius, and this passage is itself from the Commonitorium 23 of Vincent:
Therefore, let there be growth and abundant progress in understanding, knowledge, and wisdom, in each and all, in individuals and in the whole Church, at all times and in the progress of ages, but only within the proper limits, i.e., within the same dogma, the same meaning, the same judgment” (in eodem scilicet dogmate, eodem sensu eademque sententia). (Denzinger, no. 3020)
Cardinal Müller’s thought stands in the line of Vincent. In discussing doctrinal development and steering a course between “the identity of faith and its relevance for modern humanity, between the necessary fidelity to Tradition and essential innovation”, Müller writes,
There is also no change [permutatio] in the substance of revealed truth but simply a development [profectus] in the deeper appropriation and understanding of it (profectus fidei non permutatio in eodem scilicet dogmate, eodem sensu eademque sententia). This is also how the Second Vatican Council understands the development of doctrine in the Catholic Church in accordance with the mutually dependent Sacred (Apostolic) Tradition, Sacred Scripture and the Church’s Magisterium of the pope and the bishops united with him.
Returning to Müller’s thesis about a realistic epistemology, it follows that without that epistemology and the corresponding idea of truth, there is “no criterion distinguishing between true and false reform,” meaning that without it we cannot preserve the same meaning and judgment (eodem sensu eademque sententia) of the truths of faith, and hence the material continuity, identity, and universality of those truths. Only then can we distinguish between true and false development.
There is also an apologetical dimension to Müller’s vision of Catholic Christianity. Müller states:
Undoubtedly, Catholic theology, in its endeavor to understand the deeper logic of the Christ event, has offered the rational potential of revealed faith, combined with a critical reception of philosophy since its Greek beginnings, as an answer to the challenge of our fragile existence in the finite world.
Against this background, Müller states, “With regard to non-believers, the Catholic takes the view that an atheism pursued without contradictions is impossible.” Müller refuses to accept the presumption of atheism, as if atheism is rational without question, and the burden of proof is upon the Christian. There is no reason to accept this presumption. Thus, apologetics is concerned with the rationality of the Christian faith. Furthermore, he adds, “The Church is a thorn in the flesh of the materialist and atheist criticism of religion.”
Our culture is dominated by post-metaphysical thinking, meaning thereby that when we think about the meaning of the totality of reality, and of man’s place in that totality, man’s thought is blocked not only towards the transcendent origin of the world, but also, regarding moral action, the transcendent authority of the natural moral law as a measure of good and evil and the basis of human dignity.
In “post-metaphysical thinking,” a historical self-revelation on the part of God does not represent a point of reference that could offer any orientation to “modern man’s” self-understanding and relation to the world. The Gospel of Christ, in the Church’s preaching and in the Bible, is then no longer “God’s word in the mouth of man” (cf. 1 Thess 2:13) but, at most, convoluted knowledge on the part of man about himself, the aesthetic and ethical content of which needs to be “unraveled.”
The rational potential of revealed faith addresses many questions: the meaning of my existence, the ontological status of my person, and its ontological uniqueness being non-reducible to a physical thing, which implies the rejection of materialism and the corresponding claim that man is just the chance product of matter-in-motion and hence just a material constellation. Apologetics also engages the question “of life with all its sufferings and struggles, hopes and disappointments, of the tremendous efforts and tragic or miserable failures.” The answer: “Only when we recognize God as the origin and goal of all being, and as the meaning of our lives, is it all not in vain.”
In this connection, given man’s ontological uniqueness, human dignity and the corresponding inalienable rights of the human person entails the rejection of “prenatal infanticide, euthanasia of the sick, the elderly, and those who are tired of life; racism; enslavement and human trafficking; inhumane penal systems; individual and state crimes against humanity; warmongering and genocide.” These and other moral wrongs Catholics must oppose. “So they also oppose any restrictions of freedom of conscience and religion in totalitarian ideologies, in surveillance states gaged by single-party rule, and in the face of propaganda hostile to families and children.”
Apologetics responds to the “philosophical objections and life-world polemics” against the Christian faith, but the latter is also defended not just with reason but also “by living a life of practiced discipleship in following Christ.”
In turning to the third and final point I want to make about Müller’s book, I will let Müller explain the relation between faith and reason:
Even though they understand faith as a gift of God’s grace and base their confession on the authority of the self-revealing God, they are nonetheless always ready to give every fellow human being reasonable information to explain the inner logic—the meaning and ground—of the hope that fills them.
Catholic World and Life View
The third aspect of Müller’s book deals with the Christian faith as a total world and life view, because it embodies the truth about the whole of human life. “Catholicism is not only something contained in doctrine but also a state of mind and a way of life.” At the core of this world and life view is an interlocking set of life-orienting beliefs regarding Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Consummation.
The following passages give you a taste of Müller’s theological vision.
• Trinitarian Christian Faith: “The Catholic believes—in contrast to mere opinions about the ‘unknown God’ (Acts 17:23)—in the Triune God ‘with divine and Catholic faith’ [Vatican I, no. 3001], i.e., with revealed faith presented by the Church as a confession of faith.”
• Creation: “The guiding principle running through all Catholic theology is the inner ordering of all created things towards God as their origin and goal. And the natural world—for the embodied, rational, and will-centered human being—remains the time-space and medium of a knowledge of an encounter with God in the word, the sacraments, and the community life of the Church.”
• Natural Theology: “The Catholic is convinced that every human being, by means of his natural reason, can conclude with complete certainty—from the contingency of the world—the unconditionality of the existence of God, who makes himself known to him as the origin and goal of his existence, helping answer man’s questions as to the meaning of being and of his search for truth.”
• Christology: “Nothing could change the world more sustainably than God becoming a man in Jesus Christ: the Incarnation of the Logos, the Word who was with God from the beginning and who is God (John 1: 1, 14). Contained in this is its redeeming arrival in the center of the human person, the justification of the ungodly . . . through his merciful grace. It is God’s greatest work, the opus Dei maximum, which, as Thomas Aquinas says, ‘is even greater than the work of creation and reveals its first and last meaning.’”
“All Christianity, in doctrine and life, hangs on a single question: Is Jesus really the Son of the eternal God who took on our humanity, spoke to us in a human way, and irreversibly changed our destiny for the better through his death and Resurrection?”
• Ecclesiology: “The history of the Catholic Church began with her foundations laid in the Christ event, then proceeding through all the peaks and troughs of time, along with changing social and cultural conditions, to the globalized world civilization we have today.”
“So it is characteristic of the Catholic faith that an inner connection exists between the divine self-revelation in Jesus Christ and the presence of Christ in the Church (Christus praesens) and as the Church in that she is sacramentally his body.”
“[E]ven before the final confession of the resurrection of the dead and of eternal life, the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church appears as the universal community of salvation and the universal means of salvation, the vaccine against the meaningless of existence.”
“In the personal encounter with God in the world and in history, what comes about is not a dissolution of the human being’s personhood, created in God’s image, but rather a redemption of it from sin, and with this a knowledge of God as the goal of the created being’s entire spiritual and moral existence.”
• Ecumenism, but No Ecclesial Relativism: “Theologically speaking, the Catholic Church does not see herself as one denomination alongside others but rather as the one, holy, apostolic Church of Christ, to which the attribute “catholic” appertains in the original sense as infallibly defined by the Church Fathers and the Magisterium. . . . In all languages, one should stick to the Greek original [of catholica] instead of a vague translation [such as ‘Christian’] because the meaning of ‘catholic’ includes not only the worldwide spread of the Church but also her orthodoxy and sacramental form.”
• Religious Relativism—No!: “What is at issue is the truth of God’s historical self-revelation in Jesus Christ. . . . Christianity as just one more of the countless different ways of making sense of the senseless would be self-deception. . . . Jesus Christ is the name of the only revolution that deserves to be called one, not just because he made something better for the next time but because he made everything good and new forever. He is the eschatological and definitive paradigm shift that renders the salvation-mediating faith even of ordinary people independent of reinterpretations, in which theology as the science of faith descends into an ideology of mastery of the world.”
Finally, Müller states a principle that we now more than ever need to heed, “[I]t is part of Catholic’s spiritual hygiene to always protect themselves—in the existential questions of human existence—from ideological viruses and ecclesiological pandemics and, beyond traditionalism and progressivism, to take only their bearings solely from God’s truth in the Gospel of Christ. This is the word of God in Sacred Scripture and the Apostolic Tradition, especially in the Creed and the Divine Liturgy, and in the binding witness and interpretation of it by the Church’s Magisterium.”
Without those sources, there is no sure and stable guide to the truth of the Catholic faith.
True and False Reform: What It Means to Be Catholic
By Gerhard Cardinal Müller
Translated by Susan Johnson
Emmaus Academic, 2023
Hardcover, xiii + 258 pages
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