[German Cardinal Gerhard Müller is the former prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. His latest book is You Shall Be a Blessing, an affirmation of priestly life and ministry presented in twelve letters. He spoke to Charles Camosy about the book, the priesthood today, the clerical abuse crisis, and other contemporary Church issues, including the controversial “synodal process” currently underway in his native Germany.]
Camosy: Professor Grove endorsed the book by noting its significance in “the wake of the clergy abuse crisis in the Catholic Church.” Can you say something about writing a book on the state of priestly life when, in many quarters, that way of life is looked at with deep skepticism in the midst of the pain, anger, and frustration which has accompanied this crisis?
Müller: The Apostle Paul sees himself as “minister of the new covenant, not in a written code but in the Spirit” (2 Cor 3:6). Like him, bishops and priests exercise a ministry in the dispensation of righteousness (cfr 2 Cor 3:9-11). Christian faith knows that God has reconciled the world to himself in Jesus Christ. From this reconciliation comes the essence of priestly ministry which all priests need to keep before their eyes 24/7: “We are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We beseech you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (2 Cor 5:20).
When priests cause resistance and annoyance on account of the Gospel of the crucified Lord, they should rejoice because for his disciples it cannot go better than for their Lord, who sent the ordained shepherds of his Church like “sheep in the midst of wolves” (Mt 10:16). If we, laypeople or clergy, are scolded and ridiculed because we are Christians, we must not be ashamed but glorify the Lord (cfr 1Pet 4:16). It is something else if we shepherds of the Church are not “examples to the flock” (1 Petr 5, 3) of Christ, but instead, by grave sins or even public crimes, destroy the trust of our fellow Christians and provide an occasion for outsiders to question the Church’s credibility in general.
Any honest person – Christian or not – knows that no one of us is without defects and sins as long as we live on this earth. The scandal consists in the double life: When disciples of Christ consciously present themselves as good Christians, or even make themselves well-liked as good pastors, but secretly lead lives that contradict God’s commandments and, in particular, go against the ethics and spirituality of a Catholic priest. Neither the sacramental priesthood, exercised in the name of Christ the Good Shepherd, nor celibacy for the sake of the kingdom of heaven (Mt 19:12; 1Kor 7:32), have produced the crisis of the Church today. Instead, this crisis, caused by reproachable crimes, perpetrated by a small number of clergy, comes from an interior defection from the faith, doubting the purpose of a life given to God exclusively and of perfect dedication of a shepherd to his flock. I am talking about those responsible for theological confusion in the Church, and for the implosion of moral principles, freezing to death the spiritual life of many priests. Without renewing the promises of ordination at the daily celebration of Mass, without frequent confession and faithful recitation of the breviary, even the strongest initial apostolic zeal will slacken and potentially end in catastrophe. (Another topic is psychologically ill people with pedophile tendencies who for that reason need to be prohibited from becoming priests and from marriage).
You emphasize the importance of the spiritual development of priests and a priest’s role as the first pray-er in the community. But my sense is that pastors (and especially bishops) are often bogged down with so many managerial and other responsibilities that it makes the work of spiritual discipline, and time for all the different kinds of prayer required of a good priest, quite difficult. Can we think about a model for pastors that could delegate much of the work outside of what you emphasize in this book?
The Church today has started to list and is in danger of capsizing. For this reason, many seamen and officers have slid off the ship. When bishops and priests today propagate the worst heresies, preach without preparation, and find hearing confessions annoying, they will hardly ever be admonished by their superiors, despite the fact that by acting in this way they deprive the faithful of God’s word, refuse them the grace of forgiveness, and by celebrating Mass unworthily deny them the possibility to unite the sacrifices in their lives with Christ’s sacrifice and to be strengthened by communion with Christ for their tasks in family, society, church and state. Only in cases of financial or staff mismanagement we hear demands for bishops to resign and for priests to be harshly punished. The Vatican, dioceses and parishes have to be organized in such a way that evangelization, catechesis and pastoral care take priority. External administration is no bureaucratic end in itself but has a subordinate function. These tasks need to be completed diligently, too. For them we should engage competent lay people who are deeply rooted in the Catholic faith.
There have been arguments made in recent years that priests being trained in some seminaries are in large measure cut off from lay people and the way the world works – and this has hurt the ability of future priests to connect to and have healthy relationships with lay people and especially lay ministers. What do you make of these arguments?
What counts is solid theological and pastoral formation, in particular developing a deep spirituality of imitating Christ, based on love for Jesus (cfr Jo 21:15-19), the High Priest and the Good Shepherd who “lays down his life for the sheep” (Jo 10:11). You can always improve details of priestly formation, according to the circumstances of particular communities and different times. We have to rediscover the priesthood as Christ intended it, not “reimagine” it according to our own, ever questionable preferences. Seminarians have to be trained in cooperation with laypeople working for the Church – both sides have to learn that.
For the work of evangelization, it will be particularly important to educate future priests in skills of good leadership, which is an essential aspect of priestly ministry. Without good leadership, there will not be good cooperation. And without doctrinal fidelity, there cannot be authentic evangelization.
In some countries, joint formation of priests and lay ministers has watered down the theological profile of ordained priests. Even some church leaders still seem to believe that, in the future, the ministry of priests can, or should, somehow be substituted by laypeople. That is a grave mistake, theologically and pastorally. In the ongoing “synodal process” in Germany, many participants are interested in gaining more political power in the Church. For this reason, they demand that women be ordained priests, regardless of the dogmatic Church teaching, which is rooted in the institution and in the essence of the sacrament of Holy Orders, and which must not be defamed as expression of discrimination against women in the Church. Moreover, priestly celibacy is attacked as an allegedly prude and body-hostile view on human sexuality.
If cooperation between bishops, priests, deacons and laypeople in the many ministries of our parishes, Catholic charities and theological faculties is supposed to build up the body of Christ and not serve personal ambition, we all have to get our bearings, theologically and spiritually, from the biblically based teachings of the Second Vatican Council on the common priesthood of the baptized and the hierarchical priesthood (of bishops, priests, deacons: cfr. Lumen gentium 28f). The two forms of priesthood “differ from one another in essence” – with respect to representing Christ as head and body of the Church – but “nonetheless are interrelated” (Lumen gentium 10). In the Holy Spirit, all the faithful and their shepherds, with their abilities and charisms, and undertaking “various tasks and offices,” “contribute toward the renewal and building up of the Church” (Lumen gentium 12).
One of the things I find most frustrating about the way contemporary theology is done in certain circles is how little Jesus is mentioned. By contrast, one of the things I most appreciated about this book is how insistent it is on the priesthood of Jesus being at the center of the lives of Catholic priests. Can you say more about this emphasis?
Jesus Christ is the center and mediator of our relationship to the triune God. He also is the foundation, purpose and goal of our human existence, as individuals and in community. The Church cannot be renewed unless we stop believing that we poor human beings are ourselves the light and the hope of the world. “Christ is the light of the peoples”; the Church will be relevant for our life and our journey to God, our creator and redeemer, only if she understands that “in Christ” she is “like a sacrament” for the salvation of the world, her essence and mission is to be “a sign and instrument both of a very closely knit union with God and of the unity of the whole human race” (Lumen gentium 1).
Clericalism harms the Church’s mission, but priests and bishops must lead people to deeper commitment and obedience to Christ, starting with their own obedience to the will and teachings of the Lord. As weak human beings, however, we know that we always need repentance and penance. The Church who is the Body of Christ, cannot err in her teaching of faith; and Christ is objectively at work in the sacraments. His grace is victorious in Mary, the Apostles, the Martyrs, the Doctors of the Church and all the Saints, known and unknown. The Church, “holy and always in need of being purified, always follows the way of penance and renewal,” and “like a stranger in a foreign land, presses forward amid the persecutions of the world and the consolations of God” (Lumen gentium 8).
Finally, what words of pastoral wisdom do you have for individuals (and perhaps also the families supporting them) who are discerning calls to the Catholic priesthood?
If Jesus is calling you, dear young friend, by your name, and chooses you for ministry in his kingdom, then act like the Apostles: Simply go to him, he will send you and will let you participate in his messianic consecration and authority (Mk 3:13-15). Recently, while flying from the U.S. to Rome, I read Harold Burke-Sivers’s book, Father Augustus Tolton: The Slave who became the First African-American Priest. People inside and outside the Church had put many obstacles in his way to the priesthood: He was ridiculed, insulted, humiliated, and his human dignity violated. His love for Jesus, however, was bigger than all the hatred and stupidity of this world. When we will appear before God’s judgment seat, what counts will not be the things human beings said or wrote about us, but how God thinks of us, who alone knows the heart of people. With the words of St Paul to Timothy, I would like to say to everyone called to ministry in the Lord’s vineyard: “But as for you, man of God, shun all this; aim at righteousness, godliness, faith, love, steadfastness, gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith; … keep the commandment unstained and free from reproach until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ“ (1 Tim 6:11-14).
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