A child’s dream
· Speaking with Cardinal Müller of the Holy Office ·
Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller — Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, austerely known as the Holy Office in days of old — stunned me from the very outset by receiving me at his home, a few steps from the Vatican, wearing sandals and a black T-shirt.
Friendly and cheerful, he excused himself for his informal attire, alluding to the heat, and led me to his beautiful study where his books are perfectly arranged. He reminded me straightaway that this had been Cardinal Ratzinger’s apartment, and so I saw it in a different light as I tried to imagine the former Pope’s gentle presence and love of learning. Gerhard Müller, a giant of a man hailing from the Rhine region, differs from his illustrious predecessor, whose complete works he is in the process of editing. Naturally extroverted, he half-jokingly begged that we not talk about women, but rather about Our Lady. Yet he still managed to steer the conversation back to our original topic, chatting about his relationship with women, and especially about the extraordinary affection he bore his mother.
“I think every man has a special bond with his mother, since it was she who brought him into the world. Today, I think back to my own mother with the mind of an adult, and I realize she was my first and most important reference point for every experience, beginning with prayer. I still remember her in the evenings, sitting on my bed, teaching me to pray and recognize Jesus’ presence, a real face, a reliable confidant. It was from her that I received that initial sense of trust which lies at the root of any faith and a child’s relationship with God. From her I understood that God was truly concerned with me, that He was not just an abstract philosophical concept. There were images of Mary in the room and from an early age we were accustomed to turning to the Church as an aspect of God’s Face”.
The bond between family and parish was strong and enduring: I asked the Cardinal how his parents reacted when he chose the priesthood; a choice he made after attending the local Catholic secondary school where he had the privilege of being taught by good teachers, especially by good women teachers and particularly in math and English.
“As far as I can remember I always wanted to follow the path of priesthood, as evidenced by a family anecdote: my mother used to recount that one day — I was four years old — we met Bishop Albert Stohr of Mainz, an excellent theologian who made such a deep impression on me that I exclaimed: ‘when I grow up I want to be a bishop!’. My mother was a housewife, very attentive to the upbringing of her four children, two boys and two girls, whom she always cared for with solicitude and, if necessary, strong discipline. My father was a worker at Opel, but to maintain his large family he also labored as a farmer. My two older sisters were emancipated women, involved in their professions, one an elementary school teacher, and the other working for an insurance company. Today, I have 23 nephews, nieces, grandnephews and grandnieces, and I think of them whenever anyone claims that we priests are out of touch with real life, for they keep me up date with today’s problems and changes”.
When I asked him whether, in addition to these family members, he fostered friendships with other women, he was silent for a few moments. He then told me about the good sisters at his nursery school whom he had kept in touch with and helped through the years. He also recalled his female students from years of teaching, yet he does not seem to have a close friendship with any of them.
He certainly speaks affectionately of two Bavarian sisters who lived with him for many years and who shared his pastoral experiences. “I remember in particular that one of them looked after abandoned children for forty years, especially those from broken families who suffered from loneliness and neglect. For me it was very important to listen to her and to share in her mission. I always thought that her work with children was as important as mine as a bishop”. And he hasn’t changed his mind since he became Prefect. During an audience with Pope Francis, while introducing employees of the Congregation to the Pontiff, he included cleaning staff as well.
Since the reading list of a cultured Catholic must include women authors, their books can hardly be excluded from a complete theological and spiritual formation. This was also the case for the cardinal: “Reading Teresa of Avila was of course important for me, as well as reading the writings of the other Teresa, Thérèse of Lisieux. But I also studied Hildegard of Bingen in particular and wrote three papers on her. What especially interested me was her theology through images, a theology that reevaluates symbols and their power as a way of understanding complex realities. The idea of deciphering theological mysteries through images, and thus reevaluating the role of intuition, balances the rational theology of Thomas with early Scholasticism. In the wake of Hildegard, medieval feminine mysticism held a great fascination for me, from Catherine’s idea of the Church to the visions of Bridget of Sweden. But I was also deeply impressed by Edith Stein, by her biography as well as her works, written in the most beautiful German. Elizabeth of Hungary (also known as Elizabeth of Thuringia) was also very important for me, as she is for all German believers. She was a contemporary of St Francis of Assisi and followed the same path of total self-giving to the poor. Even as she governed after her husband’s death, she became poor and was deeply involved in caring for the poor and for lepers. She is a tremendous example of the gift of self and of wielding power wisely and admirably.
We then moved on to consider problems of women the Cardinal has met, not only in Germany but also during his frequent travels in Latin America. There he denounced the regrettable plight of women stemming from instable family life — a circumstance forcing more and more women to shoulder the burden of feeding and educating children — and from an attitude he doesn’t hesitate to label “macho”. He also recalled that when he was Bishop of Regensburg he collaborated closely with dioceses in eastern countries to fight against the trafficking of women duped into being taken to western countries for purposes of prostitution. He also remembers having had many difficulties in political circles in this regard.
Obviously his personal history has influenced his attitude toward collaboration with women. “Today women are welcome colleagues in diocesan offices where they carry out countless tasks, often in managerial posts, and are now deeply involved in the life of the Church”.
He was amazed by my remark that although women are willing to help, they complain they are seldom heard. He said his experience in Germany was quite different; women truly count and their role is officially recognized — they receive a salary — and it is not merely a matter of volunteer work.
Müller also found in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith a number of women collaborators whose roles are anything but secondary. He does not hide his esteem for his secretary, Clothilde Mason, and other women colleagues, almost all of whom are married with families. He also says that in appointing women theologians to work at the Congregation, difficulties also arise, because, if they have a family, these women are not prepared to move to Rome. In addition, he alluded that the new International Theological Commission soon to be appointed by the Pope will include a larger number of women than the outgoing Commission: perhaps an increase from two to five or six.
With regard to female presence in the life of the Church — which he qualifies as quite different from male presence, even with regard to theological research — the Cardinal recalls a piece Bergoglio wrote on the Jesuits, in which the future Pope stressed that the difference between Catholics and Calvinists lies precisely in the ability of Catholics to take into consideration emotions too — and not solely the intellect — on the path that leads to God.
This is a striking reflection, especially today when Protestant denominations have opened the door for women to serve in ministerial roles, and therefore seem more “feminist” than the Catholic Church. In this respect, Müller emphasized that the presence of women should be recognized in its uniqueness and not as a mere imitation of the male role. For this reason he insists on the need to recall that the Church must primarily be a mother and not an institution; for an institution cannot be loved but a mother can. Moreover the family, the domestic church, is a primary model for the Church and women play a crucial role in it, albeit distinct from the male role.
The last question was the most pressing. It concerned the conflictual sequence of events concerning American sisters in the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. The Cardinal’s dealings with them have been complex as of late. In the meantime we must bear in mind that “they do not represent all U.S. women religious, but a group of North American sisters who have formed an association. We have received many distressed letters from religious women belonging to the same congregations, suffering deeply from the direction their sisters are taking as they steer away from their original mission. As a consequence, these congregations are losing vocations; they risk dying out. Above all, we have tried to reduce conflict and soothe tensions. This is partly thanks to Bishop Sartain, a very gentle man, whom we sent to engage with them. Above all we need to clarify that we are not misogynists.... Of course, we do have a different concept of religious life, but we hope to help them rediscover their identity”.
There is no doubt that Cardinal Müller — the German who, following the American Cardinal William Levada, inherited from Ratzinger perhaps the most difficult position in all Church governance — wishes to establish cordial and open relations of true collaboration with these women, without any thought of great internal upheavals.
St. Peter’s Square
Nov. 22, 2017
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