In July 2012, when Gerhard Müller was promoted from bishop of Regensburg, Germany, to archbishop and prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, L'Osservatore Romano interviewed him. Müller obviously knew that this was the curtain-raiser on his term at the congregation and that the interview would set a tone.
Benedict XVI was pope, and the exit of American Cardinal William Levada as prefect of the congregation left at least two burning issues that needed Müller's immediate attention: the congregation's discussions with the traditionalist Society of St. Pius X and with the U.S. Leadership Conference of Women Religious.
The problems and challenges facing the church, Müller told the newspaper, are serious, including "the problem of groups -- of the so-called right or left -- that occupy much of our time and attention."
"For the future of the church, it's important to overcome ideological conflicts from whatever side they come," he said.
Though Müller would also say that the congregation's "principal task ... is to proclaim the Gospel" -- a positive idea -- it is interesting to note that he begins to define his tenure in the Holy Office as overcoming "problems."
His discussions with the followers of Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre, who rejected the Second Vatican Council and ordained his own priests and bishops, and with LCWR would focus on the fact that being Catholic means believing what the church teaches, Müller said.
"There are no negotiations about the word of God, and one can't simultaneously believe and not believe," he said. "One can't pronounce the three religious vows and then not take them seriously [a reference to LCWR?], just as one can't make reference to the tradition of the church and then accept it only in some parts [a reference to the Pius X society?]."
Müller then discussed the ordination of women to the priesthood -- probably not directed at the Lefebvrites. He said, "For the Catholic church it is completely obvious that men and women have the same value," but women still can't be priests. That, too, is apparently obvious.
People who support such notions "ignore an important aspect of priestly ministry," he said. "Priestly ministry can't be considered a sort of position of earthly power, thinking there will be emancipation only when everyone can occupy it."
(At this point, I'd like to direct readers to Phyllis Zagano's column. I would respectfully ask Müller -- since he's the one who brought up the idea of priesthood and power -- to reflect on the questions Zagano highlights. Particularly, are his experiences of obedience and authority dimensions of a life of true fraternity or "instruments of power and of enslavement, perhaps disguised by an unhealthy spirituality"?)
Müller's words from 2012 give a context to his comments of 2014. I mean, honestly, who needs "to clarify that [they] are not misogynists"? I fully expected the next sentence to be: "Some of my best friends are women!"
Müller wants to help congregations "rediscover their identity" because they "have no more vocations and risk dying out." How's the health of women religious orders in his native Germany? Did he spur a growth of vocations for priests in Regensburg? Are dwindling numbers there a sign of loss of identity? Looking at numbers is too easy a dodge and doesn't grasp the complexity of 21st-century society, whether in the U.S. or Europe. Serious people know this.
I have to wonder to whom Müller has been talking about U.S. women religious over the last two years. LCWR leadership -- out of respect for the process, they say -- remain silent about their dealings with the Vatican and their overseer, Seattle Archbishop J. Peter Sartain. That may be a strategy that works for them, but I fear it is not. Müller can and does make statements anytime he wants. Remember, it was the Vatican that released Müller's statement to LCWR in May. That was no leaked document.
I also have to wonder where Pope Francis is on this issue. Despite periodic calls for a more incisive feminine presence in the church, Francis has not brought the fervor he feels for poor people, the elderly and youth to women's issues. For statements like Müller's latest to appear in L'Osservatore Romano is another black mark on Francis' administration.