Infallibility and the limits of papal power: An interview Cardinal Gerhard Müller – Catholic World Report

Archbishop Jerome Lloyd OSJVPosted by

“The best means by which we can assist the Pope and the bishops is our prayer. We trust in Jesus, the Lord of the Church …” Gerhard Ludwig Cardinal Müller in an interview with Lothar C. Rilinger.

Infallibility and the limits of papal power: An interview Cardinal Gerhard Müller – Catholic World Report
Cardinal Gerhard Müller, prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith from 2012 to 2017, speaks with students and faculty at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana Oct. 27, 2021. (CNS photo/Matt Cashore, University of Notre Dame, courtesy Today’s Catholic)

Editor’s note: The following interview was posted originally on November 15, 2022, and appears here with kind permission of Lothar C. Rilinger and English translation is by Frank Nitsche-Robinson.

Vatican ( According to the modern doctrine of constitutional law, all power in the state emanates from the people. Thus, the basis of every democratic state is the sovereignty of the people. The state of Vatican City, however, is exempt from this. In this state, in the Vatican, the people do not form the sovereign; in the smallest state in the world, the respective pope is still the sovereign. As a result, the Pope in the Vatican could exercise more legitimate power than any statesman in Western Europe. This constitutional construction, which allows for a unique abundance of power, raises questions about the limits of power. We therefore spoke with Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller, who with his book The Pope. Mandate and Mission (Der Papst. Auftrag und Sendung) has spoken up and joined the discourse on the position of the Pope, about the limits of power, both legitimate and granted by the doctrine and tradition of the Church.

Rilinger: Three leadership functions are transferred to the Pope. He is the Archbishop of Rome and thus metropolitan of the Roman ecclesiastical province. Further, he has been called the Patriarch of the West. For historical reasons, Pope Benedict XVI has renamed this task as President of the Roman Catholic Church. As the third and paramount task, he is the Pope of several Catholic churches. To fulfill this role as Pope, the First Vatican Council established that the Pope has the primacy of jurisdiction and can decide ex cathedra, that is, infallibly. Thus the Pope was granted a primacy which had always existed, but was now cast into legal form by the Council. Is this primacy an honorary primacy or is it indeed an apostolic office which – as J. Ratzinger put it – unites in itself the responsibility for the Word and the communion?

Gerhard Ludwig Cardinal Müller: The Catholic Church consists “in and of the particular Churches” (Lumen gentium 23) – of the dioceses led by a bishop. From this, we must distinguish that several dioceses are grouped into a patriarchal federation or, at the national level, into a bishops’ conference with an elected president. This is a matter of history, but not of dogmatic, which aims at the sacramental nature of the Church. The Bishop of Rome with the official title of Pope, as the successor of Peter, is the guarantor of the unity of the episcopate. He stands at the head of the bishops, just as Peter stood at the head of the apostles by virtue of his special calling by Christ himself (Mt 10:2; 16:18). Thus Christ “instituted in him a permanent and visible source and foundation of unity of faith and communion [of the bishops and their local churches].” (Lumen gentium 18; cf. 23). The primacy of the Roman Church and the personal infallibility of the Pope in the interpretation of revealed truths are thus of divine right and by no means arise only from a contingent historical constellation or even owe themselves merely to the politically justified claim to power of the bishop of the imperial capital of Rome at that time. The historical titles such as Patriarch of the Occident, President of the Italian Bishops’ Conference or Archbishop of the Roman ecclesiastical province, i.e. of the suburbic bishoprics, do not essentially belong to his primacy.

Infallibility is not a private quality or the unconditional power of command, such as the megalomaniac autocrats of this world claim for themselves, but a humble service to the Church in the name of her Lord Jesus Christ, who came “not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mk 10:45).

In the strictly revelation-theological context, the charism of infallibility in the doctrine of faith and morals, with which God has endowed his Church, conferred on him personally — and on the ecumenical Council together with him — by the Holy Spirit, is entrusted to him, so that “the Church of the living God, as the pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Tim 3:15), may present to faith in hearing and teaching the unabridged and undisguised revelation made once for all in Christ.

The Pope as “sovereign of the Vatican State” has nothing to do with this internally. The Holy See as a subject of international law serves only externally to protect the political independence of the Pope and the Roman Curia from the encroachments of politicians, of which these have been guilty so many times in history. The Vatican is not a state like any other, to which the criteria of modern statehood could or even should be fully applied. But neither is the Vatican State an absolute monarchy, as the opposing polemicists claim, but an independent administration of material Church property, at the service of the spiritual government of the Church. The Pope exercises his sovereignty over persons with Vatican passports and servants from outside on a basis of natural law and according to the state of the evolved legal culture – through bodies such as the gendarmerie, the Swiss Guard, the property administration or the banking system, which operate according to professional criteria, to name a few.

Rilinger: The communion also includes various patriarchates and Eastern churches that recognize the Pope as their head. The movement of the so-called Synodal Way seems to amount to a separation of the German local churches from the Roman Catholic Church. Do you nevertheless see a possibility that this new church remains in church and Eucharistic communion with the Roman Church, so that this new patriarchate or this new church could also recognize the Pope as spiritual head?

Cardinal Müller: The so-called Synodal Way has nothing whatsoever to do with the formation of the old patriarchal churches. Originally, the churches founded by Peter (Antioch, Alexandria through Peter’s disciple Mark, Rome) were called patriarchates. Later, Constantinople was added for political reasons, while Jerusalem was added for reasons of reverence. Then the Orthodox (autocephalous) national churches reserved the title Patriarch for the leading bishop. In Germany, however, the issue is the attempt to take possession of Catholic institutions, church taxes and building stock for an organization that has abandoned the Catholic faith in its essential elements and has definitely left the ground of revelation. The baptismal creed has been replaced by the idol of pagan LGBT ideology. Instead of looking up to the cross of Christ and carrying the flag of victory of the Risen Christ before humanity, the protagonists of the German Synod raise the rainbow flag, which represents a public rejection of the Christian image of man. They have replaced the creed with the confession to the idols of a neo-pagan religion.

Once again, the words of the eminent philosopher Max Scheler are confirmed: “Man either believes in God, or he believes in an idol (Vom Ewigen im Menschen, Bern-München 51968, 399). When Cardinal Marx, as a protagonist of the German Synodal Way, calls for not talking too much (sic!) of God and when he lays down his pectoral cross in the holy city of Jerusalem out of “consideration” for the feelings of those of other faiths, thus denying the cross as a universal sign of salvation, I prefer to stay with the apostle Paul, who “was not ashamed of the Gospel” (Rom 1:16) and who wrote to the Christians in Corinth: “But we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” (1 Cor 1:23).

Since “synodal themes” revolve exclusively and incessantly around sexuality as an egomaniacal source of pleasure, one gets the impression that sexology has been declared the leading science and has therefore replaced theology resting on revealed faith. The Barmen Theological Declaration against the German Christians from 1934 should be held up as a mirror to anyone who wants to remain faithful to Christ: “We reject the false doctrine, as though the church could and would have to acknowledge as a source of its proclamation, apart from and besides this one Word of God, still other events and powers, figures, and truths, as God’s revelation. […] We reject the false doctrine, as though the church were permitted to abandon the form of its message and order to its own pleasure or to changes in prevailing ideological and political convictions.”

The Holy See’s July 21, 2022 statement puts it this way, “The ‘Synodal Way’ in Germany has no authority to oblige bishops and faithful to adopt new forms of governance and new orientations of doctrine and morals.”

If the Synodal Way propaganda machine knew even a little about the hermeneutics of Catholic theology and the statements about the nature and mission of the Catholic Church in the Dogmatic Constitutions of Vatican II (Dei verbum; Lumen gentium), it would have thanked the ecumenical prefect Cardinal Koch for the free tutoring instead of letting off its usual fireworks of hollow phrases and brazen ignorance. To what intellectual and moral level church and theology in Germany have been run down! One can only hope that Pope Francis will exercise his authority and not fall for the staged consternation ritual of hard-core ideologues or think that he can appease them with diplomacy and pious unity talk.

Rilinger: You said that the rainbow flag is carried by the protagonists of the so-called Synodal Way. Can you explain for what reason you condemn this flag as pagan?

Cardinal Müller: In the Old Testament, the rainbow is considered a sign of God’s covenant and peace with mankind (Gen 9:11-17). However, the original religious meaning was transformed into a symbol for the peace movement. Since the 1970s the rainbow flag, in a reversal of the natural color sequence, has been considered the banner of the international LGBT ideology, which pretends to stand up against discrimination against homoerotically-inclined people, but is, in reality, the antithesis of natural and revealed anthropology. The human body in its natural way of male and female sexuality is considered merely as material, which the autonomous will transforms into an arbitrary means of orgiastic pleasure, in order to escape the basic feeling of nihilism, i.e. to escape the terrible experience of the death of God. As always, the fellow travelers of atheistic ideologies are not aware of the actual intentions of their protagonists. Or they do not want to know these intentions and have themselves readily deceived by the propaganda that anti-discrimination is the sole agenda.

Rilinger: Furthermore, the First Vatican Council decided that the primacy of jurisdiction also includes the possibility of the Pope to proclaim truths of faith ex cathedra. Thus, the Pope is granted the right to infallibly establish tenets of faith that every Catholic must believe. This authority could carry the danger of implying that the Pope is allowed to act absolutely. Yet even infallibility has its limits. What must we understand by the possibility of infallibility?

Cardinal Müller: As I said, the personal opinions and life experiences of the reigning pope are no more or less to be accepted than those of any other educated or even decent, ordinary person. Vatican II explains in Lumen gentium, once again in detail, what is meant by the infallibility of the Church in matters of faith and what is not. Dogmatic declarations can have the quality of infallibility if their content derives from Sacred Scripture and the Apostolic Tradition of the Word of God, and if they are formally presented to be believed by the competent authority of the Magisterium of the Pope and the Bishops, with the assistance of the Holy Spirit, as a truth revealed by God. However, “They do not receive a new public revelation as part of the divine deposit of faith (depositum fidei).” (Lumen Gentium, 25)

It is therefore completely absurd to think that a council or a pope could abrogate an earlier dogma, or to establish, for example, that the nature of the sacrament of Holy Orders does not include the requirement of the male sex of its recipient, or that two persons of the same sex may have a natural marriage, that is, a marriage of the unbaptized, or a sacramental marriage, that is, one of two baptized persons, or – to give another example – that the gesture of blessing over a same-sex couple has a positive effect with God, who in his creative will blessed man and woman as a married couple (Gen 1:28). In an extreme case, a pope could become a heretic as a private person and thus automatically lose his office if the contradiction to the revelation and the dogmatic teaching of the church is evident.

Rilinger: What is the process towards an ex cathedra decision? Is it a lonely decision of the Pope or is it rather the end point of a long process of struggling for the right evaluation of a truth of faith?

Cardinal Müller: The truth of the mysteries of faith is revealed and fully contained in Christ, the Word of God made flesh. It can only be a matter of struggle for the conceptual and terminological version of the revealed doctrine. The divine nature of the Son of God and the fact of his assumption of full human nature are the content of revelation. That the councils from Nicea to Chalcedon (451) have preserved this against all deviations and dilutions in the concept of homoousion, i.e. Christ being coessential with the Father of the Godhead and equal to us in human nature, is the result of dogma history. But we do not actually believe in the dogmas of the Church as human words in the Bible or the magisterial definitions, but in God in his revealed truths, which are merely expressed in human language, but do not represent mere – fallible – human opinions about God (cf. 1 Thess 2:13).

Rilinger: The primacy of the Pope is often perceived as a stumbling block, as it prevents individual local churches from going their own ways in faith. We can see this tendency in the efforts of the German local churches, which seem to have joined the Los-von-Rom (Away-from-Rome) movement through the so-called Synodal Way. Does the primacy therefore constitute the guarantee that the Catholic Church can act as a universal Church and not as a national Church?

Cardinal Müller: A national church with its own creed is an absurdity in two respects. First, the nation, the people, the culture, the language are neither productive subjects nor passive membranes that could translate a divine background noise into a human melody according to the taste of the contemporaries. Rather, the consubstantial Son of the Father is the one Word of God who communicated Himself to us fully and definitively in the humanity of Jesus.

The Word of God unites the faithful in the Pentecostal spirit of the Father and the Son across the diversity of cultures into the one Church. Towards the end of the 2nd century, in response to the Gnostics of his and all times and countering the fundamental falsification of the Christian mysteries of unity as well as of the Trinity of God, the Incarnation, the sacramentality of the Church and the corporeity of salvation, Irenaeus of Lyons emphasized the unity and communion of the universal Church on the basis of apostolic tradition. “The Church, having received this preaching and this faith, although scattered throughout the whole world, yet, as if occupying but one house, carefully preserves it. […]For, although the languages of the world are dissimilar, yet the import of the tradition is one and the same. For the Churches which have been planted in Germany do not believe or hand down anything different, nor do those in Spain, nor those in Gaul, nor those in the East, nor those in Egypt, nor those in Libya, nor those which have been established in the central regions of the world.” (Against Heresies I, 10, 2).

Rilinger: The Petrine primacy has historically developed from the original tripartite primacy of John, James, and Peter, as documented in the New Testament. Can you trace the development from the tripartite primacy to the primacy of Peter and thus of the Pope?

Cardinal Müller: We encounter these three apostles in the synoptic Gospels as the closest circle of apostles within the college of the twelve apostles. Post-Easter and post-apostolic, due to the early Christian mission, local churches with a college of presbyters, also with deacons, presided over by a single bishop, have developed. The bishop then also represents in his person the diachronic and synchronic unity of the Church in the succession of the apostles and the inner continuity of the Church with its origin in Christ and the apostles. Since only the Bishop of Rome is the personal successor of Peter, while the other bishops are successors of the Apostles according to their entire college, the prerogatives of Simon in his capacity as Peter, as the rock on which Christ, the Son of the living God, will build his Church, apply also to the Bishop of Rome. In the course of time, the title of Pope has emerged to summarize the Petrine ministry of the Roman bishop in one term.

Rilinger: Even if the Pope announces a decision ex cathedra only in exceptional cases, the question arises as to how the Pope prepares his decisions. Does he rely on a circle of advisors? And how is this circle of advisors composed? Does the Pope consult with personal friends or professional advisors who are paid for their services, or does he rely on the support of the cardinals, who are supposed to be the born advisors of the Pope?

Cardinal Müller: Even if doctrinal decisions of the Church in particular cases infallibly reflect revelation because they are borne by the charism of the Holy Spirit, they nevertheless require the best possible human preparation so that revelation “under the guiding light of the Spirit of truth is religiously preserved and faithfully expounded in the Church.” (Lumen gentium 25). To this end the Pope and the bishops are inwardly committed. Also, for the general government of the Church, the Pope is to rely first on the College of Cardinals, which, after all, represents the Roman Church and – like the presbyterate advises a bishop – advises the Pope collegially/synodally. As in all cases, an advisory body composed by the supreme decision-maker along the lines of compliancy and cronyism is of little use and does more harm than good to the incumbent. The latter does not need the praises that flatter human vanity, but the critical expertise of collaborators who are not interested in the benevolent gestures of the superior, but in the success of his office, i.e. the pontificate, for the Church.

Rilinger: Through the primacy of jurisdiction, the Pope can proclaim dogmas that must be followed by the people of God. However, even a dogma could not be withdrawn from discourse, so that doubts about the truth of the dogma could arise through theological and philosophical development. Then, if the doubts become evident, must the dogma be upheld or would there not rather be the possibility of forgetting it – as Karl Rahner put it – since every dogma should be open to the future?

Cardinal Müller: For Rahner, “open to the future” does not mean borrowing from an evolutionary understanding of truth, but rather the deepest possible conceptual and spiritual understanding of revealed truth on the part of an individual Christian or the entire people of God. One must distinguish between the believed truth and its linguistic version. The truth of God is completely revealed in Christ, but it remains the ever greater mystery, which makes itself known to us in our language, but cannot be encompassed by our concepts and therefore cannot be rationalistically broken down to a calculation. The act of faith is not directed towards the confessional formula – as it were, towards the precious setting of the infinitely more valuable diamond – but towards the content, namely towards God, who himself is the truth (cf. Thomas Aquinas, Summa theologiae II-II q. 1 a. 2 ad 2).

Rilinger: J. Ratzinger even speaks of the fact that popes could also become a scandalon, because as human beings they believe in wanting to establish a way, which from their logic could present the appearance of legitimacy, but contradicts the divine word. Is this also a limit of infallibility?

Cardinal Müller: It is not a question of limiting the infallibility of the Church in the full presentation of revelation, since it owes itself to a charism of the Holy Spirit. But every pope must distinguish precisely between his task and himself as a private person. He must not impose his preferences on other Christians, like the Chinese, for instance, must study the Mao Bible or the wisdom of their “Great Chairman.” Nor must a pope or bishop or other church superior abuse the trust, which is readily placed in him in a fraternal atmosphere, in order to provide his incompetent or corrupt friends with church sinecures. If there was a traitor among the apostles chosen by Jesus and even Peter denied Jesus in the course of the Passion, then we know that church officials throughout history and in the present can also fail and abuse their office selfishly or narrow-mindedly.

We have an example even in matters of faith, as Paul opposed Peter to his face when the latter allowed himself a dangerous ambiguity in the “truth of the gospel” (Gal 2:11-14). Our affective and effective attachment to the Pope and to our bishop or pastor has nothing to do with the unworthy personality cult of secular autocrats. It is, rather, the brotherly love for a fellow Christian who has been entrusted with a high office, in which he can also fail. That is why loving criticism promotes the Church more than servile hypocrisy.

But the best means by which we can assist the Pope and the bishops is through our prayer. We trust in Jesus, the Lord of the Church, who before the Passion said to Simon, the rock on which he would build his Church (Mt 16:18), “Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren.” (Lk 22:31-32).

Rilinger: Eminence, thank you for these clear explanatory words.

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