Card. Müller on authority of Popes, possibility of others correcting contradictory papal teachings

Back in December, First Things published a piece by the former Prefect of the CDF, Gerard Ludwig Card. Müller on the sacrament of penance. His observations on objective sin and subjective guilt, about knowledge, etc., are germane to a whole raft of questions being raised today, from the admission of the civilly remarried to Communion (some claim that with Amoris laetitia this is now permitted), to the celebration of funerals of manifest sinners (I wrote about that today in another post).

Today I see a new piece by Card. Müller in First Things about the Pope’s authority and teaching.

How do the pope’s Magisterium and the Tradition of the Church relate? When he interprets the words of Jesus, must the pope be in continuity with the Tradition and the previous Magisterium, including that of the most recent popes? Or is it rather the Church’s Tradition that has to be reinterpreted in the light of the pope’s new words? What if there are contradictions?

Really good questions.  Several Cardinals respectfully offered questions in this vein to the Pope about how certain aspects of Amoris laetitia seem to contradiction earlier, crystal clear teachings of Pope St. John Paul II.

Read the whole thing, but here is the last part…


What has been said above refers to the teaching of the Church, but also to the administration of her means of grace in the sacraments. In its Decree on Holy Communion, the Council of Trent declares that the Church has the power to determine or modify the external rites of the sacraments. [For example, after the Council a new form of the sacrament of Confirmation was introduced.] At the same time, the Council denies that the Church has the right or ability to interfere with the essence of the sacraments, insisting that “their substance is preserved.” [For example, the Church cannot say that rice cakes and sake can be used for the Eucharist.  No Pope can change that.] When the Council of Trent defines that there are three acts of the penitent that form part of the sacrament of penance (repentance with the resolve not to sin again, confession, and satisfaction), then the popes and bishops of subsequent ages, too, are bound by this declaration. [NB] They are not [NOT] free to grant sacramental absolution for sins, or to authorize their priests to do so, when penitents do not actually show signs of repentance or where they explicitly reject the resolve not to sin again. [No expression of sorrow for sin committed, no expression of firm purposes of amendment… no absolution.  It must not be given.] No human being can undo the inner contradiction between the effect of the sacrament—that is, the new communion of life with Christ in faith, hope, and love—and the penitent’s inadequate disposition. Not even the pope or a council can do so, because they lack the authority, nor could they ever receive such authority, because God never asks human beings to do something that is both self-contradictory and contrary to God himself.  [Those who do not have a firm purpose of amendment of their lives cannot be validly absolved and, hence, cannot be admitted to the Eucharist, which is to be received when the communicant knows she is not in the state of grace, and the minister must not administer when there is a PUBLIC manifestation of sin and probability of scandal.]

One must keep in mind that doctrinal statements have varying degrees of authority. They require varying degrees of consent, as expressed by the so-called “theological notes.” The acceptance of a teaching with “divine and Catholic faith” is required only for dogmatic definitions. [The controversial bits of Amoris are no where near that level. Nor are innovative interpretations of those controversial bits.] It is also clear that the pope or bishops must never ask anyone to act or teach against the natural moral law. The obedience of the faithful toward their ecclesial superiors is therefore no absolute obedience, and the superior cannot demand absolute obedience, because both the superior and those entrusted to his or her authority are brothers and sisters of the same Father, and they are disciples of the same Master. Therefore, it is harder to teach than to learn, because teaching is associated with a greater responsibility before God. The affirmation “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29) has its validity also and especially in the Church. Against the principle of absolute obedience prevailing in the Prussian military state, the German bishops insisted before Bismarck: “It is certainly not the Catholic Church that has embraced the immoral and despotic principle that the command of a superior frees one unconditionally from all personal responsibility.” [Earlier, Müller had introduced his topic with a review of Bismark and the Kulturkampf and the reaction to the Church’s teaching about papal infallibility.]

[NB] When private opinions or spiritual and moral limitations enter into the exercise of ecclesiastical authority, then sober and objective criticism as well as personal correction are called for, especially from the brothers in the episcopal office. Thomas Aquinas will not be suspected of relativizing Petrine primacy and the virtue of obedience. All the more elucidating is the way in which he interprets the incident in Antioch, culminating in Paul’s public correction of Peter (Gal 2:11). According to Aquinas, the event teaches us that under certain circumstances an apostle may have the right and even the duty to correct another apostle in a fraternal way, that even an inferior may have the right and duty to criticize the superior (cf. Commentary on Galatians, Chap. II, lecture 3). This does not mean that one may reduce the magisterium to a private opinion, so as to dispense oneself from the binding power of the authentic and defined teaching of the Church (cf. Lumen Gentium 37). It only means that one must understand well the precise meaning of authority in the Church in general and the role of Peter’s ministry in particular. This is especially true when the conflict does not arise between the pope’s teaching and one’s own vision, [HERE IT IS…] but between the pope’s teaching and a teaching of previous popes that is in accordance with the uninterrupted tradition of the Church[That’s it.  There is a seeming conflict between what Pope Francis taught in Amoris and what St. John Paul taught in Familiaris consortio, 84, Reconciliatio et paenitentia, 34, Sacramentum caritatis, 29, and Veritatis splendor, 56, 79 and 81, etc.]

As Pope Benedict XVI explained during the Mass on the occasion of his taking possession of the Chair of the Bishop of Rome on 7 May 2005, “The power that Christ conferred upon Peter and his Successors is, in an absolute sense, a mandate to serve. The power of teaching in the Church involves a commitment to the service of obedience to the faith.” He continues, “The pope is not an absolute monarch whose thoughts and desires are law. On the contrary: The pope’s ministry is a guarantee of obedience to Christ and to his Word. He must not proclaim his own ideas, but rather constantly bind himself and the Church to obedience to God’s Word, in the face of every attempt to adapt it or water it down, and every form of opportunism.”

Thus, Card. Müller.


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  1. Dean says:

    “Remember that you are a beloved child of God”, those were the first words more than a decade ago after my first confession in over 4 years in which I had confessed to serious and to habitual sins. They changed my life. I went in sorry because of the negative impact my actions were having on my family, but came out repentant and resolved to amend my life. Despite this resolve, taking the steps to decisively reject sin was hard and took time, and more than a few confessions. I thank God that my priest was willing to accompany me, never losing patience, but also never minimizing the seriousness of my sins.

  2. JMody says:

    Cardinal Müller is a definite treasure. Such a shame that he is no longer running CDF. I was struck by two things reading this:
    1. In his exposition on the question of obedience and absolute obedience, how does this NOT apply to Archbishop Lefebvre and the SSPX? Are they not acting from a well-FORMED conscience and a desire to remain loyal to the true Master, and expecting the Petrine ministry to be executed properly?
    2. This piece was sort of the cherry on top, but I have noticed that all discussions of Tradition and Magisterium and previous popes only mentions two consistently, and four at most — St. John Paul II and Bl. Paul VI, Benedict XVI less frequently, and only occasionally Bl. John XXIII. It’s almost as if the 258 or so in between St. Peter and Bl. John XXIII were deaf, dumb, and unlettered*. In the area of marital relations and morality, I always thought Bl. Pius XI’s Casti Connubii is a masterpiece of BOTH theology and concise language. Why is he thrown to the curb? It’s not just because he was from … you know, … BEFORE … is it?

    *While some may have been, some were definitely NOT the “knaves” alluded to by Belloc in his proof of the divine protection of the Church.

  3. GordonB says:

    Not to split hairs, but this sounds remarkably alike to what I understand (though perhaps my understanding is wrong) the Society of St. Pius X says when raising concerns about certain teachings of Vatican II. Though SSPX’s concerns are with respect to a pastoral non-dogmatic counsel instead of with a specific act or teaching of a Pope


  5. Imrahil says:

    Of course, this “sounds a lot like the SSPX”. The thing is, as far as the possibility of error by the Magisterium (acting below the level of infallibility) and the non-absoluteness of the duty of obedience is concerned, the SSPX are simply obviously right.

    The only question, as regards SSPX, is whether in actual case Vatican II, the interpretations of Vatican II, and the liturgy reform contain, directly and/or indirectly, such errors as the SSPX claim they do. (And of course, in case the previous teaching also was fallible, simply which is right: in so far as the Magisterium can err, the Magisterium can correct itself.)

    There is dispute about the facts. There cannot be any sensible dispute about the principle.

  6. TonyO says:

    GordonB, there can be an appearance of the same kind of “carping” about how it “is” or “is not” obedience to the authority of the Teachers. I propose – and I expect to write a blog post about – a standard by which one can tell the difference. But I will briefly point out the direction of the idea here.

    The true Teaching Church builds on its own foundations ever higher pillars for supporting the truth. That building process means that in order for some new statement, some new expression, some new phrasing , some new proposal of how to understand X, to be right with the Teaching Church, it must explicitly adhere to the past teaching and BUILD on it.

    Therefore, anything said new is not an act authentically put forth by the true Teaching Church if it does not explain how it connects with the old. If it simply drops in a new saying, a new phrase, without manifesting how that newly proposed saying keeps the old teaching true, it ISN’T a true teaching act. It is mere cymbals clashing. The office of teacher is not quite the office of the original Apostles – we don’t get to expound new revelation. All the Church can do is EXPLAIN revelation that is already complete. But explain means just that: you have to draw out of what IS ALREADY understood that new facet of truth that used to be hidden, and in doing so authentically you have to MAKE MANIFEST how that new kernel coordinates with the old, how it keeps all the old teachings true and expands on truth, how it SHOWS FORTH the old truth as being just as true as ever, alongside the new kernel.

    If the new fails that, it fails to be authentic teaching from the magisterial office of the Church, and thus is personal musings. It might be very wise personal musings, and maybe some future pope can show how those musings give rise to a new insight that CAN be made consistent with the old. But until the Teaching Office can show forth that connection, the musings cannot become authentic Teaching.

    That’s my 2 cents. If I have spoken wrong, someone please show me the Church’s documents which show that. Thank you.

  7. Fallibilissimo says:

    I’m by no means an expert on any of this and I’m confused as to why the Church permitting some people (rare cases with rather particular conditions) receiving the Eucharist ought to be seen as contradicting the tradition of the Church.
    Please feel free to correct me, I would really appreciate the input. The discipline so far is that we may not receive the Eucharist when merely aware of having committed grave sin, without sacramental confession. Some exceptions apply in extraordinary circumstances but one must be morally certain of being in a state of grace (I think I got that right).
    At the end of the day, a person receiving the Eucharist in a state of actual mortal sin would be doing something so bad, it be better for that person not to receive. However, as the following section of the Catechism explains, we know that culpability can be diminished or even removed totally if certain conditions apply.
    “To form an equitable judgment about the subjects’ moral responsibility and to guide pastoral action, one must take into account the affective immaturity, force of acquired habit, conditions of anxiety or other psychological or social factors that lessen, if not even reduce to a minimum, moral culpability.”
    This is from section 2352 which deals with grave matter (lust) following an explanation of the sin of masturbation. If memory serves me right, this section was either referenced or directly quoted in AL. Also note how this is grave matter.

    So, as I understand it, for sins like masturbation or other grave matter, the same rule expressed above applies: in ordinary circumstances, even if you’re certain of being in state of grace (say thanks to an act of perfect contrition or you know that one of the three necessary conditions for actual mortal sin was absent) you may not receive the Eucharist without first having recourse to confession. But this is a discipline whose exceptions shows that it is not absolute. Isn’t AL and what men like Cdl Coccopaliero arguing for a mere addition to the discipline?
    I’m thinking for example of a woman who’s living in a favela or slum with a faux abusive “husband”. She has children with this man and ceasing conjugal relations would result in her being thrown into severe misery and her children subject to the cruelty of this man. She rediscovers her love for Christ would want to change her predicament but is under this difficult situation. Couldn’t she be in an actual state of grace and even, thanks to advice from a priest (so called internal forum), discern this state of her soul to be knowable? If so, is it really a contradiction of Church teaching to change the discipline for such a case?

    This indult or allowance (I’m not sure what to call it) in the discipline doesn’t say that adultery is good. It doesn’t say we may do an evil that good may come of it. The answers to those questions are unchanged and quite frankly immutable. It’s a fine distinction I know, but it’s only dealing with determining the state of the person’s souls in relationship to Christ: is charity dead or not in this person. That’s the ultimate consideration when approaching communion, isn’t it?

    Again as my name here suggests, I’m just a fallible guy trying to make my way through the galaxy, but as I understand it, this proposal sound like it’s building on tradition using the very distinctions it has bestowed on us.

    The wisdom of such a move, the practicality of it or the measure to which we will see proper appliance is another discussion.

  8. Antonin says:

    Hard not to draw analogies with SSPX ..AL sprang from a council of Bishops and reflected the consensus of the Bishops. It stands as written …ambiguity and all. The problem is that those Bishops who interpret this as admitting divorced to communion through the internal forum have received explicit support from the Pope. Those who have not have experienced silence and the Dubia is also not answered. To say that this is not a major crisis in the history of the Church is to bury ones head in the sand. But this is largely irrelevant for those of us who have to continue to do our best with the sacraments and living our life and staying as faithful as we can to our vows.

    I have been married 25+ years but know family members who are divorced and it is truly painful and the call is to still love them. Nobody wants divorce and nobody heads into marriage with the thought of divorce. But it happens and the issue is that they need the church more than ever.

    On a pastoral level (meaning talking to REAL people in all the complexities of their lives) this is a serious challenge and the Bishops were primarily addressing a pastoral issue. Priests in the ground are called to manifest the light of Christ to a broken humanity …..I am not convinced that theologically the internal forum at the level,of the priest is not an appropriate venue to address these issues and that seems to be the nun of the controversy … the issue is not divorced and remarried receiving …that teaching remains…at issue, it seems to me, is the forum to address the problem….and that is where the controversy lies.

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