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Being Obedient to Christ

An Interview

Gerhard Cardinal Müller


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Gerhard Cardinal Müller is prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith at the Vatican. Plough had the opportunity to interview him while he was visiting the United States along with Pope Francis in September 2015.

Plough: What do you see as the most urgent challenge facing Christians today?

Müller: All Christians, churches, and denominations are confronted with a big wave of secularization, an understanding of the life of human beings without God and linked only with this world. But this is a finite world, and the deep questions we have – the existential questions of where we are coming from, where we are going to, and what the sense of our life is – will find an answer only in the light of Jesus Christ and God, the creator of the world.

Gerhard Cardinal Müller being interviewed by Plough’s Doreen Arnold.

Plough’s interview with Gerhard Cardinal Müller

Do you think that secularization inherently brings more persecution against the church?

We know from history about the classical persecution of the Christians, but now we have other forms of persecution aimed at keeping Christian thinking out of public life, to make Christians ridiculous, to say that Christianity belongs to the past and has nothing to do with the future. We must not complain under these persecutions. Jesus promised us this persecution; not only bloody persecution but also the persecution of people speaking badly about or against us. We must be very firm and true in our witness for Jesus Christ. What Jesus said is truth, and the truth of God will make us free.

What keeps you going during the difficult times, when your task becomes hard and the burden is great?

Jesus didn’t promise us an easy life; he promised life according to his passion. A priest identifies himself with the passion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the hope in the risen Lord. A Catholic priest cannot live like a functionary or an official of the state; it is not a worldly or secular profession. One needs a personal relationship to Jesus Christ, and must try to live in his spirit, in the Holy Spirit. It is only possible with daily prayer. We Catholic priests have the breviary, a collection of the psalms and other prayers, and readings of Holy Scripture and of the church fathers. We are obliged, we have the duty – not an external but an internal duty – to pray every day the morning prayer, the Lauds, and the evening prayer, the Vespers, and to pray before going to bed with all the reflections of conscience: what we have done good or bad. It is very important to have a spiritual communion with Jesus Christ because a priest must be the holy representative, the visible representative, of Jesus Christ. As human beings we are sinners who need daily forgiveness, striving become more and more saint-like in the sense that the grace of God fills our personal life.

In Pope Francis’s 2015 encyclical, Laudato Si’, he links consumerism’s lack of reverence for the environment with our society’s lack of reverence for the unborn child. That fact is surprising to the average American because of the way the media covered the document. In your view, what are the key elements of the Holy Father’s teachings that get lost in the media fray?

Sometimes representatives of the mass media are only interested in their own view of things. They select what they want to present to the public. That is a problem. The Holy Father said this encyclical is not only an environmental encyclical; it speaks of the house of the world which is given to us from God. The environment – the trees, and the animals, and so on – is only one element. He also speaks about the environment of the community and the society. This encyclical has social dimensions. He says God must be praised for all he has given to us. We cannot destroy his creation by exploiting the environment and also human beings. There is so much exploitation of people in poor countries, in rich countries, and also in the United States. You have many poor people who are exploited. It is wrong that only a part is extraordinarily rich while another part is extraordinarily poor. The gifts of creation are given to us all. Everyone has the right to live from the earth and all the resources given to us. That is the message from the Holy Father. It’s not ecological in a very small sense. He also speaks about the bread and the wine for the Eucharist, and of the Holy Trinity, and all the basic elements of Christian faith that are revealed to us.

That is the theme of this encyclical, not just some elements in which journalists are interested. I can understand the journalists: they have to fill the newspaper every day. That is a structural problem they have. They cannot go into depth. So they pick out some elements and reduce this wide thinking, this deep introduction to the understanding of human existence in the light of God the creator and our redeemer. The message of the Holy Father is to remember the meaning of human existence, of human life, and to take care of children. He spoke in this encyclical against abortion, in favor of life. Every life is important. Whether someone is ill or healthy, young or old, it’s not our business to define if a life is worth living. Everybody is a mystery and it is only God who understands this mystery in each person. We must respect the life of everybody and take care of everybody. He underlines the role of mothers and fathers – that we are not living only for ourselves, but that the happiness of our existence consists in giving our life for others.

I learned you’re a former student of Gustavo Gutiérrez, a famous liberation theologian. What are some of the things you treasure most from what you learned from Gutiérrez?

He came from Latin America, so widened our horizon to all of humankind. His main question was: How can we speak of the love of God, seeing what is happening in the countries of Latin America where there are no human rights, no respect for human dignity? This is a theological question. How can we speak of God in the context of so much human suffering, where basic needs are not filled, where mothers in the evening don’t know what to give their children to eat the next morning, where there is no medical care, where young people die for lack of medicine? Liberation theology taught me that a preoccupation for the poor is a Christian task. Socialists take only certain elements from Christian belief – they have stolen some elements from us – but we must see the unity between our relationship to God and our responsibility to our brothers and sisters in this world. In the First Letter of St. John we read: How can I love God whom I cannot see, if I don’t love my brother whom I see? In other words, this is the unity of the love to God and the love to brothers and sisters in which Jesus is personally present. It is not only social work. The consequence of love to God realizes itself in love to brothers and sisters who are suffering or lacking the basic elements of existence.

The Holy Father has been powerfully effective in turning the world’s attention to the poor and those living on the margins. Which parts of Pope Francis’s message hark back to the liberation theology you were speaking about, and in what ways does he differ from it?

He said yesterday against some interpretation, “I am not a leftist pope. I never said anything beyond the traditional social doctrine of the church.” The pope as a universal shepherd of the church cannot be linked with a current of theology. The magisterium is learning from all this theological discussion but cannot be defined as a part of some theological school. What he has learned is not anything from a theological system but it is his experience in his country of Argentina, and in other Latin American countries. The bishop and the Catholic Church in Latin America have a deep communion and independence, and we can say Latin America is – in spite of all differences – one continent with a lot of the same conditions. His experience of Latin America left a deep impression. I think that is very good for the universal church because our history naturally is rooted in the European and North American territory, region, and culture. And now we are in a time when the Asian, African, and South American experiences are coming to the center. The world is growing together not only politically and economically, but also the faith is coming more together, and we must overcome these separations in the First, Second, and Third World. We believe only in one creation and one world.

There is a lot of talk of a split between so-called progressives and traditionalists within the Catholic Church.

It is an old ploy of the mass media to polarize the church. Since the Second Vatican Council we have had to deal with this. But it is also a problem of the church itself. It’s is not so easy to find the right answer to all the efforts and challenges the world of secularization presents. And therefore we have this contradiction of those who are saying we must be absolutely closed to the revelation, and on the other hand we must ask ourselves, “What can we do for those who are very far away from Christian thinking?” But if you look to Jesus, he said only what he heard from his Father. The revelation was not a human imagination; Jesus himself was also close to the sinners, but without relativizing his own words. If we follow Jesus we can also overcome wide separations and divisions within the discipleship of Jesus, which is the church. The church is nothing more than the discipleship of Jesus, and if we are obedient to Jesus we will follow him, also into his passion, where he was persecuted. Then we can give a good example to the world. The world can believe in Jesus only if his disciples are united, not split.

As you were saying, the western world is growing more secular and often seems more hostile to the Christian faith. Catholic, Protestant, and Anabaptist Christians have been working together as never before and building new friendships. In what ways could this be significant for the future?

There are differences in doctrine and liturgy, and also in some styles of life, but we must together give one testimony to Jesus Christ, to his peace, and to the freedom that comes from him, from the glory of the children of God and all the good God is giving to us. We must testify to the universal vocation to eternal life and the hope we can have in Jesus Christ for everybody.

Interview for Plough by Doreen Arnold, September 24, 2015

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Contributed By Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Mueller Gerhard Cardinal Müller

Gerhard Cardinal Müller is Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith at the Vatican

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