Archbishop Gerhard Ludwig Müller and the Virgin Birth

In treating the Virgin birth, Gerhard Ludwig Müller carefully identifies what the Catholic Church actually does teach, and cautions the reader that the exact physiological details, thereof, are not an article of faith.

 

Nativity by Murillo 

When the former Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal William Levada, turned 75 in June of 2011, the Vatican rumor mill went into high gear.  It predicted that Cardinal Levada would submit his resignation, that the Pope would accept it promptly, and that the Bishop of Regensburg, Gerhard Ludwig Müller, would be appointed his successor as Prefect of the CDF.  It took a year, but it all came to pass on July 2, 2012.

Meanwhile, certain theologians and spokesmen of the Society of Saint Pius X began the equivalent of a negative ad campaign against the presumptive nominee.  They could legitimately plead self-defense:  Their seminary in Zaitzkofen is located within the geographical boundaries of the Diocese of Regensburg. After Benedict XVI lifted the excommunications of the four SSPX bishops in early 2009, Bishop Müller told his presbyteral council that he would regard it as a “schismatic act” if the SSPX ordained priests there without the permission of the local ordinary.  Such intemperate language from the German bishops’ point man for ecumenism was unhelpful.  Inaccurate, too, as it turned out:  Priests have been ordained at Sacred Heart Seminary every year since then, while the SSPX engaged in theological dialogues with … the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Given the dismal state of post-Vatican-II theology in German-speaking countries, one might expect there to be plenty of counts on which to indict a German bishop for heterodox views.  Before he was appointed to the See of Regensburg, though, Gerhard Ludwig Müller was a professor of dogmatic theology in Munich.  He wrote a book, Priesthood and Diaconate, defending and explaining the unpopular Apostolic Letter of Pope John Paul II, Ordinatio sacerdotalis (1994), which reaffirmed that “the Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women.”  Müller served for years as a member of the International Theological Commission.  Pope Benedict XVI designated him the editor-in-chief of the German edition of Joseph Ratzinger: The Complete Works.

The SSPX managed to come up with only three objections to Müller’s public statements:  a published discussion of the Eucharist that seems to attenuate the doctrine of the Real Presence, 1 remarks during a 2011 speech in honor of a Lutheran “bishop” that appear to grant the theological status of “Church” to the Lutheran-Evangelical Ecclesial Community, 2 and one sentence in his 900-page textbook on dogmatic theology concerning the Virgin birth. 3  The disputed excerpts may raise eyebrows but are inconclusive; the same snippets circulated for months on the internet in German, French, Italian and English, without any context that might have explained their meaning in an orthodox sense or served as a “smoking gun.”

The SSPX objections did not cease when Pope Benedict XVI made Müller an Archbishop and appointed him the new Prefect of the CDF.  It is high time, therefore, to step back and examine these charges impartially.

This article presents a literal English translation of the entire section from Müller’s Dogmatik on “Mary’s Virginity in Giving Birth”, followed by a commentary.  Brackets contain either German words from the original text, or glosses and explanations by the translator.

TRANSLATION: 

“Mary’s virginity in giving birth”, in:  Katholische Dogmatik: Für Studium und Praxis der Theologie (Freiburg, 2003), pp. 497-499. 4

From the early fourth century on, we find, in several variants, the tripartite formula of Mary’s virginity before, in, and after giving birth (semper virgo / aeiparthenos {Latin and Greek for “ever-virgin”}).  The foundation thereof is her status as the virginal Mother of God, which she accepted in the ready willingness of her faith.  From this primarily Christological statement about Mary’s virginity before giving birth follows, in the sense of a more strongly Mariological accentuation of the statement, the singularity of the birth process (virginitas in partu {virginity in giving birth}) by the fact that Mary brings forth the God-man and Redeemer, and, that in the steadfastness of her total self-abandonment {ganzmenschliche Hingabe} to the redemption event, she had no marital relations with Joseph, Therefore, she also remained without any other children.  All the Church Fathers testify to the faith-content of Mary’s virginity before, in, and after giving birth, and consequently of Mary’s perpetual virginity, for instance against the heretical sects of the Antidikomarionites (Epiphanius of Salamis, Panarion III, haer. 78, 79) and against Jovinian (Jerome, Adversus Iovin.; Augustine, Ep. 137, 2, 8; haer. 82; Ambrose, Inst. Virg. 8, 52;  Isidore of Seville, Orig. VII, 5, 46, 57, etc.).  Her perpetual virginity, expressed in this tripartite formula (Zeno of Verona, Tract. II, 12) is received by the Church as binding doctrine of the faith (Synod of Milan in 379; Ch. J. Hefele and H. Leclercq, 78 ff.; Tomus Leonis {Tome of Leo I}, as at Denzinger Hünermann {DH} 294; Canon 6 of the Second Council of Constantinople in 553:  DH 427;  Canons 2-4 of the Lateran Synod of 649: DH 502-504).

Beyond a Gnostic-dualistic misinterpretation of the virginitas in partu as a denial of the reality of Jesus’ humanity (cf. Tertullian’s wavering about this question, Carn. 23; Monog. 8), the Church’s doctrine must be explained in the sense of the reality of the Incarnation.  It is not about {Es geht nicht um} anomalous physiological peculiarities in the natural process of birth (such as the birth canal not being opened, the hymen not being broken, and the absence of birth pangs), but rather about the healing and saving influence of the Redeemer’s grace on human nature, which had been “wounded” by original sin.  For the mother, birth is not limited merely to a biological process.  It constitutes a personal relationship with the child.  The passive conditions of the birth are integrated into this personal relationship, and intrinsically defined, thereby.  The special character of Mary’s personal relationship with Jesus is defined by the fact that he is the Redeemer, and that her relationship to him is to be understood within a comprehensive theological perspective.  In resorting to the Eve-Mary parallel, the Church Fathers found justification for the possibility of putting the event of the Redeemer’s birth in an antithesis to the punishments (poenalitates) foretold to Eve, which include a woman’s “pain in childbearing” as an expression of the wounding of creation by sin (Gen 3:16).  The natural process of birth, too, which is grounded in creation, is likewise conditioned {mitbestimmt} by the experiences of man’s alienation from God, his origin and destination.  In the act of giving birth (as with other fundamental human accomplishments), a difference becomes evident in the passivity of the occurrence to which the woman in labor is subject, and her interior will to be active {zur Aktivität}, i.e., to integrate the whole event personally.  This difference is experienced in an anthropological sense as “pain” {“Schmerz”}, disintegration, and threat.  Because of her “yes” to God’s becoming man of her, Mary’s relationship to Jesus, even in the act of giving birth, should already be seen from the perspective of the eschatological salvation that came about in Christ.  The content of the faith statement, therefore, does not refer to physiologically, and empirically verifiable somatic details.  Rather, it recognizes already in the birth of Christ the initial signs {Vorzeichen} of the eschatological salvation of the Messianic end time which dawned with Jesus (cf. Is 66:7-10; Ezek 44:1 f.).  In any theological interpretation of Mary’s freedom from “pain” in the salvific event of the Savior’s birth, one should also take into account the biblically-based doctrine that Mary followed the way of the cross (Lk 2:35;  Jn 19:25).  With Mary as model, Christian spirituality recognizes in every birth, accepted by a woman in faith, an experience of the salvation that has come in the end time.

Karl Rahner interprets the faith-content of Mary’s virginitas in partu {virginity in giving birth} strikingly:

… the Church’s doctrine says, together with the authentic core of Tradition:  the (active) birth of Mary {i.e. her giving-birth} is (in terms of the Child and His Mother), like her conceiving, from the perspective of the total reality (as a holistic human act {ganzmenschlicher Akt} of this “Virgin”) even in itself (and not only as a result of the conception…) appropriate to this Mother, and, therefore, unique, miraculous, “virginal,” although this sentence (which in itself is comprehensible, however) does not make it possible for us to derive from it, in a manner that is certain and obligatory for everyone,  statements about specific details of this process. (Virginitas in partu = Rahner’s Schriften 4:173-205 at 205.)

COMMENTARY:
Gerhard Ludwig Müller’s Dogmatik is encyclopedic in its scope and method.  In each section, the dogma in question is stated briefly, sometimes in relation to another doctrine previously discussed.  A historical review typically follows, chronicling heresies and challenges to the doctrine, or describing its development.  One could call it a solidly Catholic application of the historical-critical method.  A section may conclude with the author’s own remarks, designed to make the dogma seem more plausible or fitting to the modern mindset.

The treatment is extensive rather than intensive; the author surveys the field (e.g. simply referencing several Church Fathers), and makes necessary distinctions, but does not try to explain the doctrine thoroughly, or to list supporting arguments.  Scripture is cited sparingly, but forcefully.  The focus is on binding Magisterial teaching, rather than theological schools or systems.  Despite the extreme compression of the writing, the German prose is generally clear and straightforward, occasionally elegant (a great improvement over the citations from Karl Rahner’s writings that frequently conclude a section).

Even a small sampling from the Dogmatik reveals several of its author’s preoccupations.  First, there is an apologetic purpose: defending Christian dogmas against academic attempts to explain them away, for instance, as variations on Egyptian or Greek myths.  The presentation of the doctrines shows considerable ecumenical sensitivity, with regard to both Eastern Orthodox and Protestant traditions and intellectual trends.  The occurrence of the term ganzmenschlich {holistic-human} twice in the section translated above, reflects a determination not to make a “body-soul dichotomy” (a modern objection implying that some dogmas are based on unsound philosophy).  Finally, the author scrupulously avoids citing “unscientific” arguments, rhetoric, or imagery from homilies, or spiritual writings, which may assist faith once it is professed, but do not define the object of faith, strictly speaking.

One example of such “flowery” devotional language (digressing for a moment from the topic of the Virgin birth) is the metaphor of “bloodline” used in connection with Mary’s motherhood.  While it is scripturally and historically true that Jesus is a Son of David, devotional praises of Our Lady have sometimes argued that, since Jesus Christ had no human father, he must have received his “royal blood” from her.  Some spiritual writers have even speculated that, in the absence of traits handed down from a father’s bloodline, Jesus must have had an extraordinary resemblance to his Mother.  This notion has persisted for centuries in Franciscan spirituality, and has even been heard from the pulpit during Masses broadcast by EWTN from Irondale, Alabama!

Of course, the findings of genetics prove that both of these devotional “beliefs” are utterly baseless.  Yet, modern science in no way diminishes the mystery.  We cannot explain how Jesus got his Y chromosome (or for that matter the set of 23 chromosomes that ordinarily comes from a human father), except to say with absolute certainty that God’s almighty power supplied it.

Returning to the matter of the Virgin birth:  this dogma has been the subject of countless hymns and homilies, and spiritual exegeses of numerous Old Testament passages, not directly concerned with messianic prophecy.  St. Luke, however, tells us only that Our Lady “gave birth to her first-born son” (2:7).  The Church’s official teaching is just as austere.  Mary’s virginity in giving birth is affirmed by many popes and councils (as Müller notes), but no explanation is offered in the Magisterial statements cited in a pre-Vatican-II edition of Denzinger’s Enchiridion. 5  The question about the manner of Christ’s birth is not thematized, or even suggested, in the patristic passages selected by Thomas Aquinas for his Catena Aurea for the initial chapters of Matthew and Luke, or in those cited by Cornelius à Lapide, S.J., in his encyclopedic Commentary on the Gospels.  The nearest thing to it is this passage from a Christmas homily by Gregory of Nyssa (Catena Aurea, at Luke 2:6-7):

Though coming in the form of man, yet, not in everything is he subject to the laws of man’s nature; for while his being, born of a woman, tells of human nature, virginity becoming capable of childbirth betokens something above man.  Of him, then, his mother’s burden was light, the birth immaculate, the delivery without pain, the nativity without defilement, neither beginning from wanton desire, nor brought to pass with sorrow.

To paraphrase St. Gregory:  Christ’s conception and birth were both supernatural events, and Mary Immaculate did not suffer the punishments incurred by Eve’s disobedience.  These are precisely the points made in dry, technical language by Müller, who is, thus, completely in line with traditional Catholic dogma.

A Christmas sermon by another influential Eastern Father of the Church, St. John Chrysostom, explicitly warns against speculation in such a sensitive matter:

Though I know that a Virgin this day gave birth, and I believe that God was begotten before all time, yet, the manner of this generation I have learned to venerate in silence, and I accept that this is not to be probed too curiously with wordy speech….  Of that which happens in accord with nature, we may enquire;  what passes above it, we honor in silence;  not as something to be avoided, passed over, but as that which we venerate in silence, as something sublime, beyond all telling. 6

In treating the Virgin birth, Gerhard Ludwig Müller does not rush in where angels fear to tread, but follows these recommendations to the letter.  He carefully identifies what the Catholic Church actually does teach (the Virgin birth of Jesus), and cautions the reader that the exact physiological details thereof are not an article of faith.  Christ, being almighty God, was able to heal a severed ear in Gethsemane, and also to visit his disciples on Easter night although the doors were locked.  In the matter of the Virgin birth, as with belief in Marian apparitions approved by the Church, one can be a minimalist, or a maximalist, and still be a good Catholic.  Without denying the rich tradition of spiritual exegesis of the Old Testament, much of it with reference to Mary the Mother of God, Müller simply references two key prophecies:

Before she was in labor, she gave birth;
before her pain came upon her, she was delivered of a son.
Who has heard such a thing?  Who has seen such things? …
Rejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad for her, all you who love her….
(Is 66:7-10)

Then, {the hand of the Lord} brought me back {in a vision} to the outer gate of the sanctuary, which faces east; and it was shut.  And he said to me: “This gate shall remain shut; it shall not be opened, and no one shall enter by it; for the LORD, the God of Israel, has entered by it; therefore, it shall remain shut.
(Ez 44:1 ff.)

  1. In Gerhard Ludwig Müller, Die Messe – Quelle des christlichen Lebens (Augsburg: St. Ulrich Verlag, 2002), 138-140.
  2. October 11, 2011, Speech in honor of Johannes Friedrich, regional “bishop” of the “Evangelical-Lutheran Church in Bavaria.”
  3. Gerhard Ludwig Müller, “Die Jungfräulichkeit Marias in der Geburt”, in: Katholische Dogmatik. Für Studium und Praxis der Theologie (Freiburg, 2003), 497-499, citation at 498.
  4. My thanks to Claudia Müller of the Johannesverein in Basel, Switzerland, who kindly made and sent scanned copies of the three sections from the Dogmatik on Mary’s Virginity.
  5. Heinrich Denzinger, Enchiridion Symbolorum, 30th edition, translated by Roy J. Deferrari as The Sources of Catholic Dogma (Herder, 1955);  reprinted by Loreto Publications, Fitzwilliam, NH.
  6. St. John Chrysostom, “Christmas Morning Sermon”, in The Sunday Sermons of the Great Fathers, translated and edited by M. F. Toal (Chicago: Henry Regnery Co., 1957), 1:111a-112a.
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avatar About Michael J. Miller, M.A.

Michael J. Miller holds a master’s degree in theology from Holy Apostles Seminary in Cromwell, Connecticut. He translated "Priesthood and Diaconate" by Gerhard Ludwig Müller for Ignatius Press (2002), and "The Immaculata, Our Ideal: The Spirit of the Militia Immaculatae," according to Father Maximilian Kolbe, by Karl Stehlin, SSPX (2004).

Comments

  1. avatar Jonathan Fleischmann says:

    I could give my own opinions on some of the claims made by this author about the Fathers of the Church and Karl Rahner’s (indeed striking) interpretation of the Virgin Birth, but I am no theologian, and I am afraid that I am thoroughly influenced by the Franciscan spirituality, so I refer the interested reader to the following excellent (well-researched, well-referenced, and entirely orthodox) treatment of the question of the Virgin Birth by Msgr. Arthur Burton Calkins:

    http://www.airmaria.com/vlog/stnd/stnd0002MsgrCalkins2.html

    Ave Maria!

  2. avatar Martin B> Drew says:

    On the solemnity of Puer natus est Catholics affirm and assent to give adoration to Jesus Christ for giving the Blessed Virgin Mary the infusion of His Grace at the Anunciation and Incarnation. It is sound to say Merry Christmas and The Lord be with you and with your Spirit

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