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The Hope of the Family: A Dialogue with Gerhard Cardinal Muller

In October 2013, Pope Francis called for an Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on the theme “The Pastoral Challenges of the Family in the Context of Evangelization”. Media outlets swirled with questions about whether or not big changes were in store for the Church regarding divorce, remarriage, and more. Though the final document to emerge from the synod affirmed the Church’s unchanging teaching, the synod itself caused quite a stir as it shone light on the very real and serious challenges that pastors and their flocks are facing regarding these topics. An Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on the Family is to come in October of 2015 to continue these conversations and to solidify pastoral recommendations.

The Hope of the Family: a Dialogue with Gerhard Cardinal Muller reaches out to Catholics in the wake of the synod to help them understand the meaning of what is being discussed. It seeks to provide readers with a comprehensible framework within which today’s questions about the family can be considered. It also addresses some of the specific challenges posed to families by the modern world, including the question of the Eucharist for civilly divorced and remarried Catholics, and the deeper crisis of marriage that underlies this question.

The book consists of a series of questions posed by Father Carlos Granados, editor-in-chief of Biblioteca de Autores Cristianos (the publisher of the book), to Gerhard Cardinal Müller, one of Pope Francis’ top advisors and the Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith. Through his answers, Cardinal Müller explains and defends the Church’s teaching on the sacramentality of marriage, analyzes the problems threatening the family, encourages greater support for families, and advocates for true mercy in pastoral ministry for divorced Catholics. This short book is a helpful tool to anyone looking to more fully grasp the issues at stake for the modern family from the perspective of the Church.

The book begins by addressing the reality that many people no longer choose to marry and those that do doubt their ability to keep their vow. Cardinal Müller attributes this trend to the lack of emotional formation that individuals receive in childhood and adolescence. Ideally, a child should be unconditionally loved, and through this experience internalize a proper understanding of the sacrificial, faithful nature of love. Cardinal Müller argues that last-minute preparation for marriage is ineffective if Catholics are formed primarily by a culture that values individualism and sees pleasure and self-gratification as the sources of happiness. Parents must work to educate children from birth about their true identity as relational beings who are fulfilled through self-gift.

Cardinal Müller also contends that adults preparing for marriage receive insufficient catechetical formation concerning the true nature of love. Couples need to know that love in its essence is not a sentiment or an instinct, but “a form of dedication and self-surrender” (26). The bond of forever is not meant to threaten their freedom but to protect them from the “arbitrariness and tyranny of feelings and mood,” and to help them face hard times (25).

However, the core problem for Catholics regarding marriage, according to Cardinal Müller, is the misunderstanding of marriage as a sacrament. He insists that the recovery of the sacramentality of marriage should be the focus of the upcoming synod and the Church’s efforts on this front. Cardinal Müller explains that a valid marriage is an indissoluble communion of life and love between a baptized man and a baptized woman, which reflects and makes present Christ’s unconditional covenant with his Church. He tells his readers that this is not a theory worked out by a few theologians; rather it is divine Revelation encountered in the Gospels and reaffirmed throughout the centuries in the unchanging teachings of the Church.

As Cardinal Müller explains, a true second marriage is only possible if one’s spouse has died. However an individual can marry in the Church if a previous presumed marriage has been shown to be invalid through the declaration of nullity process (commonly called an annulment). This can happen if one or both individuals were not able to give free and full consent to the marriage, for example.

It is in this context that Cardinal Müller considers the question of communion for divorced and remarried Catholics. If someone “remarries” civilly while still in a valid marriage, he or she is no longer in communion with the Church. As a result, Cardinal Müller states, individuals who choose this path cannot receive the Eucharist:

I cannot have a personal relationship with Christ and with his Body that is truly present in the Blessed Sacrament of the altar and, at the same time, contradict Christ himself in his mystical Body, present in the Church and in the ecclesial communion (57).

Cardinal Müller remarks that while Christ’s teaching on marriage and divorce cannot be reconsidered, the Church must take seriously the challenge posed by baptized nonbelievers who marry in the Church with free consent and proper form, but who have no faith in Christ or belief in the sacramentality of marriage.

Though he sees the importance of these controversies, Cardinal Müller encourages his readers to focus more on defending and supporting the institution of marriage at large. He insists that families are in need of greater support, including better pastoral programs and better training for priests to help families face their challenges and heal their wounds. Most fundamentally, however, the Church must make possible a personal encounter with Christ. If families and individuals can feel his love and interpret their lives in light of his Cross and Resurrection, they can overcome all challenges and be the sources of love and hope that they are meant to be.

The interview questions in The Hope of the Family are very thoughtful. They ponder the current cultural situation, pastoral problems, and statements by recent pontiffs. Cardinal Müller responds to them articulately, using theological language fitting of his position as Prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Cardinal Müller speaks at a theoretical level and does not use specific examples nor does he address individual circumstances regarding the challenges of marriage. That is not the intention of the book. The book does seek to give a firm intellectual understanding of the Church’s teaching on the sacramentality of marriage, the problems facing Catholics trying to live out this teaching, and first steps towards solutions. Readers will walk away better prepared to engage in the dialogue on marriage in anticipation of the upcoming General Assembly and beyond.

About the reviewer
Caitlin Dwyer is a freelance writer and editor as well as an adjunct professor at Thomas More College in Crestview Hills, KY . Caitlin holds a Masters in Theological Studies from the John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family.

Disclaimer: Book reviews do not imply and are not to be used as official endorsement by the USCCB of the work or those associated with the work. Book reviews are solely intended as a resource regarding publications that might be of interest to For Your Marriage visitors.