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The Gospel According to Cardinal Marx

Cardinal Reinhard Marx, Archbishop of Munich and Freising, in a recent interview [1] in America magazine, joined in Cardinal Walter Kasper’s campaign to change Church discipline, arguing that the Church needs to find a way to give Holy Communion to people in adulterous second marriages. (Nota bene: he did not use this descriptive adjective.)

Cardinal Marx states:

I have been a priest for 35 years. This problem is not new. I have the impression that we have a lot of work to do in the theological field, not only related to the question of divorce, but also the theology of marriage. I am astonished that some can say, “Everything is clear” on this topic. Things are not clear. It is not about church doctrine being determined by modern times. It is a question of aggiornamento, to say it in a way that the people can understand, and to always adapt our doctrine to the Gospel, to theology, in order to find in a new way the sense of what Jesus said, the meaning of the tradition of the church and of theology and so on.

Let me analyze this. Church teaching on marriage is, in fact, clear. Check the magnificent magisterial teaching of St. John Paul II, the Code of Canon Law, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church. In fact, it is so clear that people who do not like it do not claim that it’s uncertain or unclear. Rather, they claim it’s a mistaken understanding of Jesus’ teaching.

Cardinal Marx’s “astonishment” is a classic debating tactic. Claim that the doctrine is “not clear.” Therefore, we must discover the true meaning before we can decide how to apply it correctly. This implies that no one should attempt to defend what he could not have correctly understood.

In this perspective, to claim the matter is clear shows you are ignorant, or worse, willfully blind about the true state of things. Such Churchmen do not make promising participants in the common effort to find the as yet unknown, full, and accurate meaning. This effort is, of course, a golden opportunity to change Church teaching.

The assertion that we must “always adapt our doctrine to the Gospel” is baffling, given that the Church already teaches the truths of the Gospel distilled into clear and understandable propositions. Marx calls for us to “find in a new way the sense of what Jesus said.” What could this possibly be, after almost 2000 years: “Whoever divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her.” (Mk 10:11)

The plain sense is incontrovertible. The only new approach possible is to claim that the words do not mean what they mean, i.e., adultery is no longer always adultery, and cohabitation with someone to whom you are not married is not a mortal sin. The principle of non-contradiction is thrown out here, and with it the entire structure of rational thought and discourse.

Cdl. Marx reaches to make a point

Marx asks: “What can we do when a person marries, divorces and later finds a new partner? There are different positions. Some bishops at the synod said, ‘They are living in sin.’ But others said, ‘You cannot say that somebody is in sin every day. That is not possible.’ You see, there are questions we must speak about.” The fact that some Synod Fathers apparently rejected the Lord’s words does not astonish Cardinal Marx, but is rather taken as an invitation to put Church teaching about marriage on trial. The preferred verdict is obvious: an adulterous second marriage is not per se adulterous, not mortally sinful, and hence not an obstacle to receiving Holy Communion.

Cardinal Marx goes on to declare illegitimate contrary efforts by some Synod Fathers. They should not seek to vindicate that teaching, but rather should accept some sort of compromise: “It is very important that the synod does not have the spirit of ‘all or nothing.’ It is not a good way. The synod cannot have winners and losers. That is not the spirit of the synod. The spirit of the synod is to find a way together. . .”

His premise and conclusion here are plainly wrong. It is always the duty of Catholic bishops to defend and advance Church teaching whenever and wherever necessary for the good of souls. Cardinal Marx claims the opposite: if you want to be a good Synod Father, rather than fight, cut a deal with your opponents. After all, no one should dare to try to impose his “position” at a Synod.

What kind of deal? “In the spirit of Evangelii Gaudium, we have to see how the Eucharist is medicine for the people, to help the people. . . .We have to use our imagination in asking, ‘Can we do something?’ Perhaps it is not possible in some situations. That is not the question. The focus must be on how to welcome people.”

Cardinal Marx’s views are clear. He considers current Church discipline an uncharitable rule, keeping people out of the Church and its life of faith. This is a mistaken notion. People in a state of mortal sin are still very much in the Church. Their inability to receive Holy Communion worthily, and the canonical discipline prohibiting such reception, can only be taken as exclusion from the Church if receiving Holy Communion is considered a necessary public act in order to belong to the Church. The Church has never taught that.

The Church does teach that the knowingly unworthy reception of Holy Communion by one’s free decision is a sacrilegious act. The Church’s mission necessarily includes teaching (and enjoining in canon law) that anyone in a state of mortal sin must not receive, or be given, Holy Communion in order to avoid offending the Lord, and to avoid giving grave scandal that could lead others into the same sin of sacrilege.

Cardinal Marx’s troubling interview is a warning: we cannot assume that Church teaching and discipline will be properly maintained at the October Synod on the Family in Rome.

The Rev. Gerald E. Murray, J.C.D. is a canon lawyer and the pastor of Holy Family Church in New York City. His new book (with Diane Montagna), Calming the Storm: Navigating the Crises Facing the Catholic Church and Society, is now available.