Cardinal Reinhard Marx has lamented that some Catholics find it “strange” that “the Church has to learn, not only from herself but also from history”.

– “Responsible freedom” in the Church: respect for “traditions and rules” balanced by discernment

“For some people – in the past and also today – it is strange that the Church also has to learn: and not only from herself, from her own texts, from her own tradition, but that she also has to learn from the history of the people, for example, from freedom movements or even from scientific knowledge”, Cardinal Marx told Deutschlandfunk in an interview July 6.

The cardinal, Archbishop of Munich and Freising, was presenting his new book, Freiheit (“Freedom”), in which, among other things, he analyses why freedom and the Catholic Church “are not easily thought together” despite the liberation motifs that appear again and again in the Bible.

In Freiheit, Cardinal Marx, 66 – who was until March the President of the German Bishops’ Conference – argues for a notion of “responsible freedom” in which absolute personal autonomy finds its counterpoint in a commitment to the common good.

In the community that is the Church, the cardinal explained that that responsible freedom looks like respect for the “traditions and rules… given to us by Christ” but balanced by discernment of God’s voice in the wider world and in history.

– “Not adapting to the spirit of the times, but reading the signs of the times”

Marx – the Coordinator of the Vatican Council for the Economy and a member of Pope Francis’ Council of Cardinals – gave an example of the dynamic.

“We can’t rewrite the New Testament… it is given to us”, but “we can differentiate between what is time-related, what is culturally-determined in the history of this religious community, the Church, and where we have new insights. That is what I wish for”, the cardinal explained.

Marx stressed that the exercise of his idea of responsible Catholic freedom is “not to adapt to the spirit of the times, whatever that may be, but to read the signs of the times in the light of the Gospel and to ask oneself what God wants to tell us in this hour, even now”.

In that tension between the Church adapting and responding to the signs of the times, the cardinal called for a greater synodal dialogue “with respect for each other from all sides” of the debates.

“It is not useful to simply march in an opinionated way through the landscape”, Marx highlighted, warning against the conservative or progressive Catholic who “thinks they have already understood everything correctly”.

The Church that is a community “is a joint undertaking – and that’s where you need to talk to each other”, the cardinal emphasised.

– Secularisation is a painful process “but not the end of Christianity. A new epoch will come”

Marx told Deutschlandfunk that his reading of the signs of the times today suggests “the social form of the Church is changing because homogeneous societies are changing” and Christianity has little chance of recovering the monopoly it had on Western culture until around half a century ago.

Phenomena like secularisation “are painful processes… but… not the end of Christianity. A new epoch will come”, Marx affirmed.

Instead of a wound, the cardinal said the de-Christianisation of society is more like a “spiritual jolt of the Holy Spirit” calling the Church to an even deeper conversion.

And as to the direction that jolt is pushing Catholicism, Marx circled back to the topic of his new book and affirmed that Pope Francis’ commitment to greater synodality is a commitment to greater freedom, necessarily entailing as it does “a new cooperation between priests and laity”.

“We are still very strongly fixed on the priests, on full-time workers”, the cardinal lamented, urging instead that “the whole Church, all those who are baptised and confirmed, also take on responsibility” in the institution and that the clergy “also respect this”.

More news from Germany, on Novena:

Cardinal Marx joins chorus of voices for more women’s leadership in Church, says matter “urgent”

Cardinal Marx criticises those in Church who “push a relationship of pure obedience to God”

“Divides and scares”: Cardinal Marx criticises Viganò COVID-19 conspiracy theory

Cardinal Marx: “God is greater than the Church and the sacraments”


PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.