Cardinal Reinhard Marx has criticised those in the Church who “push a relationship of pure obedience to God”, lamenting that they “do not really integrate the idea of freedom into their faith”.

– Abuse of power in the Church a “great tragedy”

Cardinal Marx, the Archbishop of Munich and Freising and a former chairman of the German Bishops’ Conference, expressed himself in that way in a new book entitled Freiheit (“Freedom”).

In that volume, Marx – who is also a member of Pope Francis’ Council of Cardinal advisors and the coordinator of the Vatican Council for the Economy – dives into the theme of liberty, which he said has been a “life topic” for him ever since he was an adolescent, and so much so that he took as his episcopal motto: “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Corinthians 3:17).

But Marx also sets himself the goal in his new text of healing the “great tragedy” he says has resulted from the abuse of power in the Church, and from the Church also not positioning itself alongside those fighting for liberty in wider society.

The Church must stand by those who advocate for freedom in a universal and not just narrow theological sense, the cardinal argues.

He adds that to recover credibility for that task the institution must clean house and undertake far-reaching reforms, for example on the equal coexistence of men and women in Catholicism.

– Many in Church “still too strongly oriented towards strategies of self-preservation”

Marx traces in his new book the Church’s relationship with freedom, which despite the basic Christian conviction that God created humans in freedom and wants them to likewise respond in freedom has often been arduous and convoluted.

Especially, the cardinal writes, after Pope Gregory XVI condemned as a “deadly error” religious “indifferentism” – the basis for freedom of religion and conscience – in the 1832 encyclical Mirari vos.

Only after the modernising Second Vatican Council (1962-65), Marx observes, did the Church finally come to the Gospel realisation that “the Christian faith’s commitment to freedom includes the commitment to the freedom of all”.

But why did it take nearly 2,000 years for the Church to finally totally throw in its lot with the freedom of the person?

According to Marx, the reason is that Church leaders couldn’t resist the temptation to exercise power over people and to stir up fear – a temptation the cardinal sees as very much present still in the Church today.

For there are some in the Church – including bishops – who still insist on the importance of obedience above all else and who “are still too strongly oriented towards strategies of self-preservation”, Marx denounces.

– World at a crossroads between real freedom and a relapse into authoritarianism

As to what the Church can do to recover the conviction that freedom should be the hallmark of believers’ lives, Marx points to the need to better the relationship between men and women in Catholicism, which in his opinion shows in particular “whether the Church is a sign of freedom or adheres to outdated models of subordination”.

But though the cardinal says that equal proportions of women and men on ministry teams “do the whole Church good”, and is committed to increasing the number of women in Church leadership positions – for not in vain does his Munich-Freising diocese employ more women in high-ranking offices than any other diocese in Germany – he nonetheless sidesteps in his new book the issue of the ordination of women.

Whether women should be admitted to holy orders is a question that “must be discussed further”, Marx hesitates.

Looking beyond the Church, the cardinal writes before the coronavirus pandemic that the world is at a crossroads, and warns that it is by no means certain whether society will develop in the direction of a “culture of freedom for all” or relapse into authoritarianism and totalitarianism.

The unrestrained accumulation of capital and assets and unreflective technical progress and digitalisation are potentially particularly insidious threats to our freedom today, Marx alerts.

More stories on Cardinal Marx, on Novena:

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

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

Cardinal Marx steps down as German Bishops’ head after warning Church must not revolve around itself

Marx calls for greater say for women, laypeople: “Men discussing the Church on their own is not a good thing”

Cardinal Marx says spreading fear of hell impedes Gospel


Progressive Catholic journalist, author and educator. Working on social justice, equality and Church renewal.