When Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich and Freising celebrated Mass last month with the rainbow flag draped before the altar to celebrate 20 years of “queer worship” at St. Paul’s parish church, he apologized for the Church’s supposed decades of discrimination against homosexuals—and confirmed for many what they had been wondering about him: that he is a heretic for his radical pressure to overturn the Catholic Church’s teaching on homosexuality. In an interview after the event, Cardinal Marx added more fuel to the fire when he said that the Catechism of the Catholic Church was “not set in stone,” and that Catholics had a right “to doubt what it said.”
Although Cardinal Marx is obviously wrong when it comes to homosexual activity, his comments about the Catechism can help clarify the relationship between heresy, pedagogy, and the purpose of catechisms.
Germans rarely beat around the bush when it comes to controversy and conquest, and Cardinal Marx’s explicit comments have plunged the German bishops’ synodal explorations even further down the progressive rabbit hole in their push for acceptance and affirmation of what the Catholic Church has taught and enforced for centuries regarding sexual morality.
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“Cardinal Marx has left the Catholic faith,” Bishop Joseph Strickland of Texas declared on Twitter. “He needs to be honest and officially resign.” Many Catholics are murmuring and shouting the same: namely, that Cardinal Marx’s heterodox support for homosexual lifestyles has made him a heretic, since his positions that reject the Church’s teaching regarding sexual acts outside of marriage and in a homosexual context are a rejection of the Church’s authority.
When we have, sad to say, a Catholic cardinal who calls the Catholic Catechism a working document that should be adapted to include the smiled-upon negations of nature that the Church has always repudiated in charity, there is certainly something like heresy in the air. Catholics are bound to believe the principles handed down and revealed by God and guarded by the magisterium of the Church. The doctrines of faith and morals that the Church receives and retains are not negotiable. Even those that the Church does not have a definitive stance on must be regarded with pious submission.
Pope St. John Paul II wrote that the Catechism is an expression of Church teaching, calling it “a statement of the Church’s faith and of Catholic doctrine, attested to or illumined by Sacred Scripture, Apostolic Tradition and the Church’s Magisterium” and “a valid and legitimate instrument for ecclesial communion and a sure norm for teaching the faith.” John Paul made clear that the Catechism is a text that can be absolutely relied on in teaching and understanding the Catholic Faith, making it an authentic reference and exposition for the magisterial doctrine of the Catholic Church. This also renders it a text of truth that Catholics are obliged to hold and believe.
Even so, the Catechism isn’t above question or critique, but such inquiries should challenge not what the Catechism teaches but, rather, how it teaches it. The Catechism is, after all, for catechesis, and as such it can fall short in conveying what the Church has established, but this does not affect the holy tradition of truth behind it. While the Catechism isn’t a working document, neither is it divinely inspired.
The pedagogy of the Catechism, therefore, is not out of reach of concerned bishops, theologians, or scholars, but the principles of the Catechism are, in fact, set in stone. Doctrine can and does develop with understanding. But truth cannot change, and any catechetical concern that results in respectful and even reverential questions about the meaning of the Catechism’s text does not constitute a breaking away from the magisterium of the Church. If, however, such questioning is direct and dismissive, a threshold of sin is being tempted if not crossed.
To return to Cardinal Marx, he isn’t entirely incorrect when he says that the Catechism is not set in stone, but his words are misleading. He misses the point of the Catechism’s purpose, just as he missed the whole point of purpose when he said in that same interview, “There are people living in an intimate love relationship that is expressed sexually. Are we really going to say that this is worthless? Sure, there are people who want to see sexuality limited to procreation, but what do they say to people who can’t have children?” The Catechism communicates what the Church commands, and while forms of communication can change, hopefully to better reflect the command, the principle—in this case, openness to life in the sexual act—is set in stone.
The Catechism may not be set in stone, but it is certainly a teaching of things that are as set in stone as the first ten of God’s laws were. What one says about a stone can change, but it doesn’t change the immovable reality in question, and the Catechism is an articulation of doctrine, matters of faith and morals which are eternal. But society has dabbled for so long with redefining and rejecting principles of nature that it was just a matter of time before this tendency found its way into the Church. Nothing is sacred anymore, except that nothing is sacred anymore, and it seems the German bishops have taken up their chosen banner and are leading a charge.
Cardinal Marx is abandoning his duty to uphold and preserve the teachings of the Church by inciting a type of rebellion in this matter of sexuality, morality, and natural complementarity. He is undermining the Church’s authority when he demands that the Church alter her teaching about something that is immutable and in accordance with created order and biblical testimony. He is opposing with considerable obstinacy truths that the Church has enshrined.
And that’s where Marx appears like a heretic. A heretic—and there have been many well-meaning heretics and complicated heresies over the centuries—is a baptized Catholic who inflexibly rejects a divine truth held by the Faith of the Church even when his error is pointed out by a legitimate authority. It is difficult, however, to bring the term “heretic” to this situation without official correction from the Holy See. But we shouldn’t hold our breath waiting for Pope Francis to discipline one of the most influential bishops in Europe who is also a member of his own Council of Cardinal Advisers and president of the Vatican’s Council for the Economy. It is also delicate business deciding when and where belief in a divine teaching and truth begins and ends; and there is a formal process to this carried out by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
Until the scandal of Cardinal Marx and the German bishops is taken up in these official channels, Catholics should cling to the Catechism and not be afraid to speak out measuredly against even an erring cardinal. We remember the incident at Antioch in Galatians when St. Paul opposed St. Peter “to his face” for not being “straightforward about the truth of the gospel.” Cardinal Marx says the Catechism is not beyond correction, and while we may agree with that statement given the proper qualifications, we might also add that a cardinal is not beyond correction either, especially when he is not being straightforward about the truth of the Church.
Communion with the Church relies on faith, sacramental life, and hierarchy, and it is for the pope alone to judge if there has been severance in these dedications. Until he does—and we all know how much Pope Francis likes to judge in matters of homosexuality—it is not for any Catholic to proclaim. Even Bishop Strickland’s comment, as reasonable and righteous as it seems, might be stating more than it should and could even be construed as breaking communion itself as potentially destabilizing to the subsidiarity within the hierarchy of the Church.
Cardinals, bishops, and priests are free to voice their views within the bounds of reason and religion, and especially to exhort and rebuke their fellow shepherds when it is called for, and we can follow the spirit of this as laypeople. But to call a man, whether he is a cardinal or your next-door neighbor, a heretic is a matter of serious weight and ecclesiastical consequence and not for the general populace to assume or bandy about.
No Catholic cardinal should apologize for Church teaching, though he could apologize if there has been a failure to make Church teaching explicit or to exercise the love that the Catechism instructs us to give in desiring perfection for another. So long as we strive to do that, we will do what we can to prevent breaches in the Church. Despite what Cardinal Marx thinks and says about discrimination and exclusiveness, the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church is the most universally inclusive institution in the world, and that is a truth set in stone.