Cardinal Reinhard Marx, the former head of the German Bishops’ Conference, has recently published a new book – Freedom – that doesn’t mention the cross even once. Prof. Dr. Manfred Spieker, an expert on Catholic Social Teaching, has reviewed the book.
It is not easy to do justice to a book of only 175 pages with such an ambitious title. Reinhard Marx wants to renew the language of faith in the context of freedom. His episcopal motto from 2 Corinthians, “But where the Spirit of the Lord works, there is freedom,” would have been a suitable starting point (p. 10), as would the passage he quoted from the Epistle to the Galatians, according to which in man’s relationship with God, God is the one who acts, who frees us to freedom (p. 40).
The book consists of two parts that have little more in common than the cover. In the first part Marx offers some fundamental reflections on freedom and the role of the Church in the history of modernity, which is interpreted as a history of freedom. In the second part he tries to legitimize the Synodal Path of the Catholic Church in Germany. A sustainable bridge between the two parts is not discernible.
In the central chapter of the first part Marx wants to “get to the bottom of freedom” (p. 31). He starts with the Exodus story of the Old Testament (p. 31). It is a story of liberation, but also of the fear of freedom. A really good life, a life that corresponds to our idea of happiness and success, is not conceivable without freedom. This freedom has two sides, freedom from something and freedom for something. The book Exodus is not only about liberation from bondage, but also about a new covenant. Only in the new covenant does freedom complete itself, “and that ultimately in love, the deepest human bond” (p. 34). That freedom “finds its goal in love” (p. 24 and 164) could be something like a guiding thread of the book. But Marx does not seem to have found the peace for even a halfway systematic reflection of this thought. Accordingly, the quotations from Kant to Habermas and from Adam Smith to Paul Kirchhof, which are interspersed again and again, seem rather artificial. Moreover, references to Catholic social teaching as an expression of the social love of the Christian faith and the safeguarding as well as the limitation of freedom remain strangely thin for a bishop who as a professor once taught the subject of Christian social doctrine. The encyclicals Deus caritas est and Caritas in veritate by Benedict XVI do not make an appearance. Deus caritas est especially shows the social dimension of love.
The critical remarks on the role of the Church in the history of modernity are in line with those of Church historian Hubert Wolf, who is also quoted several times. The Church was able to see the recognition of personal freedom in questions of philosophy and faith “obviously only as loss of power and therefore [had] to fight against it.” It was “a great tragedy that the history of freedom and the history of Christianity and the Church were distant from each other and sometimes even hostile to each other, sometimes even until today” (p. 59). A Church “which remains in a purely negative view of modernity and dreams itself back into an idealized past, in which the truth of Christianity could be interpreted and administered by a few and imposed on all people” is outdated and therefore to be prevented. The fact that such voices are “to be heard more often” worries him (p. 64). Unfortunately Marx does not mention a single one of these “voices to be heard more often.”
Also his assertion that it had remained “an open question” in theology up to the Second Vatican Council, “how the history of mankind and thus also the history of freedom could be interwoven with the history of the Kingdom of God” (p. 55), says more about the author than about the history of theology. For one thing, the relationship between Civitas Dei and Civitas Terrena has been a perennial feature of theology, not only since Augustin’s De civitate Dei. For another, the Second Vatican Council did not give a conclusive answer to it either. Thus Marx’ warnings of a “depoliticization of faith” on the one hand and of a “sacralization and politicization of religion” on the other are justified – the question of the “correlation of real history and the proclamation of the Kingdom of God” (p. 55f) will remain open until the end of days.
In the second part of his book, Marx attempts to present in various ways the Synodal Path of the Catholic Church in Germany as the solution to all ecclesiastical problems. A Church that is “in the service of freedom” must interpret “the signs of the times in the light of the Gospel.” The “signs of the times” are a “locus theologicus” that is still not systematically reflected enough (p. 95). This systematic reflection is also not provided by Marx. He does not even seem to be aware of the problems that arise when the “signs of the times” become a “locus theologicus,” i. e. a theological source of knowledge alongside Holy Scripture and the tradition of the Church. Who should determine what the “signs of the times” are? Based on what criteria should they be determined? With Peter Hünermann, one of the protagonists of the “signs of the times” theology, Marx could have found the admission that there are no criteria for determining the “signs of the times.” If the “signs of the times” are given a dogmatic rank alongside scripture and tradition, dogmatics is left to the judgment of the historian, the journalist, or the opinion pollster. It is hard to imagine which “signs of the times” such a theology would have assumed in 1914, 1933, 1968 or 1990 or would have assumed in 2020 after the coronavirus pandemic. Marx bypasses all these questions and assumes that the Synodal Path takes up the right “signs of the times,” namely “the questions of power, participation and separation of powers, of the role of women in ministries and offices of the church, of celibacy and sexual morality” (p. 105).
A further attempt to explain the Synodal Path as necessary is his reference to the study commissioned by the German Bishops’ Conference, which was to clear up sexual abuse in the space of the Catholic Church – after the origin of the commissioned researchers (Mannheim, Heidelberg and Gießen) abbreviated and called MHG study (p. 104f). This study had raised exactly those questions which the Synodal Path was supposed to deal with. Marx avoids a critical reflection of this study, as well as a justification for the fact that the issues of the Synodal Path should have something to do with sexual abuse in the space of the Church. The critical objections against the Synodal Path, both by German bishops and by Pope Francis in his letter to the German Catholics of June 29, 2019, are not even mentioned. The assertion that in the process of the Synodal Path “the various perspectives, ideas, and also concerns” regarding the future of the Church in Germany are “considered and continued together” (p. 92) is not confirmed either in the book or in the course of the Synodal Path so far. Several times Marx proclaims that the Church is “at the beginning of a new epoch of Christianity and thus also of theology” (p. 95 and 104). He warns against an “authoritarian restoration,” for which he again avoids any proof, but which should be prevented by the Synodal Path.
It is a matter, according to the last sentence of his book, “of giving new radiance to the Gospel when we speak of a God who leads us through Christ into true freedom and truly redeems us” (p. 164). A beautiful sentence! Who would not want to make it his own? However: In the center of the redemption through Christ are the cross and resurrection. A liberation that bypasses the cross is unthinkable for Christians – no matter what their confession. However, the cross does not occur in Marx’s book. On none of the 175 pages is it even mentioned – as if he wanted to confirm with this book his walk over the Temple Mount in Jerusalem on October 20, 2016, during which he, like the Protestant bishop Heinrich Bedford-Strohm, had taken down his pectoral cross. His episcopal motto, “But where the Spirit of the Lord works, there is freedom,” remains valid. But since Peter and Paul, this freedom is sealed by the cross.
The German version of the review appears in Die Neue Ordnung, September-October 2020. It was translated into English with permission by LifeSite’s Martin Bürger