Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich courted controversy this week, appearing to make his most explicit statement yet, that he and the “synodal way” of German bishops are determined to separate themselves from the universal teaching authority of the ‘Church.
In an interview published Thursday, Marx said the Catechism of the Catholic Church is not “carved in stone” and that “it is permissible to doubt what it says.”
The Cardinal spoke as part of the discussion about his desire to see the Church recognize sex outside of marriage and affirm homosexual acts, which the Catechism recognizes as invalid and inherently disordered as matters of natural law.
Marx’s comments are the latest to come from the German bishops in support of their synodal process, which has repeatedly called for a complete revision of the Church’s definitive teaching on sexual morality, and indeed what the Church considers natural law.
In doing so, a growing number of bishops have publicly expressed concern over the German leadership, including entire bishops’ conferences from neighboring countries and regions.
It has also put Germans, and the handful of European bishops who seem to sympathize with their goals, on a collision course with Pope Francis.
Is the Catechism then “carved in stone”? Can Catholics doubt what he says? And isn’t that heresy?
The pillar Explain :
Mater and magistra
Church teaching comes in many forms, and there are different levels of teaching that require different levels of commitment from Catholics.
There are certain things that all Catholics are required to “believe with divine and Catholic faith,” according to Canon Law. These include “all things contained in the word of God, written or handed down, that is to say, in the sole deposit of faith entrusted to the Church, and at the same time proposed as divinely revealed either by the solemn magisterium of the Church, or by her ordinary and universal magisterium.
Underneath are those things that Catholics should “embrace and remember”, which include “everything and everything that is definitively proposed by the magisterium of the Church concerning the doctrine of faith and morals”.
Those doctrines which the Church does not teach as definitive must still receive “a religious submission of intellect and will”, even though Catholics are not bound to believe in them.
Failure to respect these different levels of teaching authority each carries its own possible consequences, even sanctions, morally and canonically.
When Pope Saint John Paul II promulgated the Catechism of the Catholic Church in 1992, he explained that the Catechism “is a statement of the faith of the Church and of Catholic doctrine, attested to or informed by Sacred Scripture , the Apostolic Tradition and the Magisterium of the Church. I declare that it is a valid and legitimate instrument of ecclesial communion and a sure norm for the teaching of the faith”.
The Catechism is an “authentic reference text for the teaching of Catholic doctrine”, the pope explained.
In short, the faith taught by the Catechism is the doctrine of the Church, which the Church regards as the deposit of faith, revealed by God and interpreted by the magisterial authority of the Church.
Catholics are therefore bound to adhere to or endorse what the Catechism teaches, as the authoritative expression of Catholic doctrine.
Of course, this does not mean that the text admits absolutely no criticism. Catholic theologians are free to raise questions, concerns or criticisms of how the Catechism teaches the doctrine of the faith – but a criticism of methodology, pedagogy or language is distinct from a criticism of the truths expressed by the text.
And, as we have seen in recent years with Pope Francis’ modification of the Catechism on the death penalty, it is possible that the text of the catechism will change.
Doctrine itself can grow as the church more deeply understands and authoritatively unfolds divine revelation. And even when the doctrine is not considered developed, the Catechism is for catechesis — it is a teaching document, and if the pope judges that the text could better express the faith with another language or another formulation, it is his prerogative to modify the text.
In fact, Pope St. John Paul II himself modified the Catechism in 1997 by promulgating a second edition, which made some changes to better reflect the Latin edition, and at the same time modifying and expanding the treatment of the text – in this case – the death penalty.
Catholics are also allowed to raise questions about the meaning of the Catechism. Since Pope Francis made changes to the text in 2018, some theologians have asked what the pope’s syntax on the death penalty is meant to convey. While an overt or explicit rejection of Church doctrine is a sin for Catholics, raising questions about the precise meaning of an ecclesial text, if done with due respect and in an appropriate manner, is considered in canon 212 of the Code of Canon Law as a recognized right of Catholics.
What about what Marx said?
Cardinal Marx is not wrong to say that the catechism is not “set in stone”—up to a point. The text is subject to change and has been changed since it was first published.
But in the context of the cardinal’s remarks – his hopes for the Church to effectively upend its entire understanding of human sexuality, natural law and divine truth revealed in Scripture – the wording might change, but the doctrinal teaching of the Church cannot be reversed. .
Stating that the Church has the power to declare, for example, homosexual acts – or other sexual acts outside of marriage – as wholesome expressions of human love, and advocating that the Church do so, goes to contrary to what the Church says she proclaims “based not on isolated phrases for easy theological argument, but on the solid foundation of consistent biblical witness.”
Causing Catholics (and non-Catholics for that matter) to doubt the authority of the Church and the veracity of her teaching is equally serious, especially since bishops are responsible for teaching, preserving and to uphold the faith.
But does that make him a heretic?
Heresy is a loaded word in the life and law of the Church. To be used correctly, the concepts it conveys must be unpacked.
Canonically speaking, “heresy is the obstinate refusal or obstinate doubt, after the reception of baptism, of a truth which must be believed by divine and Catholic faith”.
There are two criteria here: a truth that must be believed with divine and Catholic faith (the highest level of teaching), and a person’s stubborn denial or doubt about it – in legalese, that means that it must continue in error after it has been rectified by a competent authority.
In Marx’s case, the Church’s teaching on human sexuality and marriage is rooted in Scripture and Church tradition. And it would seem that the cardinal explicitly encourages others to doubt it. But deciding when a teaching “to be believed of a divine and Catholic faith” has been denied is a serious matter, and it is the competence of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to judge, following a formal process.
But, if the sexual moral teaching of the Church is to be believed with the Catholic faith, it would only be after authoritative correction by the competent authority – which in the case of a cardinal would be the pope – that anyone could plead in court for “obstinacy”. an essential criterion of canonical heresy.
But that does not mean that it is not a sin to deny or doubt the teaching of the Church.
The Catechism explains:
“The first commandment asks us to nurture and protect our faith with caution and vigilance, and to reject all that opposes it. There are different ways to sin against faith:
Voluntary doubt about faith ignores or refuses to hold as true what God has revealed and what the Church offers for belief. Involuntary doubt designates the hesitation to believe, the difficulty in overcoming objections linked to faith, or even the anguish aroused by its obscurity. If deliberately cultivated doubt can lead to spiritual blindness.
So what about Cardinal Marx?
There aren’t really many ways to interpret a cardinal saying in the catechism that “it is permissible to doubt what it says”.
Noting recent letters of fraternal concern to German bishops in the Nordic Episcopal Conference, Cardinal George Pell recently responded to similar claims about the possibility of changing Church teaching on sexuality.
“The Catholic Church is not a loose federation where different synods or national gatherings and prominent leaders are able to discard essential elements of apostolic tradition and sit still,” Pell said.
“Catholic unity around Christ and his teaching requires unity on the major elements of the hierarchy of truths,” he said. But instead of pronouncing his own conclusions on bishops like Cardinal Marx, he referred to the Holy See, which he said needed to intervene to correct a “total and explicit rejection” of the teaching of the Holy See. ‘Church.
Pell’s statement said there is a danger to Catholic unity posed by comments like Marx’s, and underscored the crucial role of the Apostolic See in responding to them.
The communion of the Catholic Church is defined by three aspects: faith, sacraments and hierarchy. These three aspects are expressed through communion with the Bishop of Rome.
But to declare that communion should be severed is a judgment left to the pope and the Vatican alone, and it cannot be presumed or anticipated.
In fact, it is an important aspect of communion itself: in canon law, schism is defined as the “refusal of submission to the Roman Pontiff, or communion with the members of the Church who are subject to him.”
Of course, bishops are free to exhort, admonish, and even scathingly criticize the theological teaching of their counterparts.
But if a bishop were to declare for himself that Marx, or the German bishops in general, were henceforth outside the Catholic Church, this in itself could be interpreted as a breach of communion.
Often in the life of the Church there is a tension between the authority of Rome and the Church’s own principle of subsidiarity.
But some things are really up to the successor of Peter – even if other Catholics, including bishops, are free to express their views on the matter. What to do with a cardinal teaching Catholics to doubt the catechism is just one of those things.