He is probably the most powerful and most criticised European cardinal at the moment. As president of the German Bishops’ Conference, member of the Council of Cardinals assisting Pope Francis in his reforms of the Curia, head of one of the largest archdioceses in Europe, and former vice-president and president of COMECE (the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Community), 65-year-old Cardinal Reinhard Marx is no stranger to media attention, headlines and the accompanying support and criticism that comes with it.
He is also, like all public figures, the target of plenty of calls for action, suggestions of which direction he should take the Church (or his part of it) in by leading by example and changing what he can (even if that power is sometimes exaggerated by those who address him). At this moment, the cardinal’s theoretical desk is occupied by two such calls: one, an appeal from eight theologians urging him to make all those old liberal chestnuts a reality: abolish mandatory celibacy, allowing women to become priests, a change in how the Church relates to homosexuality and a limit to her power. Another appeal, issued several weeks ago, comes from a group of priests from the Archdiocese of Paderborn (where Cardinal Marx was an auxiliary bishop from 1996 to 2001) takes a completely different direction: it, rather harshly, calls for the cardinal to return to the faith of the Catholic Church and the sacraments, which, they claim, he has been abusing for his own personal and political neo-Marxist ends.
So, if the theologians and the Paderborn priests are to be understood, here we have a cardinal who is a neo-Marxist using the sacraments and the faith as social and political tools, and at the same time upholding the traditions and teachings of that same Church… I guess he can’t win, really. Of course, it is somewhat misleading to equate these appeals too much. The first is a consequence of the abuse crisis in which the Church in Germany is equally embroiled, and which it is currently addressing, following a report detailing what took place in the past decades. The second was triggered by Cardinal Marx’s social activity, which is inspired by his faith and duties in the Catholic Church, and which have led to him being considered a leftist, even Marxist, activist too much influenced by the spirit of the times. That said, this accusation comes from people who, too often, automatically mistrust that spirit.
Like Pope Francis, Cardinal Marx seems more concerned with the practicalities of daily life and how the Church should respond and act in the situation of tragedy and triumph of everyday life. The teachings of the Church, her sacraments, her doctrine, seem to disappear from the spotlight sometimes, but it would be an untruth to claim they are therefore absent.