Cardinal Marx Pushes for ‘Further Adaptations’ of Church Teaching in 2019

In his New Year message, the head of the German bishops’ conference also appeared to argue for a revision of clerical celibacy in light of a “shocking” report of historical clergy sexual abuse published in Germany last year.

Cardinal Reinhard Marx speaking to reporters during the Vatican Youth Synod, Oct. 24, 2018.
Cardinal Reinhard Marx speaking to reporters during the Vatican Youth Synod, Oct. 24, 2018. (photo: Daniel Ibáñez/CNA)

Cardinal Reinhard Marx has said the Church has shown herself to be unable to “adequately respond to challenges and grievances,” especially regarding the clergy sexual abuse crisis, and is therefore in need of renewal. 

In a New Year sermon delivered Dec. 31 in Munich, the president of the German bishops’ conference said he believed the hour had come “to deeply commit ourselves to open the way of the Church to renewal and reform.” 

At a time of “evolution in society,” the “urgent need for renewal is clear to see,” the archbishop of Munich and Freising said. “This is especially true for those of us responsible in the Church, and especially in view of the enormous occurrences of sexual abuse, which was and is basically an abuse of spiritual power.” 

He went on to say that current measures to address sexual abuse are not enough without adapting Church teachings. 

“I am certain that the great renewal impulse of the Second Vatican Council is not being truly led forward and understood in its depth. We must further work on that,” he said. “Further adaptations of Church teachings are required.”

Responding to these challenges, he went on, requires development, improvement and prevention, “but more is also demanded.”  

“It is about the role and character of priestly and episcopal ministry, in communion with the whole people of God,” Cardinal Marx said, adding it will also be about “even stronger synodality,” as well as “a culture of participation” and “responsibility.”

It also needs “a deepening and development of the teaching of the Church” that “must be always renewed in concrete situations,” he said. Catholics, he added, must “leave behind categories like left and right, liberal and conservative, and concentrate on the path of the Gospel in a concrete point in time.”

“Turn yourselves toward a new thinking,” the cardinal concluded. “To risk this thinking is important at the end of year and the beginning of a new year, not a flight into the rhetoric of the past.” Of course, he added, “we stand in a great tradition, but this is not a completed tradition. It is a path into the future.”


Adapt Clerical Celibacy?

Some reports have stated that the cardinal was referring to the need to look again at clerical celibacy. This is because the German bishops’ conference are preparing for a debate in the Spring to review the issue of celibacy for priests, something Cardinal Marx called for in October following the publication of a “shocking” report released last September of historical cases of abuse in Germany. 

The research detailed cases of 3,677 children who were sexually abused between 1946 and 2014. Most of them were boys. 

“Words of concern are not enough; we must act,” the cardinal said at the time of the report’s release. He added that the Church must have an honest discussion on many questions, which include the “abuse of power and clericalism, sexuality and sexual morality, celibacy and formation of priests.” 

He said “celibacy is not the cause of abuse, that is absolutely not the case,” but he asked whether a life of celibacy, combined with certain weaknesses, become a problem, and cited as examples sexual immaturity or hidden homosexuality.  

The comments of the cardinal, who wields considerable influence at the Vatican, come at a time when some are concerned that the clergy sex abuse scandals are being used to weaken the Church’s discipline of clerical celibacy — a reason which some experts believe to be false and too simplistic. The pressure to change clerical celibacy is particularly intense in Germany, where it is being pushed strongly by secular society.  

The cardinal’s remarks also come at the beginning of a year when the issue of clerical celibacy is expected to be on this pontificate's agenda, especially during the Amazonian synod scheduled for October. 

Although some exceptions already exist to allow married priests in the Catholic Church (the Eastern rites and the Ordinariate for former Anglicans for example), it’s thought married clergy could be allowed in remote Amazonian regions where priest shortages exist.

The concern is that such a provision would then extend to Latin rite dioceses in other parts of the world experiencing a shortage of clergy.