Missing the Marx: Theologians Critique German Cardinal’s Statements Supporting Homosexuality

Theologians say Cardinal Marx’s recent comments appear to contradict settled Church teachings regarding sexuality and don’t conform with the principles of genuine doctrinal development.

Cardinal Reinhard Marx, the archbishop of Munich, is shown at the last day of the German bishops' congress on the 'Synodal Way' Feb. 5, in Frankfurt. Cardinal Marx is on the record as stating that same-sex 'sexual encounters' are not necessarily sinful and Church teaching should be amended accordingly.
Cardinal Reinhard Marx, the archbishop of Munich, is shown at the last day of the German bishops' congress on the 'Synodal Way' Feb. 5, in Frankfurt. Cardinal Marx is on the record as stating that same-sex 'sexual encounters' are not necessarily sinful and Church teaching should be amended accordingly. (photo: Thomas Lohnes / Getty Images)

Cardinal Reinhard Marx, the archbishop of Munich and a prominent backer of the Catholic Church in Germany’s problematic “Synodal Way,” made international headlines recently after he stated that same-sex “sexual encounters” are not necessarily sinful and that Church teaching should change accordingly.

Now, several Catholic theologians are critiquing the cardinal’s position, not just for straying from clearly established Church teaching on sexual morality, but for operating according to a flawed understanding of doctrinal development.

Cardinal Marx’s original comments were made during an interview with the German magazine Stern on March 30. After being asked “how homosexual, queer, or trans people are to be accommodated in Catholic teaching,” the cardinal spoke about the need to advance an “inclusive ethic” based on “respect for the other.” 

To achieve this, Cardinal Marx said Church teaching would need to change to recognize that “homosexuality is not a sin.” The cardinal was apparently referring here not just to same-sex attractions, which the Church teaches are “objectively disordered” though not necessarily sinful, but to same-sex sexual acts, given that he highlighted “sexual encounters” as an especially important dimension of “the primacy of love” that exists “when two people, regardless of gender, stand up for each other in joy and sorrow.”

The interview also characterized Cardinal Marx as deliberately opposed to the Catechism of the Catholic Church’s teaching related to homosexuality, including its categorical prohibition of approval for same-sex sexual acts. According to Stern’s description, Marx’s goal is to “advance Church teaching” in this area.

“The Catechism is not set in stone,” the cardinal said regarding this Church teaching. “You can also doubt what is in there.”


A ‘Negation,’ Not Development

Theologians consulted by the Register clarified that the language of the Catechism of the Catholic Church can, indeed, change — and recently has — but not in the way that the German prelate suggests. This is because the Catechism, while not exhaustive of all possible expressions of Church teaching, is nonetheless, as St. John Paul II clarified when he published the text in 1992, “a sure norm for teaching the faith” — and the Catholic faith is firmly settled on matters related to same-sex sexual activity.

“At this point, the Catechism does nothing except retail old and standard Catholic teaching [on this matter] that has been taught by every priest and bishop and received by every practicing Catholic for time out of mind,” explained Benedictine Father Guy Mansini, a prominent systematic theologian and the chair of theology at Ave Maria University.

To illustrate the definitive nature of the Catechism’s teaching on the morally illicit nature of homosexual acts, Father Mansini says the teaching easily meets “the canon of Vincent of Lérins,” an important patristic standard for doctrinal continuity that holds that Catholic truth is to be recognized in what has been believed “everywhere, always and by everyone”: No particular region of the Church has ever dissented from the teaching, it originates “from of old,” and was assented to “by all” as recently as the Second Vatican Council, which, in its teaching on marriage in Gaudium et Spes, “simply presupposed that marriage and the sexual act are ordered to procreation and that marriage is therefore the only place where the sexual act is morally good and, within the sacrament of marriage, holy.”

Father Mansini told the Register that Cardinal Marx’s position “seems to me to be obviously — self-evidently — inconsistent with Catholic moral theology and the Church’s teaching.”

“From Vincent of Lérins’ point of view, Cardinal Marx’s teaching would be classed as a permutatio, not a profectus, of doctrine — a corruption, not a perfection of it,” said Father Mansini, also noting that the German’s position would not meet St. John Henry Newman’s authoritative criteria for a genuine development of doctrine.

John Grabowski, a professor of moral theology at The Catholic University of America, agrees. After noting that the Catechism’s expression of the Church’s teaching on same-sex acts, rooted as it is in Scripture and having been consistently taught by the Church, “should be understood as definitive in substance,” Grabowski critiqued Cardinal Marx’s claim to be advancing an authentic development of Church teaching. 

“‘Development’ always implies organic continuity leading to a deeper and clearer understanding of revelation and its implications; it never implies a flat reversal or contradiction of teaching,” as Cardinal Marx’s position seems to represent, the CUA professor told the Register, before adding an illustrative quote from Flannery O’Connor: “The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.” 

Father Bryce Sibley, a priest of the Diocese of Lafayette, Louisiana, told the Register that the German cardinal seems to be advocating less of a “genuine development” and more of a “negation of the core teachings on anthropology, the meaning of the body and sexuality, the natural law and sacred Scripture.”

“We can’t forget that the Church’s teachings on human sexuality are based in and intimately connected to other essential teachings,” said Father Sibley, a professor of moral theology at Notre Dame Seminary in New Orleans.

This isn’t to say that the Catechism’s language expressing doctrinal truths related to homosexuality couldn’t change. As Grabowski notes, the doctrinal language “could always be better expressed,” because “even dogmatic formulations don’t exhaust the mystery” to which they refer; “they simply protect revealed truth from distortions.”

Citing Pope Francis’ 2016 apostolic exhortation Amoris Laetitia (38, 49) and the Pope’s famous “Who am I to judge?” comment, Grabowski says that the Holy Father can rightly be understood as “calling for a change in tone” of the way the Church communicates its teachings related to homosexuality and other sexual issues, but not “a change in doctrine.”

Can the same be said for Cardinal Marx? Some in the Catholic press have attempted to characterize his remarks this way. Christopher Lamb, for instance, said that the German cardinal “was making a simple point”: that “the Church’s official teaching should at least be updated to make it clear that to be gay is not sinful.”

Grabowski doesn’t see the cardinal’s position the same way.

“I think that he is calling for substantive change in the teaching,” he clarified.


Danger of Scandal, Schism

And, Grabowski cautions, it’s not just Cardinal Marx who is calling for this kind of false development. He refers to “revisionist moral theologians in Europe and the U.S. who would agree with the positions the cardinal takes,” and more specifically to the German bishops’ “Synodal Way.” Despite admonitions from the Holy Father and an increasing chorus of the global episcopacy, the “Synodal Way” is moving forward with “a new vision for sexual morality” and plans to bless same-sex unions in churches. The “Synodal Way” has the backing of most of the German episcopacy, including Cardinal Marx.

“There’s a real danger of schism with the wider Church,” Grabowski said of the direction the Church in Germany is taking. “The challenge for the Vatican is to promote communion through clearly articulating the Church’s teaching ad thereby avoiding scandal while also not provoking a more formal rupture. The Holy Father needs our prayers.”

Father Sibley agreed that the German cardinal’s comments “certainly sow confusion,” but added that “it is ultimately up to the Holy Father to handle Cardinal Marx.”

Father Mansini notes that Cardinal Marx had already submitted his resignation as the archbishop of Munich-Friesing for other matters, though that resignation was refused by the Holy See. Instead of looking to Rome to correct Cardinal Marx’s errors, the Benedictine theologian advises his fellow Catholics to highlight what is good and positive in the Church’s authentic teaching of human sexuality.

“As things stand, and better than wondering why Cardinal Marx is not authoritatively corrected, ordinary Catholics and priests have rather to renew their own contemplation of the mystery of marriage and how the grammar of sexuality and sexual difference are not only nature goods created by God, but good things taken up by God to reveal to us the divine plan of salvation.”

Bishop Franz-Josef Bode, shown speaking to the media on the opening day of a congress of the Synodal Way, Feb. 3, in Frankfurt, Germany, had his resignation accepted by Pope Francis March 25.

A Fore-Bode-ing Sign for the Synodal Way?

ANALYSIS: Pope Francis’ acceptance of the resignation of Bishop Franz-Josef Bode, a major proponent of the Synodal Way in Germany, is widely seen as a blow to the controversial process. But was this a ‘strategic element’ of the Vatican’s decision?