Cardinal Marx, the Catechism, and heresy
A Pillar explainer
Münich’s Cardinal Reinhard Marx courted controversy this week, appearing to make his most explicit statement yet that both he and the German bishops’ “synodal way” are set on parting company with the Church’s universal teaching authority.
In an interview published Thursday, Marx said that the Catechism of the Catholic Church isn’t “carved in stone,” and that “one is allowed to doubt what it says.”
The cardinal was speaking in the context of discussing his desire to see the Church recognize sexual relationships outside of marriage, and affirm homosexual acts, which the catechism recognises as invalid and intrinsically 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 the wholesale revision of definitive Church teaching on sexual morality, and even on what the Church considers to be the natural law.
So is the Catechism “carved in stone?” Can Catholics doubt what it says? And isn’t that heresy?
The Pillar explains:
Mater et magistra
Church teaching comes in many forms, and there are different levels of teaching which require different levels of commitment from Catholics.
There are some things which all Catholics are bound to “believe with divine and Catholic faith,” according to canon law. These include “all those things contained in the word of God, written or handed on, that is, in the one 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 its ordinary and universal magisterium.”
Below that, there are those things which Catholics must “embrace and retain,” which include “each and every thing which is proposed definitively by the magisterium of the Church concerning the doctrine of faith and morals.”
Those doctrines which the Church doesn’t teach as being definitive still must be given “a religious submission of intellect and will,” even if Catholics are not required to believe them.
Failure to adhere to these different levels of teaching authority each come with their own possible consequences, even penalties, morally and canonically.
When Pope St. John Paul II promulgated the Catechism of the Catholic Church in 1992, he explained that the Catechism “is a statement of the Church's faith and of Catholic doctrine, attested to or illumined by Sacred Scripture, Apostolic Tradition and the Church's Magisterium. I declare it to be a valid and legitimate instrument for ecclesial communion and a sure norm for teaching the faith.”
The Catechism is an “authentic reference text for teaching Catholic doctrine,” the pope explained.
In short, the faith taught by the Catechism is the doctrine of the Church, which the Church believes is the deposit of faith, revealed by God and interpreted by the Church’s magisterial authority..
Catholics, therefore, are required to hold or assent to what the Catechism teaches, as an authoritative expression of Catholic doctrine.
Of course, that does not mean the text admits absolutely no criticism. Catholic theologians are free to raise questions, concerns, or criticism about the way the Catechism teaches the doctrine of the faith -but a criticism of methodology, pedagogy, or language is distinct from a criticism of the truths the text expresses.
And, as we’ve seen in recent years with Pope Francis’ change to the Catechism on the death penalty, it is possible for the text of the catechism to change.
Doctrine itself can develop, as the Church more deeply understands and authoritatively unpacks divine revelation. And even when doctrine is not judged to be developed, the Catechism is for catechesis — it is a teaching document, and if the pope judges that the text might better express the faith with different language or a different 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 text’s treatment of — as it happens — the death penalty.
Catholics are also permitted to raise questions about the Catechism’s meaning. 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 the Church’s doctrine constitutes a sin for Catholics, raising questions about the precise meaning of an ecclesial text, if done with appropriate reverence and in an appropriate manner, is regarded in canon 212 of the Code of Canon Law as a right recognized for Catholics.
What about what Marx said?
Cardinal Marx isn’t wrong to say that the catechism isn’t “set in stone” — to a point. The text can be changed, and has been changed since it was first issued.
But within the context of the cardinal’s remarks — his hopes to see the Church effectively upend its entire understanding of human sexuality, natural law, and revealed divine truth in the Scriptures — the wording might change, but the doctrinal teaching of the Church cannot reverse itself.
Stating that the Church has the power to declare, for example, homosexual acts — or other sexual acts outside of marriage — to be healthy expressions of human love, and advocating that the Church do so, runs contrary to what the Church says it proclaims “based not on isolated phrases for facile theological argument, but on the solid foundation of a constant Biblical testimony.”
Inciting Catholics (and non-Catholics for that matter) to doubt the Church’s authority, and the truth of her teaching, is equally a grave matter, especially since bishops are charged with teaching, preserving, and upholding the faith.
But does that make him a heretic?
Heresy is a loaded word in Church life and law. To be used correctly, the concepts it conveys need to be unpacked.
Canonically speaking, “heresy is the obstinate denial or obstinate doubt, after the reception of baptism, of some truth which is to be believed by divine and Catholic faith.”
There are two criteria here: a truth which has to be believed with divine and Catholic faith (the highest level of teaching), and a person’s obstinate denial or doubt about the matter — in legalese this means that they have to continue in error after being corrected by a competent authority.
In Marx’s case, the Church’s teaching on human sexuality and marriage is rooted in the Scriptures and in the tradition of the Church. And it would seem that the cardinal is explicitly encouraging others to doubt them. But deciding when a teaching “to be believed with divine and Catholic faith” has been denied is a serious business, and it’s the competence of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to judge, following a formal process.
But, if the Church’s sexual moral teaching must be believed with Catholic faith, it would be only after an authoritative correction from the competent authority — which in the case of a cardinal would be the pope — that could anyone make a legal case for “obstinacy,” an essential criterion of canonical heresy.
That does not mean it isn’t sinful to deny or doubt Church teaching.
The Catechism explains is direct and clear about that:
“The first commandment requires us to nourish and protect our faith with prudence and vigilance, and to reject everything that is opposed to it. There are various ways of sinning against faith:
Voluntary doubt about the faith disregards or refuses to hold as true what God has revealed and the Church proposes for belief. Involuntary doubt refers to hesitation in believing, difficulty in overcoming objections connected with the faith, or also anxiety aroused by its obscurity. If deliberately cultivated doubt can lead to spiritual blindness.”
So, where does that leave Cardinal Marx?
There aren’t really many ways to interpret a cardinal saying of the catechism that “one is allowed to doubt what it says.”
Noting the recent letters of fraternal concern to the German bishops from 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 national synods or gatherings and prominent leaders are able to reject essential elements of the Apostolic Tradition and remain undisturbed,” Pell said.
“Catholic unity around Christ and His teaching requires unity on the major elements in the hierarchy of truths,” he said. But instead of pronouncing his own conclusions about bishops like Cardinal Marx, he referred to the Holy See which, he said, needed to intervene to correct a “wholesale and explicit rejection” of Church teaching.
Pell’s statement says there is danger to Catholic unity posed by comments like Marx’s, and emphasized the crucial role of the Apostolic See in responding to it.
The communion of the Catholic Church is defined by three aspects: faith, sacraments, and hierarchy. All three of these aspects are expressed through communion with the Bishop of Rome.
Formally declaring that communion to be ruptured in the case of a cardinal is a judgment left to the pope.
Actually, this is an important aspect of communion in itself: in canon law, schism is defined as the “refusal of submission to the Roman Pontiff, or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him.”
Of course, bishops are free to make exhortations, admonishments, and even sharp criticisms of the theological teaching of their counterparts - and might have the duty to do so. They are also free to point out theological errors, and even to ask the pope to respond to them.
But if a bishop were to declare publicly and directly that Marx, or the German bishops in general, were now outside of the Catholic Church, that could be construed as a breach of communion - a preemption of the pope’s duties.
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 really are for the successor of Peter to deal with — even while other Catholics, including bishops, are free to express their views on the matter. And a cardinal teaching Catholics to doubt the Catechism is one of those things which the pope is uniquely in authority to address.