Cardinal Marx’s Devastating Misconception of the Church

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Mar 31, 2015

Cardinal Reinhard Marx’s unfortunate assertion that the German bishops “cannot wait for a Synod” to approve Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics has drawn severe criticism from two other German cardinals. Clearly, there are significant divisions within the German hierarchy. Whenever a German bishop makes some outlandish claim that seems to undermine the Church, other German bishops take exception to it.

As well they should, of course, for the German Church is among the weakest and most secularized in the world. Unsurprisingly, then, Germany has become a flashpoint for changes in sacramental discipline which seem to sideline the Church’s teaching on the indissolubility of marriage. In late 2013, for example, the Diocese of Freiburg in effect adopted the Kasper proposal of admitting contrite divorced and remarried Catholics to the Eucharist, while the Synod on the Family was only in its planning stages. The Vatican had to instruct the diocese to revise that policy.

In the present dispute with Cardinal Marx, Cardinal Paul Josef Cordes emphasized the poor track record of the German hierarchy in combatting secularism among Catholics, arguing that the German bishops were manifestly incompetent to guide the universal Church in this matter. At a deeper level still, Cardinal Gerhard Müller, who is the Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, challenged the very conception of the Church implicit in Cardinal Marx’s statement that the German episcopal conference is “not a branch of Rome.”

A Short History of Non-Existent Branch Officers

Cardinal Marx is correct, of course, that neither bishops nor episcopal conferences are “branch offices” of Rome. But he is dead wrong when he implies that this means the German episcopate can go its own way when it comes to universal ecclesiastical discipline, especially when such discipline is deeply rooted in Catholic doctrine. This ignores the very real and constitutive connection each bishop has with the successor of Peter. It explains why Cardinal Müller was so quick say: “Hearing that an episcopal conference is not a ‘branch office of Rome,’ I take the opportunity to remark that dioceses are not branch offices of the episcopal conference.”

In a way, Cardinal Marx seems to be living in reaction to certain misconceptions about authority in the Church which were already corrected fifty years ago in the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Lumen Gentium) at the Second Vatican Council. Earlier, at the First Vatican Council (1868 – 1870), the Council fathers had begun the project of more clearly delineating the character of the Church, beginning with the papacy. But Vatican I got no farther than the papacy because it was interrupted by war. It was left to the Second Vatican Council to complete the task, dealing with the roles of bishops, priests, laity and those in consecrated life.

Partly because of this gap, the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw a triumph of what we might call the ultramontane party in the Church—those who almost exclusively emphasized the power “beyond the mountains” (the Alps) in Rome. During this period, for example, many brilliant Catholic philosophers and theologians got into trouble for nothing more than attempting to reinvigorate their disciplines through a return to the sources in Scripture and the Fathers. This was met with deep suspicion by the somewhat ossified neo-scholastics, who identified orthodoxy with compatibility with their own system, and who tended to dominate the disciplinary mechanisms at the Vatican.

It was a difficult time for many good men, but it is not as if there were no real dangers. The engagement with Modernism led some to reinvigorate Catholic philosophy and theology (figures like Gilson, Maritain, de Lubac and von Balthasar) while others went off the rails, leaving us with a mess we are still attempting to clean up. My point here is that there was a disproportionate emphasis on the papacy in nineteenth and early twentieth Catholicism—too great a desire, as the convert W. G. Ward put it, to have an encyclical each morning with breakfast along with the London Times. Despite certain advantages in such centralization, it too often created bishops who were more concerned with “management” for the Apostolic See (such as maintaining the local material strength of the Church) than with their own vital spiritual mission as successors of the apostles.

This is one of many reasons the bishops in the West had no antidote to the spirit of secularism which gripped academia in the first half of the twentieth century and exploded into the larger culture beginning around 1960. Too often formed in reaction to an excessive Roman dominance, and failing to understand their own apostolic character, many bishops were swept away spiritually while trying desperately to keep up the appearances of Catholic influence.

What It Means to Be a Bishop

The Second Vatican Council very definitely addressed what it means to be a bishop. This constitutes the heart of Lumen Gentium. It means having full apostolic power, in direct succession from the apostles themselves, to bear witness to Jesus Christ and build up His Body the Church. But it also means exercising this power in a special kind of group, or college, which is never separated from its head, the bishop of Rome. It is to the head of the college that Christ entrusted the special gifts which are essential to the integrity of the whole body—the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven, and the gift of indefectible faith which alone ensures fidelity to the Revelation which the Church exists to make available through time.

Thus, while apostolic power is conferred on each new bishop, he has no legitimate way to exercise that power except insofar as he is given jurisdiction by the head of the episcopal college. Once jurisdiction is conferred, a bishop is the representative of Jesus Christ in his own diocese, but his ministry is valid only through his simultaneous membership in the college united with its head. It is this and only this participation which ensures that a local episcopal ministry is really a ministry of the universal Church, and that the universal Church is truly embodied in each local church.

In other words, it is this collegial foundation of the episcopate which makes the holy and apostolic Church also catholic and one. This also explains why national episcopal conferences are merely conveniences for dealing with common regional problems. Regardless of the conference, bishops retain their own proper authority in their own dioceses. And it explains too why Cardinal Marx is correct when he states that the members of the German episcopal conference are not simply a branch office of Rome.

But this brave dismissal of non-existent branch offices does not mean what Cardinal Marx apparently thinks it means. This negation of a non-existent relationship is utterly irrelevant to the responsibility of all of these bishops to govern their own dioceses as members of the whole college united with the successor of Peter. It is Francis in Rome who alone possesses universal jurisdiction over the whole Church. Apart from the current head of the episcopal college of which they are members, Marx and his conference colleagues in Germany have no jurisdiction; they have no fidelity; they have no unity.

Apart from the episcopal college in union with its head, the German bishops cannot represent in themselves the Church of Christ.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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