ROME – Any administration’s internal drama, whether it’s a presidency, a papacy or a CEO’s tenure, is generally shaped by the clash of competing visions and personalities. In the great piece of theater that is the Francis papacy, there’s no doubt that one of the key protagonists in the cast is German Cardinal Reinhard Marx.
President of the German Episcopal Conference and archbishop of Munich and Freising, Marx is also a member of the pope’s “C9” advisory council. Almost from the moment Francis took office in 2013, he has been a consistent provocateur, taking a leading role in the Vatican’s financial reform as president of the Council for the Economy, pushing for a more progressive interpretation of Francis’s 2016 exhortation on the family, Amoris Laetitia, advocating for intercommunion in mixed marriages when one spouse is Catholic and one is not, and also calling for greater openness to LGBT relationships.
Most recently Marx stirred the waters on the issue of celibacy, which will be openly debated during the German bishops’ permanent council meeting in the spring on the grounds that it could have an impact on the Catholic Church’s clerical sexual abuse crisis.
In his homily on New Year’s Eve, Marx said the Church may need to modify its traditions in order to respond adequately to the abuse crisis, since, in his view, current preventative measures are not enough.
“The hour has come to deeply commit ourselves to open the way of the Church to renewal and reform,” he said.
Marx said he plans to adopt a new stance on certain issues since this is his “duty as a priest and a bishop.” He said that 2019 will be a year of “unrest and opposition” in the German Church with pressure for forward movement on multiple fronts, but added that “new thinking is required.”
The German debate on priestly celibacy comes at a time when the Vatican is preparing for the October Syond of Bishops on the Amazon, during which the question of ordaining viri probati – a term referring to mature, married men – as a response to the priest shortage in the area is expected to come up as a means of addressing the priest shortage in the region.
Though the suggestion of ordaining viri probati men has been put forward in the past, it’s no surprise that Marx is weighing in on the topic, as it’s hardly the first time he has helped to define the terms of the debate in the Pope Francis era.
From the beginning, Marx has been a key player in virtually every aspect of Francis’s papacy. From his perch on the C9, Marx has been in a position to help steer the process of reform of the Roman Curia, meaning the Vatican’s central administrative bureaucracy.
Since the pontiff tends to use the C9 as an informal sounding board for other major decisions too, Marx has been at the table when many of the defining moves of the papacy took shape.
Well before the election of Francis, Marx had been among several cardinals from around the world, hailing from both left and right, who were frustrated with what they saw as the opaque and sometimes corrupt fashion in which the Vatican handled its financial affairs.
In March 2014, the new pope entrusted Marx with leadership of the reform, naming him coordinator of a new “Council for the Economy,” made up of eight cardinals and seven laity from different parts of the world.
It was considered a natural move, not merely because of Marx’s advocacy of reform, but also because the German Church commands vast financial resources due to the country’s tradition of the Kirchensteuer, or “church tax,” which generates roughly $6 billion in annual income for the Catholic Church and allows it to act as one of the country’s largest private employers.
Almost five years later, many observers say the financial reforms launched by Francis haven’t really prevailed over business as usual, and the Council for the Economy led by Marx hasn’t become the change agent its backers had anticipated. Some fault Marx for lackadaisical leadership – originally signing off on an independent audit of the Vatican’s book by PricewaterhouseCoopers in 2016, for instance, and then failing to fight back when the plug was pulled on the audit by the Secretariat of State.
Nonetheless, Marx’s ongoing role on both the C9 and the Council for the Economy are indicative of just how much faith Francis has in him.
Marx also backed the pope in the backlash generated by Chapter 8 of Francis’s 2016 post-synodal apostolic exhortation, Amoris Laetitia, which opened a cautious door for divorced and remarried Catholic couples without an annulment to receive communion.
Though more conservative camps argued that the document breached previous Church teaching on the issue, the German bishops and other episcopal conferences seen to be more progressive allowed divorced-and-remarried Catholics to receive Communion in certain cases.
In a set of pastoral guidelines based on Amoris, the German bishops said access to the sacraments is a question of individual cases and allowed for the “possibility of receiving the sacraments in these situations,” though not in every case.
Marx made waves yet again last spring over a proposal to allow non-Catholic spouses in mixed faith marriages to receive communion.
In February 2018 Marx announced plans for the German bishops’ conference to publish a pastoral handout detailing the specifics of when Protestant spouses of Catholics “in individual cases” and “under certain conditions” could receive Communion, provided they believe Catholic teaching in the Eucharist.
Though a draft version of Marx’s handout was adopted by some two-thirds of German bishops, many objected and appealed to the Vatican to intervene. The Vatican eventually organized a meeting to discuss the issue and ultimately tossed the ball back to the German bishops, asking them to reach a solution everyone could be happy with.
With several other major moments looming in 2019, both in Germany and in Rome, Marx’s role as a major point of reference in the Francis papacy seems destined to endure.