One of the strongest pro-gay voices to emerge at the synod in October 2014 was Cardinal Reinhard Marx, Archbishop of Munich and a member of Pope Francis’ council of cardinal advisers. Time and again during the meeting in Rome last year, Marx made several statements which indicated that he is eager for a more welcoming and open approach to lesbian and gay people in the Church.
America magazine’s website has just published an interview with Cardinal Marx, conducted by Luke Hansen, S.J., a former associate editor of America, and a student at the Jesuit School of Theology of Santa Clara University, California. The interview was done following Marx’s delivery of the Roger W. Heyns Lecture at Stanford University, California, on January 15th. It’s an amazing document, and I strongly recommend reading it in the entirety to get a fuller sense of Cardinal Marx’s mind. You can access it by clicking here.
I’ve excerpted the sections from the interview which deal with lesbian and gay issues, and have offered some commentary, too.
Marx was asked to comment on his statement during the synod that he had to admit that there was value in “the case of two homosexuals who have been living together for 35 years and taking care of each other, even in the last phases of their lives.” Hansen asked him “What have you learned from these relationships and does it have any bearing on sexual ethics today?”
Marx’s answer echoed some of the pastoral and theological principles advocated by theologian Sister Margaret Farley and Australia’s Bishop Geoffrey Robinson, both of whom, along with many theologians, call for the Church to base its sexual ethics on a theory of right relationship, rather than on the morality of particular sexual acts:
“When speaking about sexual ethics, perhaps we must not begin with sleeping together, but with love, fidelity and the search for a life-long relationship. I am astonished that most of our young people, and also Catholic homosexuals who are practicing, want a relationship that lasts forever. The doctrine of the church is not so strange for people. It is true.”
Though he acknowledges that the Church officially does not equate heterosexual and homosexual relationships, Marx affirms lesbian and gay committed couples:
“The church says that a gay relationship is not on the same level as a relationship between a man and a woman. That is clear. But when they are faithful, when they are engaged for the poor, when they are working, it is not possible to say, ‘Everything you do, because you are a homosexual, is negative.’ That must be said, and I have heard no critic. It is not possible to see a person from only one point of view, without seeing the whole situation of a person. That is very important for sexual ethics.”
His answer brings to mind the terrible scourge of firings of LGBT people from Catholic institutions over the past few years. Marx’s way of
thinking points to an approach which examines a person’s entire life, not just their sexuality, when determining a moral evaluation of them. In particular, his comments remind me of Colleen Simon, who by all accounts was an effective and compassionate social justice minister who ran a food pantry at a parish, yet was fired when it became inadvertently public that she had married her female partner.
Marx’s answer to another question touches on another tragic trend here in the U.S. church: the denial of communion to lesbian and gay people. In answering a question about both divorced/remarried and lesbian/gay people, Marx sees sacramental withholding as a terribly wrong pastoral strategy:
“The Eucharist and reconciliation are necessary for people. We say to some people, ‘You will never be reconciled until your death.’ That is impossible to believe when you see the situations. I could give examples. In the spirit of ‘Evangelii Gaudium,’ we have to see how the Eucharist is medicine for the people, to help the people. We must look for ways for people to receive the Eucharist. It is not about finding ways to keep them out! We must find ways to welcome them. We have to use our imagination in asking, ‘Can we do something?’ Perhaps it is not possible in some situations. That is not the question. The focus must be on how to welcome people.”
While clearly advocating for greater openness to lesbian and gay people and relationships, it is important to note that Marx, while progressive, is not ready to challenge the teachings of the Church regarding marriage and sexual relationships. In answer to a question about Belgium Bishop Johan Bonny’s call for the Church to bless committed lesbian and gay relationships, Marx answered:
“I said in the synod that Paul VI had a great vision in ‘Humanae Vitae.’ The relationship between a man and a woman is very important. The sexual relationship in a faithful relationship is founded on the connection of procreation, giving love, sexuality and openness to life. Paul VI believed that this connection would be destroyed. He was right; see all the questions of reproductive medicine and so on. We cannot exclude this great model of sexuality, and say, ‘We have diversity,’ or ‘Everybody has the right to….’ The great meaning of sexuality is the relationship between a man and a woman and the openness to give life. I have also previously mentioned the question of accompanying people, to see what people are doing in their lives and in their personal situation.”
This answer gives us an insight not only into the mind of Cardinal Marx, but, I think, into the mind of Pope Francis. Neither, it seems, are willing to call for a change to the church’s doctrine on sexuality, but both seem eager to allow for two dynamics which may, eventually, have an impact on changing doctrine: pastoral outreach in the form of welcome and accompaniment; greater discussion and dialogue on these matters. At one point in the interview, Marx says the following about theological discussion:
“I have the impression that we have a lot of work to do in the theological field, not only related to the question of divorce, but also the theology of marriage. I am astonished that some can say, “Everything is clear” on this topic. Things are not clear. It is not about church doctrine being determined by modern times. It is a question of aggiornamento, to say it in a way that the people can understand, and to always adapt our doctrine to the Gospel, to theology, in order to find in a new way the sense of what Jesus said, the meaning of the tradition of the church and of theology and so on. There is a lot to do.”
And in another spot, he discusses pastoral outreach:
“It is best to read ‘Evangelii Gaudium.’ Some people say, ‘We don’t know what the pope is really wanting.’ I say, ‘Read the text.’ It does not give magical answers to complex questions, but rather it conveys the path of the Spirit, the way of evangelization, being close to the people, close to the poor, close to those who have failed, close to the sinners, not a narcissistic church, not a church of fear. There is a new, free impulse to go out. Some worry about what will happen.”
Marx seems to agree with Pope Francis in one other way: both are cautionary that the 2015 will not bring about change in the church’s doctrine. Marx declares that the synod is more of a deliberative exercise than a decision-making body:
“It is very important that the synod does not have the spirit of ‘all or nothing.’ It is not a good way. The synod cannot have winners and losers. That is not the spirit of the synod. The spirit of the synod is to find a way together, not to say, ‘How can I find a way to bring my position through?’ Rather: ‘How can I understand the other position, and how can we together find a new position?’ That is the spirit of the synod.
“Therefore it is very important that we are working on these questions. I hope that the pope will inspire this synod. The synod cannot decide; only a council or pope can decide. These questions must also be understood in a broader context. The task is to help the people to live. It is not, according to ‘Evangelii Gaudium,’ about how we can defend the truth. It is about helping people to find the truth. That is important.”
While Marx may be technically correct about the synod, let’s not downplay the tremendous public relations effect that a synod can have. Last October’s extraordinary synod may not have made any decisions, but it did reveal that there are several voices in the hierarchy who did not agree with John Paul II’s and Benedict XVI’s approach to lesbian/gay people, and other questions about marriage and family.
Cardinal Marx and Pope Francis are not where we might like them to be on lesbian and gay issues, but there openness to pastoral care and greater discussion could pave the way for greater changes down the road.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry