An increasingly influential German cardinal spoke to a packed auditorium at Stanford University on Jan. 15 about the challenge of organizing a free and open society that is linked with the common good.
“It is important for the church to be in the great questions of social justice,” said Cardinal Reinhard Marx, head of the German bishops’ conference and part of the nine-member Council of Cardinals that advises Pope Francis on church governance. Christianity must be more active in the political scene in the West, he said, and be part of the development that “gives the poor a chance.”
In the lecture, titled “The Contribution of Christian Values to the Common Good,” Cardinal Marx referred to his early formation into the “left position” of social justice—“how to work with those who are poor,” he said—through conversations with his father. In identifying a couple of the main challenges in the Western world today, Cardinal Marx said, “We must think beyond capitalism. We have to create a model nearer to the social market economy.” This economic model includes strong social protections for vulnerable members of society.
Cardinal Marx, 61, the archbishop of Munich and Freising, coordinates the Vatican Council for the Economy, leads a commission of Catholic bishops in Europe that examines E.U. policy from a Catholic perspective, and is the author of Das Kapital: A Plea for Man (2008). He is the first cardinal to be invited by the Stanford University Office of Religious Life to deliver the annual Roger W. Heyns Lecture. Several people were turned away due to limited space, but a video of the lecture will be posted online.
Cardinal Marx did not use a podium for the talk, and only briefly referred to notes, saying it is better to “speak freely” and to leave time for discussion. He spoke about the future of freedom, democracy and the common good, referring to freedom as both a great vision and a great challenge to modern society. “The atmosphere of reducing the complexity of the world to give simple answers, black-and-white answers, is growing,” he said. “That is dangerous.”
The church leader said that modern society needs to create a “framework for freedom, a culture and civilization of freedom.” He acknowledged that some people see freedom as “dangerous,” but it is “the key word of the New Testament. It is the image of God,” he said. “An open society which is characterized by freedom is nearer to the Gospel than a society where everyone is forced to do something.”
The cardinal also spoke about the importance of human rights in the pursuit of the common good. “Human rights are not the property of Parliament,” he said. A challenge of modern society, he said, is “how to define points that cannot be decided by the Parliament.” This discussion, he explained, must happen on a global level. Later in the lecture he gave several examples of problems that affect the whole world, like climate change and the financial crisis. “Perhaps the most important discussion of the 21st century is how to organize the common good on a global level, to protect human rights for all people,” he said.
A danger, he said, is to “make things simple.” The role of the church is “not to reduce to the complexity of the world but to enable people with responsible freedom.”
The church has a special responsibility to “say yes” to our modern societies, he said, “not to be a church complaining about all the bad things.” Cardinal Marx said that students ask him about how to bring the people back to the church and how to fill our churches. “But the question might be,” he said, “How can we bring the Gospel—the most important enlightenment in the history of mankind—into the future of society? It is not only for us, it is not our Gospel, but to bring into society.”
He continued, “I have the impression that people in our church are looking back and saying, ‘We have the great times in the past.’ We will have a great future!” Cardinal Marx said he often repeats the line of a cardinal from Paris, who said, “Christianity in Europe is only in its infancy. The great future is ahead.” He added, “The potential of the Gospel is far from being used up.”
One person in the audience asked Cardinal Marx to express his understanding of the primary message of the Gospel. “The main point of the Gospel is not the ethical point,” he responded. The center of the message is “heaven is open. Free entrance. Come.”
He explained, “Jesus is not saying: When you are good, God is good to you.” It is a “misunderstanding” today that you have to be holy to go to church. The first message is “God is giving his love to you. Come. Be embraced by the Lord, and then you will live in a different way.” When someone says, “I love you,” but the other person does not reciprocate, “nothing happens,” he explained. “God has given us this word, ‘I love you.’ When we answer, ‘And I do,’ it changes the world.”
Cardinal Marx also offered a portrait of the way business is changing in some of the offices of the Roman Curia. In the past, he explained, when the Vatican confronted economic questions the cardinals would sit on one side of the room, and the lay experts on the other. Now for the first time, he explained, we arrange ourselves around the table, “cardinal, lay, cardinal, lay,” and so on. We are on “the same level,” he said.