The cardinal and the cross

Cardinal Reinhard Marx (Getty Images)

Believe it or not, Christianity is returning to the centre of public life. In Poland, Christ has been crowned as king. In Hungary, the Holy Crown of St Stephen has been moved to the Parliament building and enshrined in a new constitution. In the US, Trump won his campaign in part by asserting that Americans should say “Merry Christmas.” And in Bavaria, the cross is being hung in government buildings. The nations are moving to acknowledge Christ’s reign.

In strict formal terms, all of these jurisdictions remain more secular than a country like Britain, where the head of state is also supreme governor of an established church. So it seems a bit overwrought when the rather moderate measures of Poland and Hungary are denounced as illiberal. If the critics of “populism” really want to defend democratic liberalism, they should depose Britain’s kindly old Queen.

Of course, there is a deeper logic to their apparent inconsistency. For the liberal true believer, it is the trajectory of secularisation that really matters. A nation may have an established church as a kind of vestigial organ – but not as its beating heart.

So it was no surprise when Bavaria’s move to put crosses in public buildings was met with denunciation. Cardinal Reinhard Marx, president of the German bishops’ conference, criticized the order as an act of cynical political manipulation, one that “has caused division, unrest and is pitting people against each other.”

Cardinal Gerhard Müller took a different view. In an interview with Bavarian radio, he said that “no matter whose initiative it was” he supported the move: “I prefer politicians who hang up crosses to those who take them down.”

Rudolf Voderholzer, the Catholic bishop of Regensburg, and Hans-Martin Weiss, the city’s Protestant bishop, agreed. Their joint statement hailed display of the cross as a necessary comment on the sacred source of all authority. “A liberal-democratic society lives on prerequisites and builds on foundations that it itself cannot guarantee,” the two bishops wrote.

“Establishing human rights without contradiction is hardly possible without recourse to the reality of God, as a glance at states with other spiritual traditions (eg China) shows.”

Archbishop Peter Zurbriggen, the apostolic nuncio to Austria, criticised Marx’s remarks directly. “As nuncio and representative of the Holy Father, I am saddened and ashamed that – when crosses are erected in a neighbouring country – it is precisely the bishops and priests who criticise this decision. What a shame! This is not acceptable.” Not coincidentally, he made these statements at Austria’s Heiligenkreuz (Holy Cross) Abbey, perhaps the most vibrant and traditional establishment in the German-speaking Church.

Zurbriggen’s remarks are in line with those of Pope Francis, who has defended the public display of crosses. On Good Friday 2016, Francis prayed: “O Cross of Christ, today too we see you in those who wish to remove you from public places and exclude you from public life, in the name of a pagan laicism or that equality you yourself taught us.” For Francis, neither equality nor secularism is an argument against displaying the cross in public.

Richard Umbers, the youngest bishop in Australia, suggested that a generational divide was at play. “I’m amazed by how many (admittedly old) clerics are ashamed of our Catholic identity. When we renew our faith during the baptismal rite we say we are proud to profess it,” he tweeted. There may be something to this. Marx was born in 1954, when Christianity and liberalism were still enjoying a relatively peaceful relationship. Umbers was born in the rather different environment of 1971.

Happily, Cardinal Marx backtracked, saying a cross in a public building could signify a society “that is regaining confidence in itself … When the Church or even the state invites us to recall these fundamental values, it is a marvellous opportunity for us to re-appropriate the Christian vision of mankind.”

I am glad that the cardinal has reconsidered his view. Neutrality between truth and error, religion and infidelity, is simply impossible. This is the argument JHH Weiler – a great legal scholar and devout Orthodox Jew – made before the European Court of Human Rights in 2011, when he defended Italy’s display of crucifixes in the classroom. “Secularity is not an empty category which signifies absence of faith,” Weiler said. “Make no mistake: a state-mandated naked wall, as in France, may suggest to pupils that the State is taking an anti-religious attitude.”

Man is by nature religious, and religion is by nature public. No society, however scrupulously liberal, can survive for long without shared symbols of belief. If it does not display a cross, it will hoist the rainbow flag or fall under a crescent moon. Even if a society could exclude all common symbols, doing so would only promote an exclusive and atheistical creed. Of all the signs on offer, I prefer the cross.

Matthew Schmitz is senior editor at First Things

This article first appeared in the May 11 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. It has been updated to remove an incorrect reference to Archbishop Zurbriggen’s date of birth.

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