Cardinal Marx is “Impressed” with Karl Marx

“The Marxist ideology is wrong,” said Pope Francis in December 2013, amid early public accusations of him having Communist ideas. “But I have met many Marxists in my life who are good people, so I don’t feel offended.”

One of them, possibly, if not apparently, is one of Francis’s closest advisers, German Cardinal Reinhard Marx, who, by Cardinal Marx’s own admission, Pope John Paul II used to refer to as nostro Marxista—“our Marxist.” Cardinal Marx acknowledges that label with a smile, suggesting that John Paul II was half-joking … well, maybe.

In fact, much of the news of Cardinal Marx is often a question mark, from where he currently stands on issues from Holy Communion to unholy communism, from matters of marriage to Marx.

As to Marx—that is, Karl Marx—Cardinal Marx was in the news again last week because of the current bicentennial of the birth of Karl Marx, born 200 years ago this May. The cardinal gave at least two head-scratcher interviews on the nineteenth-century Communist father. The two interviews (both in German) were quickly picked up worldwide, especially after a posting on the website of the German bishops.

The bishops’ website quotes the German cardinal—who’s no less than president of the German bishops’ conference—saying that he is “impressed” with the Communist Manifesto. The title of that April 30 post at is “Marx: Without Karl Marx no Catholic social teaching.”

This should be repeated for emphasis. The title, again, was: “[Cardinal] Marx: Without Karl Marx no Catholic social teaching.”

The post contends that Cardinal Marx believes that Karl Marx’s “analyses contributed decisively to the emergence of the Catholic social doctrine.” (Those words are not necessarily, it seems, a direct quote of Cardinal Marx.)

The article quotes Cardinal Marx’s interview with the German magazine, Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung. It was in that interview, also posted by Vatican News, that Cardinal Marx said that the Communist Manifesto “impressed” him. To the contrary, Cardinal Marx is unimpressed with capitalism. The cardinal expressed dismay at the “enormous social inequalities and ecological damage that capitalist dynamics are answerable to.” Any improvement in social inequalities and ecological damage, the cardinal said, should not be credited to capitalism. The article quoted Cardinal Marx: “That this has improved is ‘not an achievement of capitalism, but the result of a struggle against these excesses.’ This insight was also due to Karl Marx: ‘The market is not as innocent as it appears in the textbook of economists, behind which are powerful interests.’”

Importantly, these sentiments are not new with Cardinal Marx, a reality well-known to German Catholics. A German-Catholic scholar and friend—a well-known economist who has spoken at Vatican conferences (I’ll leave him nameless)—told me in an email last week: “Cardinal Marx is always in for terrible news.” My friend says that many inside Germany “wonder whether he is more than a name-cousin of Karl.”

That wouldn’t be implausible, one surmises, as Cardinal Marx was once Bishop of Trier, Karl Marx’s hometown. But, for the record, Cardinal Marx assures that there’s no biological kinship.

In a second recent interview with another German publication, Rheinische Post, posted at RP Online, Cardinal Marx further said of Karl Marx: “The Catholic social doctrine has worked hard on Marx, hence the words of Oswald von Nell-Breuning: ‘We are all on the shoulders of Karl Marx.’”

We all stand on the shoulders of Karl Marx? Including Catholic social doctrine?

Cardinal Marx did clarify: “This does not mean that he [Karl Marx] is a ‘church father.’ But his position has always been a point of discussion for Catholic social teaching. Mostly in critical dismissal, but also in the question: What does he actually mean, what is driving this man around? Is his analysis of capitalism right?”

Cardinal Marx’s track record of encomiums for Karl Marx is not sparse, as noted by sources ranging from Crux to The latter quotes a September 2007 interview with the German publication, Sonntagsblatt, in which Cardinal Marx there, too, quoted approvingly the assessment, “We all stand on the shoulders of Karl Marx.”

The prelate said that “Marx was not a mere ideologue.” No, he was much better than that. Cardinal Marx asserted of Karl Marx: “And when Marx criticized the merely formal freedoms in bourgeois society and demanded the enforcement of real social freedoms, he by no means propagated an anarchist overthrow, but voiced the legitimate claim to what we mean today with comprehensive social participation for all from the churches. Contrary to what others later made of his ideas, Marx himself by no means wanted to go beyond the achievements of the French Revolution, but rather to complete it.”

Completing the French Revolution, which was a ghastly event, especially against the Church, is no feather in Karl’s cap.

Of course, needless to say, Marx constantly talked explicitly of overthrow, an overthrow so thorough that it’s hard not to describe it as an anarchist overthrow. In the close of the Manifesto, Marx affirmed: “The Communists … openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions” (italics added). Note the words “forcible,” “overthrow,” and “all.”

As everyone knows, religion was one of the primary targets to be overthrown. That was because, as Marx said, communism not only seeks to “abolish the present state of things”—including abolishing everything from the family to religion to “all morality”—but represents “the most radical rupture in traditional relations.” Marx, in a September 1843 letter, called for “ruthless criticism of all that exists.”

Marx said all of that, explicitly and repeatedly, in the very book that so “impressed” Cardinal Marx.

“The Fatal Plague” of Communism
And so, where does one even begin with this? Indeed, that’s the difficulty in responding to Cardinal Marx’s Marxist comments. I was reluctant to write this piece because I don’t know where to begin and where to end in calling out the cardinal for these inexplicable and inexcusable statements.

And to be fair, as I read and re-read the reports on Cardinal Marx on Karl Marx, starting with the initial article I saw posted in English and then walking through (and back through) the many translations and re-translations of the original German sources (some of which are repeating others), the whole mess became more and more confusing. Yes, Cardinal Marx is clearly sympathetic toward Karl Marx. But exactly how far do those sympathies run?

Mainly I’ll deal with the reported claim that Cardinal Marx believes that (to quote one of the sources) “without Karl Marx there would be no Catholic social teaching.” This doesn’t appear to be a direct verbatim quote from Cardinal Marx, although (and this is significant) it does come from the German bishops’ own website, and does seem to accurately represent his thinking.

Let’s just say that that statement, if truly reflective of Cardinal Marx’s thinking, would be profoundly ignorant for a cardinal—especially a man with any influence on Church social doctrine. The only possible justification for that statement would be if Cardinal Marx meant that Karl Marx’s writings were so patently and unmistakably and absurdly awful that they led to the Catholic Church clarifying crucial social doctrine in order to save it from the pernicious influence of Marxist thought. But one assumes that the cardinal, being “impressed” with Marx and the Manifesto, isn’t thinking that way.

In dealing with that stunner, I’ll simply note this: Some of the best statements on Catholic social doctrine since the mid-1800s came precisely and immediately as a direct response to the ominous threat of Marxist-communist-socialist doctrine. To wit:

In 1846, two years before the Communist Manifesto was published, and in immediate response to the emergence of Communist philosophy, Pope Pius IX, in the first year of a 32-year-long pontificate, released Qui pluribus, which described communism as “absolutely contrary to the natural law itself.” Pius IX and the Magisterium feared that communism would “utterly destroy the rights, property, and possessions of all men, and even society itself.” Communism was a “dark design” of “men in the clothing of sheep, while inwardly ravening wolves.” Its books and pamphlets taught “sinning” and spread “widespread disgusting infection.” They were “filled with deceit and cunning” and “spread pestilential doctrines everywhere and deprave the minds especially of the imprudent, occasioning great losses for religion.”

That was one of several major statements from Pius IX, who was followed by another pontiff with a long-running papacy, Pope Leo XIII, who in his first year, 1878, released Quod Apostolici muneris, likewise in response to the menace of Marxist thought. There, Leo XIII described communism as “the fatal plague which insinuates itself into the very marrow of human society only to bring about its ruin.” He forewarned: “We speak of that sect of men who, under various and almost barbarous names, are called socialists, communists, or nihilists, and who, spread over all the world, and bound together by a wicked confederacy, no longer seek the shelter of secret meetings, but, openly and boldly marching forth in the light of day, strive to bring about what they have long been planning—the overthrow of all civil society.”

Here again, a note for Cardinal Marx: see those words “overthrow” and “all.”

Leo XIII’s hugely influential Rerum Novarum (May 1891) warned against collectivism: “it is clear that the main tenet of socialism, community of goods, must be utterly rejected, since it only injures those whom it would seem meant to benefit, is directly contrary to the natural rights of mankind, and would introduce confusion and disorder into the commonweal. The first and most fundamental principle, therefore, if one would undertake to alleviate the condition of the masses, must be the inviolability of private property.” Like so many of the Church’s statements on communism and socialism, Rerum Novarum warns of how the ideology threatens not only at the economic level but at the level of the home and the family: “The socialists, therefore, in setting aside the parent and setting up a State supervision, act against natural justice, and destroy the structure of the home.” Such ideologies, insisted Rerum Novarum, “strive against nature in vain.”

That, indeed, was precisely Karl Marx’s problem: He got human nature wrong. The Catholic Church has always understood this. Frankly, anyone who reads Marx ought to be able to understand that. It jumps off every page of the Manifesto.

So many more Church statements would follow, grappling with communism and the threat it posed to not only Catholic social doctrine but to Catholics and Christians and people of all faiths and non-faiths. There were too many to summarize here. Among them was Pius XI’s seminal Quadragesimo Anno, which bluntly stated: “Religious socialism, Christian socialism, are contradictory terms; no one can be at the same time a good Catholic and a true socialist.”

And then there was Divini Redemptoris in March 1937, which called communism a “satanic scourge,” a “collectivistic terrorism … replete with hate,” a “plague,” and a “catastrophe.” It “conceals in itself a false messianic idea” from which “rivers of blood” would flow. Marxists were “the powers of darkness.” “The evil we must combat is at its origin primarily an evil of the spiritual order. From this polluted source the monstrous emanations of the communistic system flow with satanic logic.”

Even Vatican II used this language in the early 1960s.

Obviously, it goes without saying that Marxist and Communist thought was a direct violation of Catholic social doctrine. This begs the question: Does Cardinal Reinhard Marx actually believe otherwise? How could Cardinal Marx possibly be “impressed” with Communist writings that, according to Cardinal Marx’s own Roman Catholic Church, flowed with “satanic logic” and served as “diabolical” instruments of “the powers of darkness”? A cardinal of the Church should not and cannot be “impressed” with something that his Church for many decades has labeled a “satanic scourge.”

It’s flatly indefensible. And especially for a man with the ear of Pope Francis.

Ideological Fanatics
To that end, I recently wrote here at Crisis about another series of outrageous pro-Communist statements proffered by another adviser who has the ear of Pope Francis: Argentinian Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo.

Sorondo, too, made bewildering statements about how the Roman Catholic Church owes the Communists for upholding and advancing social doctrine. Sorondo had said that Communist China happens to “best realize the social doctrine of the Church.”

In that piece, I noted that Pope Francis had warned of the corrupting force of ideology—of ideological “fanatics.”

Sorondo seems a candidate for that description. Cardinal Marx would seem to possibly be one as well.

When Pope Francis speaks of ideological fanatics, who’s he thinking of?

(Photo credit: Daniel Ibaniz / CNA)


Paul Kengor is Professor of Political Science at Grove City College, executive director of the Center for Vision and Values. He is the author, most recently, of The Devil and Karl Marx (TAN Books, 2020).

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