A recent decision by the government of Bavaria to mandate that a cross be displayed in all state buildings has garnered global attention, while prompting both criticism and praise from local Catholic bishops.
The requirement that every entrance to state buildings display up a Christian cross — though not necessarily in the form of a crucifix — was announced by the office of Markus Söder, Bavaria’s premier. The directive to hang the crosses by 1 June has sparked a public debate in Germany, tapping into deeper angst about culture, values and Christian roots in a country divided by questions of heritage, religion and identity.
The move has come under criticism from Cardinal Reinhard Marx, Archbishop of Munich and Freising, while being welcomed by Bishop Rudolf Voderholzer of Bavaria’s Regensburg diocese.
Cardinal Reinhard Marx, who as recently as 2015 asserted that crosses should be displayed in classrooms and courtrooms, roundly criticized the April decision to display them in public entranceways.
Speaking to Munich’s Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper, the archbishop said that the cross is "a sign of opposition to violence, injustice, sin and death, but not a sign [of exclusion] against other people." The cross can be misunderstood as purely a cultural symbol, he said, and thus misused by the state.
It is not up to the state to explain what a cross means, the Cardinal emphasized, saying that Bavaria's government has triggered “division, unrest and adversity" with the move.
Bavarian Premier Markus Söder and other politicians of the state’s governing CSU party disagreed with Cardinal Marx's interpretation of the government's decision.
The accusation that the government would attempt to misappropriate the cross or designate it as a purely cultural symbol was flatly rejected by Söder, a Lutheran who hails from the Protestant region of Franconia in northern Bavaria. "Of course, the cross is primarily a religious symbol," Söder told German news media. However, the premier continued, the cross, in the wider sense, also carries with it basic foundations of a secular state.
This aspect was also emphasized by Catholic commentator Birgit Kelle in an editorial for the newspaper Die Welt: "Every Muslim, every atheist, and every other believer can feel safe under this cross, which does not constitute a claim to power, but a commitment to treat each person equally and decently, regardless of their background, faith, ability, or gender."
In a similar vein, Bishop Voderholzer of the Bavarian diocese of Regensburg asserted that: "the cross is the epitome of Western culture. It is the expression of a culture of love, compassion and affirmation of life. It belongs to the foundations of Europe." Its public presence - which in traditionally Catholic Bavaria is near ubiquitous - should be seen as such, welcomed and appreciated, he said.
This is the reason, Voderholzer said, Christians have placed crosses atop the peaks of Bavarian mountains: "Not the national flag or other symbols of human rule, as others might have liked to see at other times, but the cross. It should be widely visible, the cross, the sign of salvation and life in which Christ is heaven and earth, God and reconciled people, victims and perpetrators."