Crosses by Decree: Ladders to Heaven or Stumbling Blocks?


Corpus Christi Procession in Hofgastein by Adolph Menzel (source)

Yesterday was the Feast of Corpus Christi, a public holiday in the Catholic strongholds of Austria and Bavaria, and starting today all public agencies* in Bavaria are required by decree to prominently display a cross in the entryway of the approximately 1,100 buildings they occupy “as an expression of Bavaria’s historical and cultural character.” Crosses have long been a feature of elementary schools and courthouses in Bavaria, but the legal basis for their presence has been a mere recommendation; this decree marks the first time that displaying a cross is mandatory**.

The decree has been opposed by the usual suspects—including atheists, artists, academics and the Green party—but also by prominent religious figures. Cardinal Reinhard Marx, for example, chairman of the German Bishops’ Conference and  Archbishop of Munich and Freising, argued recently that:

Those who see the cross as simply a cultural symbol have not understood it. […] It is a symbol of opposition to violence, injustice, sin and death, not against other people. To display a cross means that I would like to follow the words of the one who died on the cross for the whole world. […] From a Christian perspective, [the gospel] should be a guiding principle for politics to respect the dignity of all human beings, especially the weak. Those who display the cross must be measured by these standards.

Cardinal Marx considers the public debate over the cross important—as is the question “What does it mean to live in a Christian country?”—but it should be inclusive. The state must ensure that religious beliefs can be articulated and find expression in everyday life but it should not determine the content of such beliefs.

Later this month the Bavarian Minister-President is convening a round table of representatives from various churches to address religious objections to the decree. While I cannot imagine that the Mormons will be invited given their small numbers and legal status in Germany, what would you say about religious expressions in public places if invited to such a forum? (I mean, besides “We don’t worship the cross, we worship Christ!” and other expressions of general disapproval of the cross as a symbol.)


*With exceptions for theaters, opera houses and museums, for which it is merely recommended that they display the cross.

**Since there are no enforcement provisions, however, my sense is that most people view this an effort by the sitting Minister-President of Bavaria to mobilize his base leading up to the fall elections.


  1. jaxjensen says:

    “what would you say about religious expressions in public places if invited to such a forum?” Let people be free to express their religion, or display their religious symbols, as they see fit.

    As for mandatory display I have a question: Is Christianity the formal/national religion of Bavaria? (In the same way that states adopt a national bird/flower/song/etc?) If so, then having state agencies display symbols of the state religion seems fine. If not, then it would seem to be overreach.

  2. No, a state religion is proscribed by the constitution.

  3. Kevin Barney says:

    Out of curiosity are these crucifixes or empty crosses?

  4. Empty crosses as far as I’ve seen.

  5. I would say that there’s a known history of religious symbols being turned to (a) exclusivity claims, necessarily choosing some over others, and (b) nationalism, also choosing some over others. That Mormonism has not transcended these risks and is part of the story, not standing above or beside. That until the risk can be eliminated the state should not be adopting religious symbols.

  6. Heptaparaparshinokh says:

    There is no surer way of creating contempt for a belief system than for its observance to be the subject of government mandate. If you don’t believe me, look at the church attendance rates and birthrates in Italy and Spain.

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