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Reinhard Cardinal Marx told reporters last March that “We are not a subsidiary of Rome. The Synod cannot prescribe in detail what we should do in Germany.”Lisa Bourne / LifeSiteNews


MUNICH, June 4, 2021 (LifeSiteNews) — In a move that appears to have been totally unexpected, Cardinal Reinhard Marx has revealed that he has tendered his resignation to Pope Francis as Archbishop of Munich and Freising. The German cardinal, who also holds top positions in the Vatican, obtained permission from the Pope to make public the letter of resignation he had sent him on May 21; it was posted on the Archdiocese’s website this Friday morning, together with a statement from Marx, who also answered questions at a press conference in the early afternoon.

The reason Marx gave for his offer to resign, long before the “legal” age of 75 (he is only 67 and has stressed that he is not “tired of office or demotivated”) was the personal responsibility he feels for the failure of people in the Church, but also of the Church itself as an institution, in handling the sex abuse crisis over the last decades.

The Church has reached a “dead end,” the cardinal stated.

Beyond the acceptance of personal accountability — not only does the resignation place the cardinal in a favorable light, it also automatically puts pressure on others to take similar steps — the rationale behind the move is quite clear: It makes out that the Church’s profound state of crisis requires new solutions, including the “Synodal Path” which has been undertaken by the Catholic Church in Germany, opening the way to revolutionary consensus with its most progressive sections.

Indeed, in some ways the resignation appears as a way or even a maneuver to promote Pope Francis’ own project of a “synodal” Church — although the more cynical are saying that Marx wants to step down to preempt problems related to his own management of the sex abuse crisis that are sure to come to the light in the near future. Die Welt called the resignation a “humility maneuver” prompted by the fact that Marx would soon be facing further accusations of mishandling the sex abuse crisis.

Whether this is true or not is not the main issue. The resignation appears to be more of a gesture than anything else, as Reinhard Marx has not voiced any intention whatsoever of backing down from his eminent roles in the Vatican, both as a member of Pope Francis’ “privy council” of cardinal advisers for the reform of the Curia, now known as the C6, and as the president of Francis’ Council for the Economy.

It will now be up to the Pope to accept or refuse his resignation; meanwhile, Cardinal Marx will remain at the head of his archdiocese for business as usual. One senior Vatican source is even of the opinion that Pope Francis wants to call Cardinal Marx to Rome.

What is plain to the eyes is that even in his resignation letter Marx is using language and ideas that are in agreement with Pope Francis’ objectives. From there to wondering whether this is a deeply “political” move is but a step.

In his May 21 letter, whose English translation was made available online together with the original German text, cardinal Marx said the present crisis affecting the Church in Germany and in the whole world “has also been caused by our own failure, our own guilt.” “My impression is that we are at a ‘dead end’ which, and this is my paschal hope, also has the potential of becoming a ‘turning point,’” he added in the opening lines of his letter.

Which clearly puts his initiative in a dynamic setting: the objective is change.

Marx’s decision to offer his resignation was a personal one, he stated in his letter. “In essence, it is important to me to share the responsibility for the catastrophe of sexual abuse by Church officials over the past decades. The investigations and reports of the last ten years have consistently shown that there have been many personal failures and administrative mistakes but also institutional or ‘systemic’ failure. The recent debates have shown that some members of the Church refuse to believe that there is a shared responsibility in this respect and that the Church as an institution is hence also to be blamed for what has happened and therefore disapprove of discussing reforms and renewal in the context of the sexual abuse crisis.”

Marx is on a different path, his letter made clear. He wrote: “I firmly have a different opinion. Both aspects have to be considered: mistakes for which you are personally responsible and the institutional failure which requires changes and a reform of the Church. A turning point out of this crisis is, in my opinion, only possible if we take a ‘synodal path,’ a path which actually enables a ‘discernment of spirits’ as you have repeatedly emphasized and reiterated in your letter to the Church in Germany”

Both expressions: “Synodal Path” and “discernment of spirits” are dear to the Pope and have been used repeatedly to justify developments beyond the traditional doctrine and discipline of the Church. They point to a democratic approach to power and the definition of what is to be believed and to be done, with a possibility of change as a result of the will of the people, both the ordained and the laity. They also point to a subjective understanding of morality, where circumstances trump principles.

In Germany, under Cardinal Marx’s leadership — he was at the head of the country’s bishops’ conference until 2020 — the Synodal Path is open to the progressive German laity and is set to promote all manner of modern reforms, from the place of women in the Church to the revamping of sexual morality, as the German grumbling at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith’s responsum regarding the impossibility of blessing same-sex unions has shown.

By focusing not on the faults and errors of individual pastors of the Church in the sex abuse crisis, but by taking the responsibility for it as a bishop who represents “the institution of the Church as a whole,” Marx has actually designated the Church as responsible. In his letter to Pope Francis, he wrote: “I feel that through remaining silent, neglecting to act and over-focusing on the reputation of the Church I have made myself personally guilty and responsible.”

But the words make clear that in the cardinal’s mind, it is the Church as such that is guilty and responsible. “In the aftermath of the MHG survey commissioned by the German Bishops’ Conference I stated in the Cathedral of Munich that we have failed. But who is this ‘We’? In fact, I also belong to this circle. And this means I must also draw personal consequences from this. This is becoming increasingly clear to me,” he wrote.

But by the resignation through which he wants to assume responsibility, Marx wants to obtain results. He says it very plainly at the end of his letter: “In doing so, I may be able to send a personal signal for a new beginning, for a new awakening of the Church, not only in Germany. I would like to show that not the ministry is in the foreground but the mission of the Gospel.”

Is Marx talking about a great reset of the Church? Where priesthood (“ministry”) is downplayed — as well as the Tradition of the Church — to go back to “the Gospel”?

Interestingly, the new papal Nuncio in Paris, Archbishop Celestino Migliore, had not unsimilar thoughts to offer to the clergy of the diocese of Rennes in Brittany, France, earlier this year. In his January 28 conference, Migliore explained that he wanted to present Pope Francis’ vision for the Church in a secularized world that is experiencing not a “time of change” but a “change of times.”

“Pope Francis has understood that the Church, similar to the human society inside of which it is placed, has reached a breaking point. Not a break with its biblical foundations, its doctrine and its tradition, but truly a break with its way of incarnating the Word of God, the doctrine and the tradition of the Church. A break in the domain of governance and the relations between the different members of the Church … In our world, the faith shall only be saved if it returns to the power of its original Word: the Word of Jesus Christ and, therefore, the Word transmitted by the four evangelists.”

He also stressed “another focus dear to Pope Francis, synodality,” which he equated with an “outward-going Church” that meets the world in “dialogue” in a “mystique of fraternity” while abandoning “ecclesio-centrism.”

He went on to complain about the excessive focus (in his view) on the Eucharist — “so much so that when the urgency of the pandemic in practice made its public celebration impossible, the whole edifice collapsed and it seemed that nothing was left standing.”

This is a far cry from Bossuet’s definition of the Church: “Jesus Christ spread and communicated.”

“There is a serious risk of regression — after fifty years of conciliar reform — to a conception of the sacrament as a rite that always functions, because it is endowed with a supernatural automatism,” said Migliore. He went on to speak about synodality which calls for going beyond “certain paradigms … such as the concentration of responsibility in the ministry of Pastors.”

This exposé of the Pope’s politics for the Church by one of his senior ambassadors strongly resonates with Marx’s latest move — Marx who is so close to Francis, and whose publication of his private resignation letter was approved, if not willed by the Pope.

In Germany, cardinal Marx’s resignation elicited both praise and dismay from the most progressive faction of the Church. Bishop Georg Bätzing, the current head of the bishops’ conference, expressed “great respect” for the cardinal’s decision, acknowledging his role in showing the way for the “Church in Germany” at the head of that institution. Recalling the sex abuse crisis, Bätzing added:

Cardinal Marx sees his offer of resignation from office as a personal response to this situation. Irrespective of this, however, the German Bishops’ Conference and the dioceses must continue to fulfill their responsibility to continue on the path of coming to terms with the cases of sexual abuse that they embarked upon in 2010. The Synodal Path was launched to search for systemic answers to the crisis. The fundamental theological discussions that inform the Synodal Path are therefore an essential and important part in this process.

Confirming the importance of Marx’s offer of resignation from the point of view of Church politics, Bätzing’s statement concluded:

“I can understand Cardinal Marx’s decision. His offer of resignation makes it clear that the Church in Germany must continue the Synodal Path it has embarked upon. Pope Francis himself emphasizes that he wants synodality and the Synodal Path as a discernment for the whole Church.”

The president of the progessive Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK, one of the official interlocutors of the Synodal Path), Thomas Sternberg, said he was “deeply shocked” by Marx’s offer to step down. “There goes the wrong one,” he told the Rheinische Post. “What Marx achieved in ecumenism, in the Synodal Path, and also in dealing with abuse, was very important.”

Sternberg added that Marx intended to spend part of his private fortune to fund the “Spes and Salus” Foundation created by the cardinal of Munich and Freising to help those affected by sexual abuse: the €500,000 gift (more than $600,000) was announced last December.

Others, such as the German child protection expert from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome,” the Jesuit priest Hans Zollner, said the offer of resignation was an “extremely important sign that deserves great respect.” The word “respect” frequently appears in the reactions of German leaders, while Maria Flachsbarth, president of the Catholic German Women’s Association, added her thanks for Marx’s “clear words for the renewal of the Church and for the continuation of the Synodal Path.”

Marx himself wrote:

An American journalist asked me during a conversation about the sexual abuse crisis in the Church and the events of the year 2010: „Eminence, did this change your faith?“ And I replied: „Yes, it did!“ Afterwards it became clearer to me what I had said. The crisis not only concerns a required improvement of the administration — although it does concern it — but it is even more about the question of a renewed form of the Church and a new way to live and proclaim faith today.

Finally, in his letter to Pope Francis, Cardinal Marx said: “I continue to enjoy being a priest and a bishop of this Church and I will keep committing myself in pastoral matter, wherever you deem it reasonable and useful. In the next years of my service, I would like to increasingly dedicate myself to pastoral care and support an ecclesiastical renewal of the Church which you also call for incessantly.”