Pope Francis and Cardinal Marx Do a Dance

Catholic Herald [London, England]

June 10, 2021

By Christopher Altieri

“The pope will need to accept Cardinal Marx’s resignation,” I wrote last Friday. “If he doesn’t, he ought to be doing some soul-searching of his own.”

Now that Pope Francis has seen fit to refuse Cardinal Marx’s offer, and demand that he remain in place as Archbishop of Munich and Freising, I should say that my second sentence originally read: “If he doesn’t, he should think about offering his own.”

It’s the last time I soften anything.

It is difficult, in any circumstances, to judge another’s motivations. When it is a question of a very public figure, in the midst of momentous events, it is all but impossible. As Christians, and even as decent human beings, it is only right to give the benefit of the doubt, and presume the best of intentions.

Whatever Cardinal Marx’s reasons for submitting his resignation, Pope Francis’s rejection of it makes the whole thing appear thoroughly managed — orchestrated — choreographed.

While not formally accused of any specific criminal wrongdoing, Cardinal Marx has admitted to grave errors and offered his resignation as a concrete act of personal responsibility for the Church’s failures. “I feel that through remaining silent, neglecting to act and over-focussing on the reputation of the Church I have made myself personally guilty and responsible,” Cardinal Marx wrote in explanation of his offer to resign.

“With my resignation,” Cardinal Marx further explained, “I would like to make it clear that I am willing to personally bear responsibility not only for any mistakes I might have made, but for the Church as an institution which I have helped to shape and mould over the past decades.”

Pope Francis won’t let him.

“The Holy Father’s answer surprised me,” Cardinal Marx wrote in a statement published to the website of the archdiocese he still heads. “I did not expect that he would react so quickly and I also did not expect his decision that I should continue my service as Archbishop of Munich and Freising.”

He oughtn’t have been so surprised.

Pope Francis began his letter to Cardinal Marx by thanking him for his Christ-like courage. That calls to mind his encomium to the truth-challenged Cardinal Donald Wuerl — Uncle Ted McCarrick’s successor in the see of Washington, DC — which Francis offered when he finally, half-heartedly, even begrudgingly accepted Wuerl’s resignation.

“You have sufficient elements to ‘justify’ your actions and what it means to cover up crimes or not to deal with problems, and to commit some mistakes,” Pope Francis wrote to Cardinal Wuerl. “However, your nobility has led you not to choose this way of defense.”

“Of this, I am proud,” Pope Francis continued, “and thank you.”

Pope Francis thanked Cardinal Marx, too.

“I am moved by the detail and the very brotherly tone of his letter,” Cardinal Marx continued. “In obedience I accept his decision as I promised him.”

In his letter, Pope Francis certainly hit his favorite talking points.

“The whole Church is in crisis because of the abuse issue (Toda la Iglesia está en crisis a causa del asunto de los abusos),” Pope Francis wrote to Cardinal Marx. “Furthermore, the Church today cannot take a step forward without taking this crisis upon herself (Sp. sin assumer esta crisis).”

He’s not wrong.

The problem is with how that affirmation comports with what he said after that, and with the modes and orders he has embraced and established for the governance of the Church.

The whole Church is involved in the crisis. The bishops made it. The bishops wield all the power. The bishops hold all the cards.

The lower ranks of the clergy mostly cower in fear of their ecclesiastical betters, while the laity pray for relief and watch the institutions built with their scraped pennies collapse under the weight of corruption and misrule.

“I agree with you in calling the sad history of sexual abuse and the way the Church dealt with it a catastrophe until recently,” Pope Francis wrote.

“Until recently,” he said. Very recently. Ask the faithful of Cincinnati, of Knoxville, of Nashville and Philadelphia, of Green Bay, of Lyon, of Krakow and Gdańsk and Kalisz, of the whole nation of Chile and of Oran in the pope’s own native Argentina how the Church is doing today? Ask the faithful of Crookston. Ask any religious woman living or working almost anywhere in the world. Then ask Bishop HoeppnerAsk Bishop Zanchetta.

This crisis is not only part of our history. It is in our present. We will not live to see the end of it. I’m not the one who says so. Fr. Hans Zollner SJ says so, and he’s the director of the Church’s leading child protection institute. “This will not be over in our lifetime,” Zollner told an audience at Fordham University in March of 2019, “at least in countries where they have not yet started to talk about it.”

For a good long while, it appeared that all Churchmen would do about the crisis was talk. Francis’s governance in these regards has made this Vatican watcher long for the days of endless jawing.

“Realizing this hypocrisy in the way of living faith is a grace,” Pope Francis wrote in refusal of  Cardinal Marx’s offer. “It is a first step that we must take.” How many times is he going to pass on the chance to take the first step?

“We have to take ownership of history, both personally and as a community,” Pope Francis went on to write. “You cannot remain indifferent in the face of this crime. Assuming it means putting yourself in crisis.” Indeed.

“Making life-changing ‘resolutions’ without ‘putting the meat on the grill’ leads nowhere,” Pope Francis wrote.

Dear Lord, does the man actually think in slogans?

He certainly governs by means of them: “Synodality” is one. “Responsibility, Accountability, Transparency,” is another.

Transparency from Pope Francis or any other Church leader on his watch has long since become a dead letter.

If we are perfectly clear-eyed, it was a dead letter when Cardinal Marx proclaimed from the dais at the public relations exercise that was the child protection meeting in February, 2019: “I understand [transparency] not as the greatest possible mass of diverse, uncoordinated information disclosed,” but as “actions, decisions, processes, procedures, etc.,” that are “understandable and traceable.”

In other words, the A-List, top-notch Churchman tasked with speaking on the key term in the threefold watchword (buzzword?) of the 2019 abuse summit’s theme couldn’t even approach the subject without turning his speech into a talk about something else.

“Faith cannot be administered,” Cardinal Marx went on to say in that talk. “The Spirit of God cannot possibly be captured in a file or folder.” He’s right, of course. The Holy Spirit cannot possibly be captured in a file or folder.

You know what can be, though, and frequently is?

If you said, “Evidence of crime,” you take the points. If you added, “Evidence of everything from chicanery, skulduggery, and run-of-the-mill incompetence to globe-spanning criminal conspiracy across continents and generations,” you win the big prize.

I’d like to be able to say that Pope Francis has at least talked a good game, but the truth is: He hasn’t even done that.

His August 2018 letter to the worldwide body of the faithful was riddled with cliché and destitute of practical consideration regarding reform. It was, in a word, inadequate. In fact, it was not even an improvement on his letter to the faithful of Chile, which had appeared a few months before.

“If Pope Francis has not squandered this latest chance to treat the faithful as though they are a responsible part of the Church,” I wrote of his letter to the faithful throughout the world, “instead of saying that they are and acting as though they are not, he must be close to squandering it.”

That was in August of 2018.