Taking responsibility or abandoning a sinking ship?

La Croix International [France]

June 8, 2021

By Robert Mickens

The shocking resignation of one of the most important cardinals in the Church today

It came as a complete shock.

Cardinal Reinhard Marx, arguably one of the Catholic Church’s most powerful prelates, publicly announced on Friday that he’s asked Pope Francis to accept his resignation as Archbishop of Munich and Freising.

Why is this so shocking?

Marx is only 67 years old — eight years short of reaching the normal retirement age — and he is one of the pope’s closest and most influential advisors.

And although it has not been reported with the attention it deserves, he’s also been one of the driving forces in getting the Vatican to devote time and resources to addressing the clergy sex abuse crisis.

He’s long advocated focusing on the needs of victims, rather than protecting the interests and image of the Church.

One of the Church’s most determined bishops

The hefty German spearheaded the drive in 2012 to set up the Center for Child Protection (CCP) in conjunction with the Pontifical Gregorian University. Originally based in Munich, it was transferred to the university’s Rome headquarters in 2014.

That was the same year that Francis announced the establishment of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors. Once again, Marx was the major influence behind this.

As an original member of the Jesuit pope’s kitchen cabinet, the Council of Cardinals, he was the one who convinced Francis — who had remained astonishingly silent on the sex abuse crisis for nearly the entire first year of his pontificate — that the Holy See needed to create a specific office to address the sex abuse crisis from the point of view of the victims.

Although the pope appointed Cardinal Sean O’Malley to head the commission, the main catalyst to setting it up was the forceful Marx, the man one European bishop who has worked closely with him called the “real Panzer Kardinal”.

And back in his German homeland, Marx has been one of the most determined Church leaders in facing the crisis head on.

As president of the national bishops’ conference from 2014-2020, he instigated the push for German Catholics to undertake a drawn-out “Synodal Path” aimed at Church reform.

In a word, he’s been one of the best and most candid bishops in the entire world to help the Church at home and around the globe deal courageously with sex abuse within its ranks.

The Church is at a “dead end”

But in his resignation letter, which he sent the pope on May 21, he said: “It is important to me to share the responsibility for the catastrophe of the sexual abuse by Church officials over the past decades.”

“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 said.

But he spelled it out in all but words that this could only happen if he stepped down.

“To assume responsibility, it is therefore not enough in my opinion to react only and exclusively if the files provide proof of the mistakes and failures of individuals. We as bishops have to make clear that we also represent the institution of the Church as a whole,” he told the pope.

In other words, Marx is implying that the ship cannot be turned around as long as the captain (no matter if he only inherited the mess) remains at the helm — even if he’s doing a capable job of keeping the vessel afloat.

“And it is also not right to simply link these problems largely on past times and former Church officials thereby ‘burying’ what happened,” he continued in his letter to the pope.”I also belong to this circle and must take responsibility”

“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,” the cardinal said.

Marx become an auxiliary bishop in 1996 and then bishop of Trier in 2001 before Benedict XVI appointed him to Munich in 2007.

But he said it was “only after 2002 and even more since 2010” that the Church began undergoing a “change of perspective” on the abuse crisis — “which has not yet been completed”.

“Overlooking and disregarding victims was certainly our greatest fault of the past,” the cardinal said.

Marx recalled that after the German bishops’ conference published a devastating report in 2018 that revealed some 3,700 mostly children had been sexually abused by priests between 1946-2014, he stood in Munich’s cathedral and declared “we have failed”.

“But who is this ‘We’?” Marx asked in his resignation letter. “In fact, I also belong to this circle. And this means that I must also draw personal consequences from this.”

“This is becoming increasingly clear to me,” he told Francis. “I believe one possibility to express this willingness to take responsibility is my resignation.”

This would set a very high bar

Cardinal Marx said Pope Francis had given him permission to make the resignation letter public, which the Archdiocese of Munich did in various language translations.

The question now is what the pope will do with the letter. It could be one of the most important decisions at this stage of his pontificate.

If he allows Marx to resign for the reasons the cardinal has stated (namely, that he is co-responsible for the abuse catastrophe), then a bar will have been set, as Church historian and LCI columnist Massimo Faggioli has noted.

And it will be a very high bar indeed.

“The recent debates have shown that some in the Church do not wish to acknowledge precisely this element of co-responsibility and thereby also complicity of the institution,” the cardinal said in his letter.

He said such people “therefore stand in rejection of any dialogue about reform and renewal in connection with the abuse crisis”.

There are bishops throughout the Church — including the cardinal-archbishop of Cologne — who fit that description.

And there are certainly bishops who have not done even a fraction of the hard work Marx has done to address the crisis.

If the pope accepts his resignation he’d be under intense pressure to demand others to voluntarily step down as well.

The cardinal of Munich obviously thought long and hard about this.

But some will suggest that his resignation may be an admission that he can no longer keep Germany’s Synodal Path from becoming a runaway train that will eventually be totally detached from Rome.

They’ll say he’s realized the clamor in the German Church to ordain women, share communion with Protestants or recognize same-sex unions (among other things) has grown too loud and too fierce, and he’s decided to jump from a sinking ship.

That would be a wrong interpretation, however.

In his letter of resignation, Marx told the pope that, by stepping down, “I may be able to send a personal signal for a new beginning, for a new awakening of the Church, not only in Germany”.

The resignation is not about him. It’s about the urgency of a profound and radical reform of the Church.

“I would like to show that it’s not the office that stands in the forefront, but the mission of the Gospel,” he said.”I therefore strongly request you to accept this resignation.”

The ball is now in the pope’s court.

at a press conference in November 2017. (Photo by Sven Hoppe/dpa/MaxPPP)
at a press conference in November 2017. (Photo by Sven Hoppe/dpa/MaxPPP)