Cardinal Reinhard Marx of the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising announced on Friday that he had submitted his resignation to Pope Francis. It was a dramatic gesture.
The cardinal told journalists June 4 that he had offered the pope his resignation, and was willing to shoulder personal responsibility for the institutional failures of the Church in the devastating sexual abuse crisis in Germany.
Marx spoke of the need for “personal consequences” and shared responsibility.
But was the cardinal actually falling on his own sword, daring the pope to let him, or was he encouraging other German bishops to fall on theirs? In short, was Marx’s resignation a generous act of self-sacrifice, or a calculated move designed in support of the German “synodal way?”
The cardinal’s place in the Church in Germany, and the political situation in which he finds himself, gives indications worth considering.
While Marx faces his own allegations of mishandling of abuse cases, in his letter to the pope, the cardinal seemed less focused on himself than on others, for whom he appears to want to set an example.
“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,” Marx wrote to Francis on May 21.
“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 [they are] therefore disapprove of discussing reforms and renewal in the context of the sexual abuse crisis. I firmly have a different opinion.”
But who is refusing to believe in shared responsibility, and what reforms and renewals are they proposing? The cardinal is not specific.
Marx is direct about his vision of the German bishops’ “synodal way” as the answer to ecclesial problems which extend far beyond Germany, and which Marx connects directly to the sexual abuse crisis.
“Looking at the Catholic Church as a whole, not only today but also in the past decades,” Marx wrote to Francis, “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.’”
“A turning point out of this crisis is,” according to Marx, “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.”
Marx’s doubling-down on the German synodal path is notable for a number of reasons.
Critics, including senior Roman cardinals, have warned that the German synod’s aim at a wholesale revision to the exercise of Church doctrinal and disciplinary authority risk a schism. But Marx and other German bishops have insisted that the synod’s slate of proposed reforms, including women’s ordination, intercommunion with Protestants, and Church blessings for same-sex unions, are essential responses to the abuse crisis.
The cardinal’s decision to reference Francis’ 2019 letter to the Church in Germany was bold, given that the purpose of that letter was to correct the flawed synodality of the German plans.
Marx’s offer to Francis of his resignation has been interpreted by some journalists as a kind of winkingly performative martyrdom, which would allow the pope to accept it gracefully before promoting Marx, a supposedly preferred collaborator, to a senior Vatican job in the coming months. But that read of the situation seems unlikely for a number of reasons.
Leaving aside the pope’s stated “dramatic concern” over the German synodal plans, Vatican sources, including senior cardinals, routinely talk off-the-record about Marx’s combustible relationship with the pope. Marx’s presence on important Vatican bodies like the Council of Cardinal Advisors and the Council for the Economy predate the tension over the German syndol plans, and are, perhaps, more reflective of the outsized financial sway of the Church in Germany than personal papal sympathy.
And if the entire resignation was a choreographed means of clearing the way for Marx’s promotion to Rome, it would seem to be a backwards way of achieving it: publicly allowing Marx to shoulder the blame for institutional failures before placing him in a higher position of institutional control would likely provoke public criticism, not praise for Marx and the pope.
An alternative interpretation is that by linking his efforts to take personal responsibility for addressing the abuse crisis to the German’s synodal plans, Marx is backing the pope into a corner.
If Francis accepts Marx’s resignation with the customary formalities of regret and praise for his time in office, it will be spun as an implied papal backing for Marx’s selfless example, and for the cardinal’s full-throated endorsement of the German synodal plans.
If Francis does not accept the resignation, it could be taken as an implied vote of confidence in Marx, his leadership... and his support for the German’s synodal plans.
Given that Marx’s letter was already two weeks old by the time he publicly released it, it seems unlikely Francis is much inclined to accept, and indeed, Marx may have planned on this.
Hamburg Archbishop Stefan Hesse offered in March to resign, after he was named in an independent report of the Archdiocese of Cologne, where he served as vicar general. Francis instead offered him a leave of absence. Marx has not been named in such a report — his Archdiocese of Munich has yet to produce one.
But one person who has not offered his resignation is Cardinal Rainer Woelki of Cologne, who was not named in the sprawling independent report into the abuse crisis in his own diocese, but who has, nevertheless, been the target of media criticism in Germany.
As it happens, Woelki is also known for being the leading voice of dissent among the German bishops about the synodal plans, routinely criticizing efforts to upend settled Church teaching and undermine disciplinary communion with Rome.
Woelki has called for the kind of spiritual discernment and refocusing on evangelization which Pope Francis called for in his 2019 letter to German Catholics, and for that, he has faced criticism from his brother bishops, and from the supporters of the “synodal way.”
Woelki’s dissent from the “synodal way” is sometimes used to imply to resistance to institutional reform against sexual abuse, despite the fact that the cardinal took the unusual step of commissioning and publishing an independent report into institutional and personal failings in his archdiocese related to abuse dating back decades..
When Marx wrote in his resignation letter that “some members of the Church refuse to believe that there is a shared responsibility” and “therefore disapprove of discussing reforms,” it is easy to believe he was talking about Woelki.
Last month, the Vatican authorized a separate apostolic visitation into the Cologne archdiocese to follow up on the independent report. One possible explanation for Marx’s public release of the letter is that, convinced his own position is secure, he is adding pressure on Woelki to follow his example and offer his resignation.
Were Woelki to resign, and the pope accept it, Marx would have removed the last effective domestic obstacle to the German “reforming” effort of its synod.
However events play out in the coming weeks, with the German bishops locked in a game of synodal chess among themselves, and with Rome, Marx will have weighed every possible move before writing to the pope.