Gerard O’ConnellJune 09, 2021
Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich and Freising, Germany, speaks during a news conference about his resignation offer, in Munich June 4, 2021. (CNS photo/Robert Kiderle, KNA)

While Cardinal Reinhard Marx has long been a mover and shaker in the Catholic Church both in Germany and at the universal level, his decision to offer his resignation as archbishop of Munich and Freising to Pope Francis on May 21 was completely unexpected. It hit the church in Germany and Rome like an earthquake when he made it known publicly on June 4.

“It was to a certain extent reminiscent of Benedict XVI’s decision to resign,” Hans Zollner, S.J., told America in an extended conversation at the Center for Child Protection at the Pontifical Gregorian University, of which he is president. The cardinal had only consulted a few people. The shockwaves from his resignation were felt in both the ecclesial and secular fields and caused a wide range of contrasting reactions and interpretations. Many were perplexed.

Cardinal Marx handed the letter of resignation to the pope when they met in the Vatican more than two weeks ago. In a June 4 statement, he revealed that Francis gave him permission to publish the letter and told him “to keep performing my service as a bishop until his decision is made.”

“It was to a certain extent reminiscent of Benedict XVI’s decision to resign,” Hans Zollner, S.J., told America.

Cardinal Marx has been a bishop for almost 25 years. Pope John Paul II first appointed him as auxiliary bishop of Paderborn in 1996, and then in 2001 made him bishop of Trier, the oldest diocese in Germany. In 2007, Benedict XVI chose him to lead the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising, the archdiocese where Benedict himself had been archbishop before coming to Rome, and where in 2010 he gave him the red hat.

As a cardinal-elector, Cardinal Marx participated in the 2013 conclave that elected Francis, and was a supporter of the first Latin American pope from the beginning. Francis chose him to be a member of his council of cardinal advisors within four days of his election. The two have spent many days together in meetings of the council over the past eight years, as well as at synods of bishops, and have gotten to know each other quite well.

Some describe Cardinal Marx as a “panzer cardinal”—a nickname critics once used for Joseph Ratzinger—and while he is seen as impulsive and strong, he is above all “a very sensitive person,” said Father Zollner, a German Jesuit theologian and psychologist who knows him well. “He’s had a sensitivity to the problem of abuse that has been quite remarkable among church leaders, and it has been consistent and unwavering.”

He recalled that Cardinal Marx contributed enormously, with financial support from his archdiocese, to the organization of the first conference on the abuse question at the Gregorian University in 2012, to the establishment of the Center for Child Protection in Rome in 2013 and to the organization of the Vatican summit on the protection of minors in the church in February 2019. At the end of 2020, he established with his own personal funds the Spes et Salus Foundation, which focuses on spiritual healing for the victims of abuse and works with the C.C.P.

“He’s had a sensitivity to the problem of abuse that has been quite remarkable among church leaders, and it has been consistent and unwavering.”

“He knows what his position is in the church and his responsibility, and so there’s a level of awareness of what’s going on and what needs to be done,” Father Zollner added.

Cardinal Marx has held top positions in the church in Europe, both as president of the Commission of the Bishops’ Conferences of the European Community from 2012 to 2018 and as president of the German bishops’ conference from 2014 to 2020. As a cardinal, he has walked in the corridors of power in the Vatican.

Why then did he offer his resignation when there is no specific allegation against him today and when so many other cardinals and bishops are reluctant to resign their positions, even in situations where there may be evidence against them?

Father Zollner’s remark that Cardinal Marx is “a very sensitive person” offers an important insight into the cardinal’s mind. As is clear from his letter, he has been profoundly disturbed by the abuse crisis, particularly since it exploded with force in Germany in 2010. The German church launched an investigation in the Munich-Freising Diocese following allegations that Benedict XVI had mishandled a case as archbishop there. Since then, Cardinal Marx has said several times at press conferences, “2010 was the worst year in my priestly life.”

Why then did he offer his resignation when so many other cardinals and bishops are reluctant to resign their positions, even in situations where there may be evidence against them?

In the letter, he recalls that after the publication in 2018 of the MHG nationwide abuse study commissioned by the German bishops’ conference, he declared in Munich’s cathedral, “We have failed.” He did so because he had come to recognize that as a leader of the German church he had personal responsibility for this crisis, but that there was also an institutional responsibility for its “systemic” failure. Father Zollner explained that the systemic failure was found in the culture and institutional praxis that did not prevent abuse of minors, did not protect victims, allowed for cover-ups and transferred perpetrators from one parish or institution to another.

The cardinal recognized that this failure had led to “a dead end” for the church in Germany, and so he felt he had to offer his resignation in reparation. He told the pope, “With my resignation I would like to make 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 mold over the past decades.”

Several sources report that the cardinal’s offer of resignation has been generally well received in Germany and, most important, among survivors of abuse.

“It is an impressive step that finally a bishop in Germany speaks in the first person and takes responsibility,” Matthias Katsch, the spokesperson for the German victims’ association Eckiger Tisch, declared in a statement. He called Marx’s offer to step down a “personal testimony of leadership” and said he hopes the church will now take steps to address the concerns of victims.

Several sources report that the cardinal’s offer of resignation has been generally well received in Germany and, most important, among survivors of abuse.

Thomas Sternberg, the president of the influential lay group the Central Committee of German Catholics, said, “The wrong one is stepping down.” This was a reference to Cardinal Rainer Woelki, archbishop of Cologne, who has been under attack for mishandling the abuse crisis and for his problematic pastoral management for over six months; his diocese is now subject to an apostolic visitation ordered by Pope Francis.

Ludwig Ring-Eifel, the editor in chief of the German Catholic news agency KNA, reported in an analysis published today that Marx “is more popular than ever at the grassroots since his voluntary renunciation of power.” But at the episcopal level, he said, with the exception of the conference’s president, Bishop Georg Baetzing, and its vice president, Bishop Franz-Josef Bode, the reactions to Marx’s decision have been “rather restrained,” which “raises the question whether Marx, with his ‘shock and awe’ move, really chose the appropriate method to set in motion the momentum that his church needs to move forward again.”

Not everyone agrees with Cardinal Marx’s analysis of the abuse crisis. At least two former Vatican cardinals disagree with his statement that there was an institutional responsibility on the part of the church for its systemic failure. The Spanish cardinal Julián Herranz, 91, the emeritus president of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts and a member of Opus Dei, in a letter to the editor of L’Osservatore Romano published on the front page on June 8, contested this claim without naming Cardinal Marx and objected to calling into question the credibility of the church as an institution. The Italian cardinal Fernando Filoni, 75, the emeritus prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples and former chief of staff under Pope Benedict XVI, took a similar line much earlier and was challenged by Cardinal Marx.

Not everyone agrees with Cardinal Marx’s analysis of the abuse crisis. At least two former Vatican cardinals disagree with his affirmation that there is both personal and institutional responsibility at play.

In his analysis, Mr. Ring-Eifel also reports that “behind the scenes [in Germany] some clerics are criticizing Marx’s diagnosis that the church has reached a ‘dead point.’ These critics say that conjuring up the downfall in this way is no use to anyone.”

But Father Zollner does not read things in this way. He told America: “I think it needed some shake-up because what Marx says is very true, we are at ‘a dead end,’ with our nose against the wall, in the sense that we are all caught up in self, in discussions about ourselves, and there is little talk about how to live out the Gospel. Our invitation to discover God in all things to the general public is almost nil.”

“In Germany the word ‘God’ is disappearing; there is an evaporation of faith,” he said. “But if you go to parishes, if you hear confessions, if you accompany people spiritually, if you say something reasonable, people sense that there must be more to life than just this.”

Father Zollner believes that what Cardinal Marx said “is a bout of fresh air because we have come to something that Ignatius would call desolation.” But, he added, “now I get the feeling that people are saying ‘it’s not just that we’re in a dead end; there is the possibility to turn around’...and this for me is the most important element of this.”

Cardinal Marx also made this point in his letter to the pope when he said he said that in the light of the Easter faith, he sees the “dead end” at which we have arrived “also has the potential for being a turning point,” and he believes the “synodal path” can be the way out of this crisis. He said he hopes that by offering his resignation “I may be able to send a personal signal for a new beginning, for a new awakening of the church [and] not only in Germany.”

Father Zollner praised the cardinal “because he is courageous. Courage not in attacking others, but in taking responsibility for oneself.” He suggests this kind of courage is much lacking in the German church today.

Francis, for his part, has maintained total silence on the matter, and none of the Vatican officials with whom I have spoken over the past week has any clear idea as to what the pope’s final decision might be. Some expect him to reject the cardinal’s resignation; others think Francis will bring him to Rome to head a Vatican office. All expect him to continue as a member of Francis’ council of cardinal advisors, a role he has had since 2013, and as president of the Vatican’s Council for the Economy.

Like everyone else, Cardinal Marx is waiting for the pope’s decision.

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