The pope’s refusal to accept the German cardinal’s resignation further strengthens moves towards a substantial reform of the Catholic Church
Cardinal Reinhard Marx tried to resign but, in the end, Pope Francis rejected the move and instructed the 67-year-old German to continue leading the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising.
The news is a major blow to doctrinal hardliners and neo-traditionalists, and everyone else who is a part of the Catholic Church’s “no change” crowd.
Because Marx is not just any bishop or cardinal. He’s one of the most energetic and forceful proponents of ecclesial reform through synodality, a process of wide-ranging consultation of all the Church’s members that Francis is trying to make constitutive of Roman Catholicism.
And the cardinal’s an extremely influential papal aide as member of the Council of Cardinals and moderator of the Vatican’s Council for the Economy.
He’s also served from 2012-2018 as president of the Council of European Episcopal Conferences (COMECE) and until last year as head of the German Bishops Conference (DBK).
In short, Reinhard Marx is a big player.
And the Pope’s refusal to let him resign, has only made him all the more imposing as a leading figure in this current moment of Church history.
From this point forward, everything is now different
By keeping Marx in place, Francis has endorsed the cardinal’s push for bold ecclesial reform and his desire to change a Church “system” that helped spawn the worldwide clergy sex abuse “catastrophe”.
Marx said he agreed to withdraw his resignation “in obedience” to the Pope, but he made it clear that, from this point forward, everything is now different.
“Simply going back to the previous agenda cannot be the way forward for me or for the Archdiocese,” he said on June 10, the very day Francis wrote him a warm and brotherly letter (in Spanish and German) telling him to continue in the post he’s held the last thirteen or so years.
“For me and our joint work in the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising, this also means considering which new paths we can go — also in the face of a history of various failures — in order to proclaim and testify to the Gospel,” Marx said.
A “dead end” Church that needs to be reformed
The Cardinal revealed on June 4 — with the Pope’s permission — that he had sent in his resignation on May 21 in order to “share the responsibility for the catastrophe of the sexual abuse by Church officials over the past decades”.
He insisted that beyond any personal failures, the abuse crisis was also the result of an “institutional or ‘systemic’ failure”.
Marx said this “requires changes and a reform of the Church”, a Church he described as being at “a dead-end”.
The Cardinal called out those in the Church who refuse to admit this and who “disapprove of discussing reforms and renewal in the context of the sexual abuse crisis”.
“A turning point out of this crisis is, in my opinion, is only possible if we take a ‘synodal path’,” he said.
He used the words synodaler Weg, which is also the name of the Synodal Path he encouraged the Catholic Church in Germany to begin two years ago to propose reforms that would help it be more faithful to the Gospel and save it from becoming irrelevant.
Pope Francis agrees with Cardinal Marx
“The bishop is not alone in this and I will be thinking in the next few weeks about how we can together contribute even more to the renewal of the Church here in our Archdiocese and as a whole,” the Cardinal said on June 9 in response to the Pope’s instruction that he remain in his post.
“The Pope takes up much of what I mentioned in my letter (of resignation) to him and gives us important impulses,” Marx said.
“The whole Church is in crisis because of the issue of abuse,” Francis said.
“I agree with you in describing the sad history of sexual abuse and the way the Church faced it until a short time ago as a catastrophe,” he said.
“One cannot remain indifferent in face of this crime. To assume it implies to be in crisis,” the Pope told Marx, praising the Cardinal for displaying “a Christian courage that does not fear the cross”.
Feed my sheep
“We are asked for a reform, which in this case does not consist in words but in attitudes that have the courage to be in crisis, to assume the reality whatever the consequence,” Francis continued.
“Reform in the Church has been achieved by men and women who were not afraid to enter in crisis and allow themselves to be reformed by the Lord,” he said.
The Pope said it was essential “to allow the Spirit to lead us to the desert of desolation, to the cross and resurrection” as the only way to “save” the Church.
By refusing to allow Marx to step down, he indicated that he wanted the Cardinal to be part of this process.
This is the same Cardinal Marx who in 2015 said the Church in Germany was not “a branch of Rome”, but had to “preach the Gospel in its own original way”.
The comment was in reference to the debate on whether divorced and civilly remarried Catholics could receive the sacraments, but it was seen then — and is seen even now — as extending to “new paths” the Germans might consider taking on other issues as well.
Francis is quite aware of the Cardinal’s thinking and his support for reforms that traditionalists vehemently oppose — such as supporting and blessing same-sex couples, allowing for married priests and giving women more roles of authority in the Church.
If the Pope wanted to eliminate a powerful and influential voice in favour of such reforms, he would have gladly taken Marx’s resignation.
But he did not.
“And if the temptation comes to you to think that, by confirming your mission and not accepting your resignation, this Bishop of Rome (your bother who loves you) does not understand you”– Francis told him — “think of what Peter felt before the Lord when he presented his resignation in his manner: ‘Depart from me a sinner’; and listen to the answer: ‘feed my sheep’.”
It’s hard to think of a pope giving a bishop a more resounding endorsement.
Robert Mickens is a Rome-based journalist who has been reporting and commenting on the Vatican and the Catholic Church in the past three decades. He is currently editor of La Croix International, an online English version of the eminent French Catholic Daily La Croix.
Reproduced with permission from La Croix International and Robert Mickens.