“Without doubt, these are times of crisis for the Church in Germany. This crisis has also been caused by our own failure, by our own guilt.” —Cardinal Reinhard Marx, Archbishop of Munich and Freising in Bavaria, southern Germany, in a surprising May 21 letter to Pope Francis asking the Pope to accept his resignation as archbishop (link). The guilt Marx feels, he says, is for not having done more to prevent the cases of sexual abuse in the Church. “Overlooking and disregarding the victims was certainly our greatest fault of the past,” Marx says.
“But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and thou, being once converted, confirm thy brethren.” —Jesus, speaking to Peter, from the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 22:32. These words are often understood to be Christ’s vision for the head of the Church, Peter, and for Peter’s successors: that Peter’s faith will not fail because He has prayed that it not fail, so that Peter, standing firm, will be able to “confirm his brethren” in the faith handed down from the beginning
Letter #31, 2021, Friday, June 4: Cardinal Marx Asks to Resign from his Archbishop’s See in Germany
Today Cardinal Reinhard Marx, 67, Archbishop of Munich and Freising in southern Germany, made public a letter he wrote on May 21 to Pope Francis in which he asks Francis to accept his resignation from his post as archbishop. (Below and at this link is the full text of this startling letter. Here are links to articles on this letter: link, link, link)
Why does Cardinal Marx wish to resign?
Cardinal Marx is only 67, and so he is asking to leave his archbishop’s post some 8 years before turning 75 — the ordinary retirement age for bishops.
Why does Marx feels it is necessary for him to resign? There have been no allegations of any wrongdoing by him, either in his actions or in his dealing with the actions of others. Why then would he not remain at his post to continue working at something he says is important to him: to ensure in so far as is in his power that sexual abuse does not occur, and, if it should occur, is not covered up by ecclesial authorities?
Marx has led the archdiocese of Munich-Freising for 14 years, since 2007.
His resignation request — it is not known yet whether Francis will accept the resignation; he could theoretically insist that Marx remain at his post — does not extend, evidently, to other important posts Marx holds in the Church.
For example, even if his resignation were to be accepted by the Pope, Marx would still, it appears, continue to be a voting cardinal, and would still serve as one of the seven members of Francis’ special advisory “Council of Cardinals,” and would still be the coordinator of the Vatican’s “Council for the Economy,” which supervises the financial activities of both the Vatican City-State and the offices of the Holy See.
So why leave his post as archbishop of Munich and Freising?
Marx is arguably the most prominent and influential of the German bishops. He was the President of the German bishops’ conference from 2012-20. In that role, he was a key organizer of the often controversial German “synodal path,” initiated by the German bishops as a way of answering public calls for a number of Church reforms.
In 2019, Marx strongly defended the German Synodal program from criticism by Cardinal Marc Ouellet, head of the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops.
Ouellet had said some of the topics up for discussion in Germany — including, for example, the role of women in the ministries of the Church — might have an impact on the entire global Church.
This exchange led many observers to conclude that Rome — in the person of Ouellet — was concerned about the path the German bishops, led by Marx, were taking, fearing the possible emergence of a type of “national Church” within Catholicism.
The eventual emergence of a such a “German Catholic Church” as a kind of special subset of the “Roman Catholic Church” would risk harming the unity of the Church, and the universality of the Church, characterized by the adherence to one faith and one practice throughout the world by all members of the Church, Ouellet seemed to be arguing.
It is precisely this unity and universality which is the special duty of the Pope — and his advisors in Rome (his Roman Curia) — to preserve and protect. The Pope carries out this duty by “confirming his brothers in the faith” (see Luke 22:32, where Jesus says to Peter: “But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and thou, being once converted, confirm thy brethren”).
Only once in his May 21 letter does Marx mention the German “synodal path,” but he refers to it, strikingly, as “the only way” out of the present crisis of the Church in Germany.
There is something admirable on the surface about taking personal responsibility for the shortcomings of the Church with regard to the sexual abuse of so many victims.
Paraphrasing, Marx in his letter seems to be saying: “I accuse myself of going along with the Church and its terrible ways.”
If “the system” is the problem, and the “synodal path” is the solution, no light is shed on what seems a central issue which few wish to focus on: the failure in formation — the failure to form Christian believers in Christian virtue so that sexual abuse is less likely to be a temptation.
In this sense, it seems that Marx wishes to step down from his post as archbishop to publicly emphasize his repentance for and break with a “system of coverup” which thought more about the image of the Church than about the suffering of victims.
Yet, at the same time, Marx wishes to “double down” on the “synodal path” he has helped to fashion, calling it the “one way” to bring about a true reform of the Church which will help protect victims.
It is this point that remains doubtful: is the “synodal path” really the right path for the Church to take to grow in virtue and holiness, including caring in the most profound way for victims of every type of abuse?
Or could such a path lead to a type of “theological abuse,” a type of embrace of worldly thinking which breaks with tenets of the faith handed down for 2,000 years?
Indeed, could such a path lead toward disunity in the Church, geographical division (region by region, country by country) but also division over time (departing from unity with the Christians of the 1st century, the 4th, the 12th, the 19th, down through all the ages)?
That question remains still to answer, after reading Marx’s unexpected and unusual letter.
Here is the text of Marx’s letter:
21st May 2021
Without doubt, these are times of crisis for the Church in Germany.
There are, of course, many reasons for this situation – also beyond Germany in the whole world – and I believe it is not necessary to state them in detail here.
However, this crisis has also been caused by our own failure, by our own guilt.
This has become clearer and clearer to me looking at the Catholic Church as a whole, not only today but also in 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.”
Of course, the “paschal faith” also applies to our pastoral care as bishops: For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will find it!
Since last year, I have thought about this more thoroughly and have asked myself what this means for me personally and I have decided – encouraged by the Easter period – to ask you to accept my resignation as Archbishop of Munich and Freising.
In essence, it is important to me to share the responsibility for the catastrophe of the sexual abuse by Church officials over the past decades.
The investigations and reports of the last 10 years have consistently shown that there have been many personal failures and administrative mistakes but also institutional or “systemic” failure.
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 therefore disapprove of discussing reforms and renewal in the context of the sexual abuse crisis.
I firmly have a different opinion.
Both aspects have to be considered: mistakes for which you are personally responsible and the institutional failure which requires changes and a reform of the Church.
A turning point out of this crisis is, in my opinion, 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.
I have been a priest for 42 years and a bishop for almost 25 years, 20 years thereof I was an ordinary in large bishoprics.
It is painful for me to witness the severe damage to the bishops‘ reputation in the ecclesiastical and secular perception which may even be at its lowest.
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.
And it is also not right to simply link these problems largely on past times and former Church officials thereby “burying” what happened.
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.
Only after 2002 and even more since 2010, those affected by sexual abuse have been brought to the fore more consequently and this change of perspective has not yet been completed.
Overlooking and disregarding the victims was certainly our greatest fault of the past.
In the aftermath of the HG survey commissioned by the German Bishops‘ Conference I stated in the Cathedral of Munich that we have failed.
But who is this “We”?
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. I believe one possibility to express this willingness to take over responsibility is my resignation.
In doing so, I may be able to send a personal signal for a new beginning, for a new awakening of the Church, not only in Germany.
I would like to show that not the ministry is in the foreground but the mission of the Gospel. This too is an element of the pastoral care.
I therefore strongly request you to accept this resignation.
I continue to enjoy being a priest and a bishop of this Church and I will keep committing myself in pastoral matters, wherever you deem it reasonable and useful.
In the next years of my service, I would like to increasingly dedicate myself to pastoral care and support an ecclesiastical renewal of the Church which you also call for incessantly.
Oboedientia et Pax [“Obedience and peace”] and oremus pro invicem [“let us pray for each other”].
Reinhard Cardinal Marx
Archbishop of Munich and Freising