VATICAN CITY (RNS) — Pope Francis rejected the resignation of German Cardinal Reinhard Marx’s on Thursday (June 10), but the news did little to calm the shockwaves Marx’s move sent through the Vatican and supporters of Germany’s controversial Synodal Path movement, who view the prelate as their champion.
In a letter published June 4, Marx offered his resignation to Francis in light of the sexual abuse scandals shaking the church in Germany and beyond, which Marx said was “also caused by our personal failure, by our own guilt.”
The 67-year-old cardinal wrote that the church had reached a “dead point” in its efforts to combat clerical sexual abuse. Many were taken aback by his resignation. From dinner tables to public gatherings, Vatican observers and reporters pondered the repercussions of Marx’s decision.
“I was absolutely astonished and surprised,” said Claudia Lücking-Michel, president of the Central Committee for German Catholics, or ZdK, in an interview with Religion News Service.
Lücking-Michel is a lay leader in the Synodal Path, an effort organized with the German bishops and the Zdk following a 2018 report detailing more than 3,700 cases of sexual abuse by clergy over the span of 68 years.
The Synodal Path, which tackles contemporary challenges in the German Catholic Church, from sexuality to power structures, has garnered both praise and criticism for its outspoken discussions on female ordination, the blessing of same-sex couples and accountability for sexual abuse.
Marx, considered a reformer at the Vatican, is also a leading voice for reform in his own country. Elected chairman of the German Bishop’s Conference in 2014, he used his position to encourage the Synodal Path, continuing to do so even after announcing he wouldn’t lead the bishops for a second term in 2020.
Marx has also been viewed as a papal ally; early in his tenure, Francis named him to the new Council of Cardinals, established to aid in the governance and reform of the global church and the Vatican. In 2014 Francis made him a coordinator of the Council for the Economy, overseeing the finances at the Vatican. Marx also held important positions under now-Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI.
The German bishop, a strong advocate for the rights of immigrants and asylum seekers, visited the U.S.-Mexico border in 2015. He openly supported Francis’ 2016 document allowing divorced and civilly remarried Catholics to receive Communion under the guidance of their pastors. When it comes to the Catholic Church’s opening to the LGBTQ community, Marx has promoted further outreach and inclusion.
Despite his writing that the Synodal Path “must continue,” Marx’s resignation threatened the process, which, according to Lücking-Michel, has grown increasingly heated. “Now our work has become even more important,” Lücking-Michel said before the pope had answered Marx. Marx’s resignation, Lücking-Michel said, sent a message to other bishops and lay people to offer their resignation for their role or lack of oversight in the clerical sex abuse scandal.
“There are some others who have to go,” she said.
Bishop Georg Bätzing, Marx’s successor as chairman of the German bishops’ conference, told local reporters Marx’s resignation “strengthened us in our synodal journey” and sets “an example” for other members of the church in light of “systemic weakness.”
Media attention in Germany is centered on the Diocese of Cologne, among the wealthiest dioceses in the world, where an investigation led to the discovery of more than 300 instances of child abuse between 1975 and 2018. Further reports showed that in numerous cases church officials failed to properly deal with known perpetrators of abuse. In recent weeks Francis sent two inspectors to oversee the situation.
The bishop of Cologne, Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki, has refused to publish the latest diocesan report on abuse, offering vague explanations. Woelki, an outspoken critic of the Synodal Path, is now being unfavorably compared to Marx, who pointed in his letter to the importance of sharing “the responsibility for the catastrophe of the sexual abuse by Church officials over the past decades.”
In February, Marx invited the same firm investigating abuse cases in Cologne to look into his own diocese of Munich and Freising, making a point to declare he won’t interfere with the final document. Marx also created a foundation, “Spes et Salus,” which offers spiritual and monetary support to victims of sexual abuse by clergy.
“Cardinal Marx’s step puts the question to every bishop as to how he will personally take responsibility for the renewal of the church in the face of abuse, the slow processing and lack of credibility of the church as an institution,” said Birgit Mock, chairwoman of the Synodal Forum “Sexuality and Partnership” of the Synodal Way in Germany, in an interview with RNS, also before the pope had declined to accept Marx’s resignation.
Marx “shows that there should be no taboos when it comes to consequences,” she added.
Others take a more cynical view, citing Marx’s reputation as an astute reader of the media and expressing doubts about how the cardinal will be graded when the report on his Diocese of Munich comes in.
But in Francis’ letter refusing Marx’s resignation, the pope directly addressed the responsibility of Marx’s fellow bishops. “In my opinion, every bishop of the Church must take it upon himself and ask himself: what must I do in the face of this catastrophe?” the pope wrote.
Woelki, in a statement issued by his diocese, said he, too, had written to Francis in 2020, laying “his fate in the pope’s hands.”
With the Synodal Path seemingly secure in Germany, it remains to be seen how its conclusions will be received at the Vatican, where prelates and lay persons eye its progressive discussions with concern, especially as they prepare for a global summit of bishops in October of 2023 dedicated to synodality.
“We are convinced that the Synodal Path in Germany will flow into the global process and provide important examples in the process,” Mock said, adding that the discussions taking place in Germany follow Francis’ desire for “the strengthening of the local churches and how to deal with the inconsistencies in our world church.”