Cardinal Marx’s Resignation: An Act of Self-Preservation or Penance for the Sins of the Church in Germany?

COMMENTARY: Three precedents that might help explain the abrupt decision by the influential German cardinal to resign.

Cardinal Reinhard Marx arrives for the afternoon session of the Amazon Synod at the Vatican Oct. 8, 2019.
Cardinal Reinhard Marx arrives for the afternoon session of the Amazon Synod at the Vatican Oct. 8, 2019. (photo: Daniel Ibanez / CNA/EWTN)

The publication — with the express approval of Pope Francis — of an offer to resign by Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich is unquestionably a bombshell with no exact precedents. 

Three partial precedents may offer some additional explanation, though those remain speculative at this point.

“With my resignation,” Cardinal Marx wrote, “I would like to make it 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.”

Cardinal Marx has not been found negligent in any sexual-abuse cases. There is a report coming this summer on Munich, so it is possible that he is getting out ahead of adverse findings, but there is no evidence of that. In any case, one reason for the logic of the Marx resignation is not punitive but cruciform.

It was the premise of a powerful 2014 film about clerical sexual abuse in Ireland, Calvary. It is not the wicked priests that must suffer, but the good ones, in the mind of a victim who sets out to kill a priest. He believes that the death of a good priest is something expiatory, while the death of an abuser is only rough and inadequate justice. 

Cardinal Marx is suggesting something similar. Someone, he argues in his letter, who is not guilty needs to make a sacrifice for the common good of the Church in Germany. It is, though he does not use the word, an act of penance, dramatically so.

The resignation has not yet been accepted, though it is unlikely that Pope Francis would have permitted it to be published if he did not intend to accept it. Also uncertain is whether Cardinal Marx would continue in his Roman roles, namely membership on the “council for cardinals,” the Holy Father’s inner circle, or as head of the Council for the Economy. His May 21 letter did not address that.

There are three partial precedents that might help explain the decision of Pope Francis and Cardinal Marx.

The first and most recent is that of Cardinal Philippe Barbarin of Lyon, France. He was charged in 2017 and convicted in 2019 of failing to report clerical sexual abuse. It was, even to untrained eyes, a political abuse of the criminal-justice system. Several others who were much more closely involved in the case were not charged or were acquitted. The prosecutor handling the case argued against conviction, but the French judicial system allowed the charges to be advanced by other advocates. 

Cardinal Barbarin offered his resignation after his conviction, but Pope Francis insisted that the entire legal proceeding be completed. In 2020, Cardinal Barbarin was acquitted on appeal. Nevertheless, he asked to resign on two grounds. Even if innocent of the charges, some oblation needed to be offered to acknowledge the sins of the past. In addition, the entire investigation had compromised his capacity to lead. Pope Francis accepted the resignation.

Cardinal Marx has made the first argument, that of an expiatory oblation. He may have in mind the second argument, if he thinks the Munich report will compromise his capacity to lead.

The second precedent is the Chilean episcopate. After the Bishop Juan Barros affair was so badly handled by Pope Francis that it catastrophically ruined his 2018 visit to Chile, the Vatican went into major damage-control mode. Investigators were sent, reports were instantly produced, and a stinging papal letter blamed the Chilean bishops as a whole for the failures. Pope Francis claimed to have been misinformed, despite having been given warnings to the contrary. 

The solution was brutal. The Chilean bishops were made to take collective responsibility and were summoned to Rome, where all of them offered their resignations. About a third were accepted. 

The maneuver was bold and dramatic. The Holy Father was praised for cleaning house. He was criticized for making the Chilean bishops a collective scapegoat, but the line between scapegoat logic and cruciform logic is a fine one.

A third precedent is not related to sexual abuse but may shed light on the general ecclesial situation in Germany. 

In November 1967, Cardinal Paul-Emile Leger of Montreal shocked all of Quebec with his surprise resignation. Within a month, he had left Montreal to work with lepers in Cameroon, where he would spend the next decade until ill health forced his return to Montreal. A missionary in Japan as a young priest, Cardinal Leger was fascinated with Africa and had a great heart for the afflicted and suffering.

It was an earthquake — the cardinal-archbishop of Montreal was a greater figure in Canada than the archbishop of New York was then in the United States. What could be the explanation for a resignation at 63?

It wasn’t only, or perhaps even principally, the pull of the missions. It was the push of the tsunami of secularization that was enervating the Church in Quebec. The captain left the ship because it was sinking.

Cardinal Leger noted the toll of Quebec’s “Quiet Revolution”: “the collapse of faith among young people, the indifference of a great number of Christians toward the Church, the disenchantment and disaffection, not to say aggressiveness.”

 “Some may ask and with reason why I am leaving the ship at the moment when the storm is breaking,” Cardinal Leger explained. “Yet, in the final analysis, it is just this religious crisis which has led me to give up the position to command, to become a simple missionary priest.”

“The time has come to go from words to actions,” he continued. “I wish to dedicate the few years allotted me to giving spiritual and material assistance to the lepers. And so I am leaving for Africa. I have not thought only of Africa. It is for the greater good of the Church of Montreal that I have become a simple missionary in the midst of the poorest of the citizens of the Third World.”

His critics acknowledged Cardinal Leger’s spirituality and sincerity, even humility, in realizing that he was no longer up to the task of helmsman in Montreal. Yet it remains true that he saw water coming in on all sides in Quebec, and he thought it better to abandon ship. The sinking continued under other captains; Cardinal Leger was correct in his assessment of the storm, incorrect that anyone else could do better.

Could the same explain the decision of the 67-year-old Cardinal Marx? To vary the image, are the wheels coming off the Church in Germany? What can a cardinal do when a spirit of defiance dominates his ecclesial environment, as it does in Germany now; what Cardinal Leger called “disenchantment, disaffection and aggressiveness”?

Cardinal Marx presented his offer to resign as an oblational act, perhaps to be thought of in line with the Chilean mass resignation. But it may be that Cardinals Barbarin and Leger offer a more apt explanation.