Unpacking the Theater of Cardinal Marx’s Resignation

COMMENTARY: Pope Francis and the German cardinal clearly intended to communicate something of importance with their public exchange of letters. But what?

Cardinal Reinhard Marx, the Catholic Archbishop of Munich and Freising, speaks to the media following his offer of resignation to Pope Francis on June 4, 2021 in Munich, Germany.
Cardinal Reinhard Marx, the Catholic Archbishop of Munich and Freising, speaks to the media following his offer of resignation to Pope Francis on June 4, 2021 in Munich, Germany. (photo: Leonhard Simon / Getty)

I was wrong about the resignation of Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich. 

I wrote here that “it is unlikely that Pope Francis would have permitted [Marx’s resignation letter] to be published if he did not intend to accept it.”

Wrong, but perhaps understandably so. Objectively it remains “unlikely” that a superior would permit someone to publish a resignation letter if he did not intend to accept it. But unlikely things sometimes happen, and Cardinal Marx’ non-resignation is one of them.

What then does it mean?

Pope Francis and Cardinal Marx clearly intended to communicate something of importance with their public exchange of letters. But what? What goal was being pursued?

That cardinals discuss possible resignations with the Holy Father is well known. In April 2002, Cardinal Bernard Law offered to resign but St. John Paul II decided against it at the time; the resignation was accepted in December 2002. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger made it known that he asked John Paul more than once for permission to leave the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and return to a life of theological scholarship. 

Cardinal Marx is far more prominent and influential than Cardinal Law; as one of the Pope’s most senior advisers, he is in more regular contact with the Holy Father than almost any other residential bishop. They talk frequently. This matter could easily have been handled in private conversation. 

The decision to stage a public epistolary exchange was therefore not to merely hash things out. It was intended to achieve some goal, to influence events in Germany and the universal Church; remember that Cardinal Marx’s original letter was released publicly in multiple languages.

At the moment, only Cardinal Marx and the Holy Father know. But there are differing possibilities.

Several progressive voices have claimed that it was a brilliant maneuver to strengthen Cardinal Marx at home in Germany, praising his “courage” for responding to the “catastrophe” of sexual abuse by a bold offer of resignation to advance renewal and reform. 

The thinking is that refusing the resignation precisely strengthens Marx to lead renewal and reform in the German “Synodal Way,” which Cardinal Marx explicitly referenced in his letter. The Holy Father thus gets a two-for-one — renewal and reform arising from the resignation, but without an actual resignation.

On this reading, the staged exchange was intended to give Cardinal Marx good press for accountability without actually suffering the consequences, thereby putting pressure on other German bishops less favored by the Holy Father to do the same. Those bishops, opposed to the Synodal Way, would then be weakened in their opposition.

Such a plot seems vaguely devious, or at least manipulative, and it is odd that some commentators would think it praiseworthy for the Holy Father to act in such a manner.

There are alternative explanations.

The first is a contrast between worldly thinking and Vatican thinking. While episcopal resignations are becoming more common due to mishandling of sexual abuse, there remains in the Vatican the view that resignation is the easy way out. The life of a retired bishop is a comfortable one, freed of the burden of administrative responsibilities. Like many other people, bishops look forward to retirement after long years of service. Cardinal Marx is 67, though still young for a cardinal, but well past retirement age of many laypeople. 

If there is a major problem, a resignation permits the one who created the mess to head for the door, leaving someone else to clean it up. For that reason, in the Vatican there is a view that a bishop should stay to face the music.

Another interpretation may be that Pope Francis has a knack for grand gestures and thought that this one might assist in calming the roiling waters in Germany. 

In 2018, the Holy Father was offered the resignations of the entire Chilean episcopate. He only accepted about a third of them, while the others made a sacrificial offer that was not in the end accepted. Perhaps the Cardinal Marx letters were a trial run for the end of the Synodal Way, when all the German bishops will offer to resign together, leaving Pope Francis to pick and choose who will stay and who will go.

As to the Synodal Way, some observers thought that the Holy Father’s calls for a thoroughgoing reform were supportive of the Synodal Way. He writes to Cardinal Marx that he should “continue as you propose,” which may be a reference to Marx’s support for the Synodal Way. Yet Pope Francis does not mention that specifically. 

“Neither polls nor the power of institutions will save us,” Francis wrote. “We will not be saved by the prestige of our Church, which tends to hide its sins; we will not be saved by the power of money or the opinion of the media.”

That may be instead a veiled criticism of the Synodal Way itself, as the centers of German Catholic money and the secular media are massively behind it. 

Perhaps the strangest aspect of the Holy Father’s response is its inveighing against the “politics of the ostrich,” namely ignoring the crisis brought on by sexual abuse. That can hardly have been aimed at the Church in Germany, which has commissioned massive investigations that are now being published. 

Perhaps Francis is aiming that criticism at a few countries here and there, but for the most part the Church has been involved in nearly two decades of substantial reform on sexual abuse, beginning with John Paul’s 2001 reforms before the Boston scandals, the U.S. bishops reforms after the scandals, and multiple initiatives the world over, culminating in the Vatican sexual abuse summit of 2019 and reforms to the Church’s criminal law earlier this month. 

Those German investigations in relation to the dioceses Cardinal Marx has led — Trier and Munich — will be published this summer. Perhaps there we might find further explanation for the unusually public theater of the past weeks.


Bishop Franz-Josef Bode, shown speaking to the media on the opening day of a congress of the Synodal Way, Feb. 3, in Frankfurt, Germany, had his resignation accepted by Pope Francis March 25.

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