It’s the sort of thing old Vatican hands will sit around and game out on a slow news day, or over jug wine at a favorite trattoria on an almost balmy Friday in a late Roman spring — a day like Friday — except it wasn’t a game.
This Friday started as a slow news day. It turned into anything but, when the cardinal-archbishop of Munich and Freising, Reinhard Marx, announced that he has submitted his resignation from the see he has held since 2008, nearly a decade before he reaches retirement age and at a moment of epochal crisis in the Church.
More importantly, he said why he is resigning.
“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 mould over the past decades.”
Cardinal Marx gave his explanation in a “personal statement” for the publication of which Pope Francis – to his great credit – gave express permission, even as the pope asked Cardinal Marx to stay in his see for the time being.
Cardinal Marx is not only a powerful Churchman and leader of a major metropolitan archdiocese. He is a level-headed operator (a relative moderate in the German bishops’ conference, though that isn’t saying a whole lot). He has the pope’s trust and the respect of his fellows in the German and the worldwide episcopate, at a moment in which the Church in Germany is careening toward disaster and is under the sway of forces that could take it off the rails.
The crux of the business is the “synodal way” the German bishops have charted for the renewal of the Church in the country – they say – though critics within and without the German bishops’ ranks have called the project just about everything from misguided to criminally insane.
There has been talk of schism, owing to the German bishops’ insistence on canonically impossible paths of reform and theologically implausible “rethinking” of settled doctrinal matters.
To use one of Francis’s own favorite metaphors, Cardinal Marx is a “bridge figure” in all this, who has kept communication between Rome and Bonn open during the late troubles.
On Friday, Cardinal Marx blew the bridge.
First, he made it unmistakably, inevitably clear that he reached the decision to resign after much soul searching over his personal responsibility for the failures of Church leaders to outface the crisis of clerical sexual abuse and coverup.
“Inspections of the files and research regarding specific mistakes and failures of the past, including the question of the respective responsibilities, are inevitable components of dealing with the past,” wrote Cardinal Marx, “but they do not constitute the [integral] renewal.”
“The inspections and expert opinions so far have made it clear that it is also about ‘systemic’ causes and structural hazards which must be dealt with,” Cardinal Marx continued. “Both must be looked at together.”
“Therefore,” he explained, “I have strongly supported the project of ‘The Synodal Path’,” which has embraced the findings of a major national survey and is looking to give a theological articulation of the problems identified.
“This [synodal] path must be continued,” wrote Cardinal Marx.
He has tied his resignation to the bishops’ failures of leadership in response to their theatre of a global crisis. At the same time, he has tied his hopes for success in those and other related regards to the Synodal Way. By tying the two things together, he has made it almost immeasurably more difficult — more costly — for Pope Francis or any successor to interfere with German bishops’ prosecution of their course.
Having said that, the pope — whoever he is — must also reckon with the cost of any action or inaction to Holy Mother Church. She is not German, after all, though the Germans might not always behave as though they know that.
Church watchers have frequently compared the relationship between Germany and the Vatican to that, which the United States and the Soviet Union had during the second half of the 20th century. If the Vatican’s relationship with the German episcopate has been an ecclesiastical Cold War, it turned hot on Friday.
There can be no doubt that Cardinal Marx’s announcement was a bomb dropped on the delicate negotiations between Rome and Berlin.
How big a bomb?
Old Roman hands discussing Friday’s news framed the question in the following terms: Was this a tactical nuclear detonation, or a strategic strike?
Either way, the decision Pope Francis needs to make — and soon — is whether to escalate. At a press conference on Friday, Cardinal Marx let it be known that he is “await[ing] the pope’s response.” The pope will need to accept Cardinal Marx’s resignation. If he doesn’t, he ought to be doing some soul-searching of his own. It’s best that he accept Cardinal Marx’s sooner rather than later.
If it is tempting to think of all this in grand, historical, geopolitical terms — and it is — the temptation must owe itself in part to our desire for the familiar. In significant part, however, the temptation must owe itself to our discomfiture at the evident personal moral and spiritual strain on the principals, now nakedly before the whole world.
It took guts for Cardinal Marx to do what he’s done. It took guts for Pope Francis to let him.
Whatever else Cardinal Marx has done — whatever the ecclesiastical repercussions, whatever the ecclesiological fallout — he has done the thing that no other senior Churchman has shown himself capable of doing.
He has — in the absence of specific allegation or formal accusation of personal criminal wrongdoing — acknowledged his personal responsibility for the fecklessness, the incompetence, the wickedness that have broken the clerical leadership culture and threaten even now to render the Church unfit for mission in this generation and for at least the next.
Pope Francis could have done the easy thing — frankly, the characteristic thing — and told Cardinal Marx to keep a lid on it. To keep his reasons to himself.
That Pope Francis did not do the easy thing is greatly to his credit.
“What happens next?” is a legitimate and a sensible question. There is, however, a prior question. It is a question that Cardinal Marx’s offer of resignation presses on every other bishop in the Church: Where is yours?
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