The spring plenary of the German bishops’ conference (DBK), which is taking place at the start of March, will be more eventful than expected. In a surprise announcement, Cardinal Reinhard Marx has said that he will not seek a second term as DBK president.
In a letter to his fellow bishops, Cardinal Marx wrote that “I have to take into account that at the end of a possible second term I would be 72 years old and nearing the end of my role as Archbishop of Munich and Freising. I believe that the younger generation should now come to the fore. And perhaps it would be good if a change in this role came more often.”
He went on to say that he would continue to be engaged in strategic discussions around the “Synodal Path” consultation process launched by the German bishops, but wanted to be able to spend more time in his Archdiocese of Munich and Freising.
Cardinal Marx has in recent years been one of the most prominent figures in the Church as one of the six members of Pope Francis’s Council of Cardinal Advisers. In addition, the German Church’s financial strength gives it outsized influence beyond its borders.
In his six years leading the DBK, Marx has often been a controversial figure, not only due to doctrinal battles in the German Church over such issues as Communion for the remarried, but also because his forthright style, which has guaranteed him a high media profile, has not always made it easy for him to resolve disputes.
Cardinal Marx’s resignation leaves a gap at the head of the German Church that will not be easily filled, and the identity of his successor will give a clue to the Church’s future direction. The DBK vice-president, Bishop Franz-Josef Bode of Osnabrück, seemed to be an obvious candidate as the longest serving diocesan bishop and a leader of the dominant liberal faction. But Bishop Bode, who said he was “very surprised” by Cardinal Marx’s announcement, quickly ruled himself out.
At 69, he is three years older than the cardinal and has had recent health issues.
Germany’s only other cardinal in charge of a diocese, Rainer Maria Woelki of Cologne, is unlikely to succeed Marx for different reasons. The DBK’s rules require the president to be elected by a two-thirds majority, and Cardinal Woelki is the chief representative of the conservative minority of bishops. The same logic would work against other conservative bishops like Rudolf Voderholzer of Regensburg.
But the two-thirds rule might also count against candidates more outspokenly liberal than Marx. Of potential successors being discussed by the media, Franz-Josef Overbeck of Essen and Karl-Heinz Wiesemann of Speyer are both on record as questioning mandatory celibacy – a hot topic for the “Synodal Path”, but one on which Cardinal Marx was more guarded. A compromise candidate is a possibility.
But with the two-year Synodal Path consultation process beginning, Marx’s resignation weakens those who would like to see the German bishops adopt more radical changes in Church teaching. Whoever succeeds him in the chair is unlikely to be as forceful in pushing through his positions.