Having travelled to Rome in May to offer his resignation as Archbishop of Munich and Freising, Cardinal Reinhard Marx received the Pope’s response today. Francis rejected the proposal, and called on bishops worldwide to take greater responsibility for the abuse crisis.
A controversial prelate with considerable influence within liberal Catholic circles, Marx had cited the response of the German Church to the abuse crisis as reason for his departure. In a letter released by his Archdiocese, he wrote that resignation would be a means of sharing responsibility for the failures of the Church with regards to historic abuse, and would enable “a new awakening”. Marx is not accused of being complicit in abuse or cover-ups.
The motives behind both men’s actions may be more complex than they appear at first, especially given the nature of clerical politics under the current pontificate. Acknowledgment of horrendous crimes perpetrated by clergy is of course to be praised. Nonetheless, many have seen other reasons for Marx’s desire to step down. Foremost among these is the culmination of his frustration with Papal reluctance to concede to demands for doctrinal changes from the German Church. Marx surprised commentators last year with his decision not to seek a second term as President of the German Bishops’ Conference, a move seen by some as a reaction in part against Pope Francis’s Post-Synodal Exhortation, which rejected German demands for married priests and female deacons. The Cardinal refers to the Church having reached a “dead end” in his letter, evidently disillusioned at the end of a long clerical career.
Whatever the true motives behind the cardinal’s move, the author sees little to celebrate in the rejection of his resignation. In many ways, Marx personified the dysfunction of the worldwide Catholic episcopate since the sixties — a prelate whose persistent doctrinal heterodoxy spread confusion within the Church and hastened the decline of the Faith within Germany.
To traditionalists, Marx’s episcopal career was a long litany of failures. Critics noted his support for the blessing of homosexual couples, communion for those in illicit marriages, controversial modernist “renovations” of churches and a general attitude of seeking to transform the Church into an NGO. Marx positioned himself as head of an influential liberal wing, one which outpaced even Pope Francis in their demands for radical change.
Such complaints will probably appear exaggerated or odious to non-Catholics, yet should be understood within the context of the Catholic religion itself. The Church either possesses a divine mission and deposit of faith or not. By nature, its fundamental doctrinal positions are immutable if they are to be believed. Attacks upon tenets of Catholic Teaching from a cardinal like Marx are not only tiresome and irrational, but the cause of great dysfunction within the Church.
Ordained in 1979, Marx entered a German Church already committed to the revolutionary changes of the Second Vatican Council. His countrymen had been at the forefront of the modernising wing of the Church, with theologians such as Karl Rahner exerting considerable influence over the course taken by Catholicism worldwide from the 60’s onwards. Swiss Germans such as Hans Urs von Balthasar and Hans Kung had also played a pivotal role in the movement which sought to challenge traditional teaching and practice. Thus, by the time Marx gained influence in Germany, its clergy had become one of the most theologically liberal in the world, and the nation had experienced an accompanying decline in Catholic belief and practice. A weakened German Catholicism offered ineffectual intellectual resistance to increasing secularisation, and was further damaged when evidence of severe clerical abuse began to emerge.
Under Marx’s influence, the Church in Germany further departed from orthodox tradition, to the extent that the question of schism from Rome looked possible. Despite membership levels continuing to plummet, with 217,716 Germans formally leaving the Church in 2014 for example, clerics such as Marx continued their mission to implement further ‘reforms’. Whereas the Irish Episcopate are largely content to sit upon the fruits of their labour since Vatican II, the Germans have been more active in wishing to see the ideals of the period implemented in their totality. Thus, recent years have seen a final effort on the part of German clergy to wage a final assault upon traditional practice.
What relevance does the resignation request of a German Cardinal have to Irish Catholics? Aside from the fact that Marx yielded considerable influence in the liberal wing of the Church and championed heterodox ideas to extreme lengths, his desire to resign illustrates a turning point in recent Catholic history. An older generation of clerics, in some ways the last eager proponents of Vatican II, are reaching the end of their clerical careers. Neither Marx nor Francis have succeeded in transmitting their views to younger generations to a degree which would ensure a lasting legacy. With a more traditionalist future for the Church looking somewhat likely (based on growth experienced by Latin Mass orders), liberal prelates seem engaged in a final contest to leave an imprint on the Church’s teaching.
To conclude, the rejection of Marx’s resignation is of little benefit to the Church. The continued influence of prelates committed to advancing an aging ideological program which has quite clearly failed, is nothing to celebrate. Nonetheless, the spirit of youth and renewal which the ‘reformers’ so assertively stated they wished to pursue certainly exists. Not in empty churches decked in rainbow flags, nor in the journals of radical theologians, but in the growing number of locations throughout the world where Catholics rediscover a faith which men such as Reinhard Marx so desperately tried to destroy.
It was such a faith whose youthful vigour and zeal raised the steeples of Cologne, which marked the hills of Bavaria with its famous pilgrimage churches, which energised German culture throughout history, and which God willing, may once again take root in Germany and the world.
Cover image by Wolfgang Roucka