BERLIN — No other German bishop has dominated Catholic life in Germany as much in recent years as Cardinal Reinhard Marx, who announced he will stay on as archbishop of Munich and Freising despite a report faulting his leadership in handling abuse cases in the archdiocese.
The 68-year-old former president of the German bishops’ conference has been the face of Catholicism in Germany, an outspoken presence on sociopolitical issues, for the past two decades. But in recent years he has been dogged by rumors about his role in covering up or not acting fast enough in alleged sexual abuse cases in the dioceses he headed.
When he was named bishop of Trier in 2002, parishioners saw him as young and open-minded, easily approachable. His sermons in city’s fourth-century cathedral drew large crowds.
He was an outspoken critic of the culture of greed in modern capitalism and repeatedly pleaded with managers to subscribe to the social components of a social market economy. In 2006, he criticized the “audacious” salary hikes of top managers.
“We are more and more moving away from a social market economy to capitalism, where the return is the only thing that counts,” he said at the time. “The other goals of companies, like for example, generating jobs, are not kept in mind anymore. That’s a mistake,” he told a local newspaper at the time.
“It’s pure capitalism without social responsibility. The other Marx from Trier could still be proven right. And that, I would find awful,” the bishop said, referring tongue in the cheek to philosopher and economist Karl Marx, who was born in Trier in 1818, and whose ideas triggered the rise of communism in the 20th century.
After the cardinal was promoted to the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising in 2008, he continued to be a strong proponent of Catholic social ethics, which he saw as being critical both of communism and of capitalism devoted overwhelmingly to profit margins. In 2020, he echoed Pope Francis’s call for a universal basic wage as part of recovery plans after the coronavirus pandemic.
As president of the German bishops’ conference from 2014 to 2020, he helped put the German church on the process known as the Synodal Path, saying the scandal of clerical sex abuse and demands for reform had changed the German church.
“The church in Germany is experiencing a break. The faith can only grow and deepen if we are liberated from blocked thinking, in order to pursue free and open debates and the ability to take new positions and go down new paths,” he said at the end of the bishops’ plenary assembly in March 2019.
“The church needs a synodal advancement. Pope Francis encourages this,” said Marx. “We will create formats for open debates and bind ourselves to proceedings that facilitate a responsible participation of women and men from our dioceses.”
The cardinal commissioned a law firm to conduct an inquiry into sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising. The 1,900-page lawyers’ report, which covered decades, implicated him for mishandling abuse in two cases. At the presentation of the report Jan. 20, lawyers said it seemed as if the cardinal had learned after 2018-2019, when a church-commissioned report detailed thousands of cases of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy over six decades.
When Pope Francis called the presidents of the world’s bishops’ conferences to the Vatican for a summit on the abuse crisis in February 2019, Marx advocated for lifting the pontifical secret, in which those who were abused by clergy were sworn to secrecy. The cardinal told the summit that removing the pontifical secret — which Pope Francis did later that year — would promote transparency in situations where the lack of transparency has meant “the rights of victims were effectively trampled underfoot and left to the whims of individuals.”
In 2020, when Marx announced he would not seek reelection as president of the German bishops’ conference, Thomas Sternberg, then-president of the Central Committee of German Catholics, said the cardinal embodied “the hope for a new image of the church in Germany.”
“Cardinal Marx has performed most magnificently in winning back trust and credibility in the Catholic Church,” he said.
In December 2020, Marx founded the “Spes et Salus” (Hope and Healing) foundation for victims of sexual abuse committed within the realm of the church. He donated half a million euros of his own private fortune into the foundation and said the non-profit foundation is intended to facilitate healing and reconciliation.
He explained that “sexual abuse in the church’s area of responsibility is a crime. It destroys the lives of many people and means heavy burdens for those directly affected, but also for their families and friends. The church system as a whole is guilty here. Abuse has systemic causes and consequences.”
The foundation is administered under the umbrella of the archdiocese’s St. Korbinian Foundation. One advisory board member is also a victim of church sexual abuse. The foundation cooperates with the Institute of Anthropology: Interdisciplinary Studies on Human Dignity and Care at Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University.
In 2020, Marx said, “It is all the more important to me, both in the office of archbishop of Munich and Freising and as a private person, to do everything I can to combat and come to terms with abuse.”
He said that the encounters and conversations with people affected by abuse, reports and investigations into their lives and fates, “have made it clear to me how much strength must be expended and how many efforts are needed to resolutely confront and deal with the causes and consequences of abuse.” He added that “money cannot heal wounds. But it can help create conditions that enable healing and transformation processes.”
In 2021, after protests from survivors of sexual abuse at the hands of Catholic clergy, he declined Germany’s highest honor, the Order of Merit with a Star.
“I take the criticism that is now being voiced by people who have been affected by sexual abuse in the realm of the church very seriously, regardless of the accuracy of the individual statements made in open letters and in the media publicity,” Cardinal Marx wrote to German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier.