ROME – Covering the Catholic Church is a tough gig for reporters, not least because we’re often forced to be killjoys. We’re forever put in the position of raining on a media parade, and such was the case again Friday with the sensational “resignation” of Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich.
Bishops resign all the time, but what made this one a headline is A) Marx is a big fish in the Church, a key ally and confidante of Pope Francis; B) While the German church has been hit hard by clerical sexual abuse scandals, Marx personally hasn’t been accused of abuse or significant wrongdoing; C) Nevertheless, he volunteered to resign anyway in order to take “institutional responsibility” for the church’s failures.
That’s a noteworthy development by any standard. However, there are at least three immediate misunderstandings about the story – natural and, to some extent, inevitable – which quickly went into circulation Friday as the news made the rounds.
Here’s the obligatory reality check.
- First, Marx has not resigned, because in the Catholic system bishops don’t get to resign of their own accord. They can submit their resignation to the pope – in fact, they’re required to do so at the age of 75 – but it’s always up to the pope whether to accept.
- Second, the mere fact Marx has tendered his resignation doesn’t necessarily mean he’s going anywhere. Aside from the fact that this particular resignation, if anything, likely will boost Marx’s stock, popes routinely keep bishops in office well after they’ve submitted their resignations. The late Cardinal Kazimierz Świątek of Belarus, for example, turned in his mandatory resignation letter in 1990 but served until the ripe old age of 91 in 2006, sixteen years later.
- Third, even if Marx’s resignation as the Archbishop of Munich were accepted, he would remain a cardinal in good standing, fully eligible to vote for the next pope, and would also continue to hold all the Vatican positions to which Francis has assigned him, including serving as chair of the Council for the Economy and as a member of the pope’s Council of Cardinals on Vatican reform. In other words, all that would change is that Marx would no longer be in charge in Munich – otherwise, it’s status quo.
It’s important to be clear about all this, because what happens when a bishop resigns is a source of perennial confusion and irritation in much media coverage and public discussion.
When Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston resigned in 2003 at the peak of the abuse crisis in the States, for example, most Americans thought that meant he was gone completely, like a fired sports coach or corporate CEO. When they realized that Law remained the Archpriest of St. Mary Major in Rome and a full member of the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops, and otherwise continued to enjoy all the privileges of being a cardinal, they felt betrayed, often concluding the Vatican had backtracked or pulled a fast one.
In reality, that was always what Law’s resignation in Boston meant, and much heartache could have been avoided had there been clarity about that at the beginning.
In Marx’s case, the odds of him sticking around and remaining relevant well after his resignation letter are far higher, because while by 2003 Law was perceived as a liability to St. John Paul II, Marx is seen as a core asset for the Francis papacy. Notably, while Pope Francis told Marx he could make the resignation letter public, he also said he wants Marx to continue serving until he’s decided what to do.
To begin with, Marx has been a key backer of many of Francis’s signature initiatives, including his opening to Communion for divorced and remarried believers during the two Synods of Bishops on the family in 2014 and 2015. Like Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna, Marx is seen as a major Western prelate who lends intellectual and political heft to the pope’s agenda.
Moreover, he’s also been seen for a long time as a leader on the reform effort from the clerical abuse scandals. He was the original sponsor of the Child Protection Center led by German Jesuit Father Hans Zollner, now located at Rome’s Gregorian University and recently upgraded to the “Institute of Anthropology, Interdisciplinary Studies on Human Dignity and Care.”
The way in which Marx offered his resignation, insisting that church leaders must take responsibility not only for their personal conduct but also for the corporate failures over which they helped preside, is a perfect expression of the push for accountability that’s been at the heart of the reform effort.
It’s entirely possible that Pope Francis will decide to accept Marx’s resignation from Munich, on the grounds that not to do so now might make the whole thing seem like a political stunt rather than a genuine act of conscience. In all honesty, Marx has been rumored for several important Vatican gigs over the years, so relieving him of his duties in Munich also would neatly clear the path for that to happen.
To take just one example, on Tuesday Canadian Cardinal Marc Ouellet, the prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, will turn 77, thus two years beyond the technical retirement age of 75. At just 67, Marx could slot into that role for the next decade without missing a beat, and he would no doubt oversee the appointment of an entire generation of “Francis bishops” all over the world.
That’s merely one possibility, but the overall point is this: Yes, Cardinal Reinhard Marx has offered to resign. No, that doesn’t mean his career is over – in fact, the most significant chapter may yet be to come.
Follow John Allen on Twitter: @JohnLAllenJr