The publication — with the express approval of Pope Francis — of an offer to resign by Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich is unquestionably a bombshell with no exact precedents.
Three partial precedents may offer some additional explanation, though those remain speculative at this point.
“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 mold over the past decades.”
Cardinal Marx has not been found negligent in any sexual-abuse cases. There is a report coming this summer on Munich, so it is possible that he is getting out ahead of adverse findings, but there is no evidence of that. In any case, one reason for the logic of the Marx resignation is not punitive but cruciform.
It was the premise of a powerful 2014 film about clerical sexual abuse in Ireland, Calvary. It is not the wicked priests that must suffer, but the good ones, in the mind of a victim who sets out to kill a priest. He believes that the death of a good priest is something expiatory, while the death of an abuser is only rough and inadequate justice.
Cardinal Marx is suggesting something similar. Someone, he argues in his letter, who is not guilty needs to make a sacrifice for the common good of the Church in Germany. It is, though he does not use the word, an act of penance, dramatically so.
The resignation has not yet been accepted, though it is unlikely that Pope Francis would have permitted it to be published if he did not intend to accept it. Also uncertain is whether Cardinal Marx would continue in his Roman roles, namely membership on the “council for cardinals,” the Holy Father’s inner circle, or as head of the Council for the Economy. His May 21 letter did not address that.
There are three partial precedents that might help explain the decision of Pope Francis and Cardinal Marx.
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