Marx makes his mark on Church reform
Western People June 22nd 2021
In 2013, when Pope Benedict surprised the Catholic world by resigning as pope – the first in 600 years – it set in motion a series of events that, ironically, helped to undo the kind of church in which Benedict felt most comfortable.
For Benedict, walking in the footsteps of his great friend and hero, John Paul II, the tight, disciplined, unyielding Church they together helped to shape and sustain didn’t allow for the reforms envisaged by the Second Vatican Council half a century earlier.
After Benedict, there was no secret about the problems the Church and the Vatican faced and the word among the cardinals was that the decision of Benedict to resign created an opportunity to forge a different kind of Church and to rediscover the promise and the richness offered by the documents of the Second Vatican Council.
And when, a new pope, who became Francis I, greeted those gathered for his first blessing in St Peter’s Square in Rome, few recognised him and many a heart sank as another elderly cardinal seemed to be more a stop-gap appointment rather than the visionary, reforming agent the Catholic Church so badly needed.
As it turned out, the elderly man from the far side of the world, against all the odds turned out to be a reformer, a modernizer, in the mould of Pope John XXIII, another presumed stop-gap appointment who convened the Second Vatican Council.
First, we saw it in little things: moving out of the papal palace; refusing to be treated as a form of royalty; choosing a small Fiat rather than a Lamborghini; visiting the homeless in Rome; giving priority to the needs of the poor; refusing to condemn gay people; and so on.
Later, he took on the vested interests of the Vatican, directly criticising the ambition of the soutaned bureaucrats and he made it clear that he was in reforming mode and that the Second Vatican Council was to be revisited.
His plans were not universally welcomed. Groups representing different expectations and theologies appointed themselves as a virtual opposition to Francis and his reforms, questioning his wisdom, demanding that he explain himself, accusing him of bad faith, even mocking his initiatives.
His policy was not to respond in kind but to quietly continue his reforms, to seek support from the wider Catholic Church in the world and to focus on ‘synodality’, a new way of being church that would bring the people into the heart of decision-making.
At first, he introduced what was a central message of the Second Vatican Council, the rights of the People of God to participate centrally in the life of the Church. Then he sought support for introducing ‘a synodal pathway’ into the working of the Church. Now, using his authority as pope, he is creating a synodal surge that is intended to have repercussions for every diocese (and every parish) in the Catholic world. What was at first a suggestion as to how reforms might progress has become the clear policy of the Church. Every diocese, from next October, will travel the synodal path that will culminate in a bishops’ synod on synodality in Rome in 2023.
The reforms of the Second Vatican Council will now officially be the only Catholic game in town. Francis has not just thrown in the ball but is playing centre-field for the Synodal Fifteen.
The ‘Great Reform’ received a particularly positive response in Germany – from bishops, priests and people. Foremost among the reform-minded was Cardinal Reinhard Marx, archbishop of Munich. Called the ‘panzer cardinal’, he exerted huge influence as the leader of the German Church and as a member of Pope Francis’ council of advisors.
Suddenly, a few weeks ago, in a bombshell move, Marx sent a letter of resignation to Francis, indicating that he was ready to step down as archbishop because the reforms demanded more than changes that were merely cosmetic, administrative or even legal. Marx had come to the conclusion that the credibility of the Church would depend on how the root causes of the abuse crisis – clericalism and the abuse of power – could be tackled.
Effectively, Marx was saying that the reform envisaged by Francis needed to be more comprehensive and that the Church needed to respond more whole-heartedly and more profoundly, even radically to the present crisis.
Francis took some time before replying to Marx. Those favouring change feared that the reform, just gathering momentum, would lose its impact if Marx retired; those opposing reform were quietly hoping he would go.
In the event, Francis told Marx that he wanted him to continue and that the other issues of clericalism and abuse were the responsibility of each bishop in his own diocese. In obedience, Marx accepted Francis’ decision, commenting that there was now no going back to the way the Catholic Church did its business in the past.
The Marx resignation and its resolution make a number of points: one, the idea that Francis was worried about the German response to synodal reforms can no longer be sustained. Two, by backing Marx, Francis is backing not just the reforms but the German reforms. Three, Marx has emerged with a strengthened hand. And, four, Marx has introduced into the centre of the reform movement the key principal that, in the words of the Tablet Roman correspondent, Christopher Lamb, ‘credible leadership means taking responsibility for institutional reform’.
In effect, Marx’s intervention has established that the present ‘synodal’ reform and the credibility of church leadership needed to drive it are dependent on an acceptance that systemic problems in the Catholic Church, like the abuse of power, have to be tackled. Introducing merely cosmetic changes is not a credible option.
From the unexpected resignation of Pope Benedict to the unexpected offer of resignation of Cardinal Marx, we’ve come a long way in a short time.