ROME — Pope Francis on Thursday rejected the resignation of Cardinal Reinhard Marx, the archbishop of Munich, who had sought to leave his position last month in a gesture to take personal responsibility on behalf of the entire church hierarchy for decades of sexual abuse by priests and unaccountability by bishops.
In a warm letter written in his native Spanish and signed “with brotherly affection,” Francis told the 67-year-old German, a leading liberal in Germany’s Roman Catholic Church and a member of the pope’s powerful advisory council, that he should stay in his office and help guide the church through the shoals.
“I like the way you finish the letter,” Francis wrote, referring to Cardinal Marx’s request to continue acting as a priest and a bishop and to act as a pastor in ways Francis considered appropriate.
“And this is my answer, dear brother,” Francis concluded. “Continue as you propose but as Archbishop of Munich and Freising.”
Francis added that if Cardinal Marx were “tempted to think” that the pope “does not understand you,” he should remember what Jesus told his apostle Peter when he confessed to sin and offered his own resignation: “Tend my sheep.”
Cardinal Marx has never been publicly accused of perpetrating or covering up abuse. He has endowed a foundation aimed at helping abuse victims reconcile with the church, giving more than $600,000 of his own money saved up over his decades as a priest.
He has also become a leading liberal force trying to bring about structural changes in the church on issues of celibacy and homosexuality, and to the actual constitution governing the Vatican.
By affectionately telling him to stay on and praising the Cardinal’s “courage,” Francis at the very least did not undercut the German church’s willingness to reconsider priestly celibacy, expand the role of women in the church, and bless gay couples, all of which are vehemently opposed by conservatives.
Some Vatican watchers on Thursday had already begun to wonder whether the quickly tendered and rejected resignation had been choreographed to fortify Cardinal Marx’s position in the face of conservative headwinds in the Vatican or the United States, where much of the conservative opposition to Francis’s vision is rooted.
A Roman cleric who often speaks with Pope Francis insisted on Thursday that Cardinal Marx’s resignation had come as a surprise to the pope, and said that it was an expression of the German’s conscience.
Cardinal Marx’s role has given the German church significant influence in the Vatican, even as the church is hemorrhaging members in Germany, with more than 270,000 people leaving in 2019 alone.
In his original letter, which Cardinal Marx has said he spent months reflecting on before sending it to the Vatican on May 21, he wrote that, “It is important to me to share the responsibility for the catastrophe of the sexual abuse by church officials over the past decades.”
He added that he believed Catholics were at a “dead end” in terms of the crisis, and that he had remained troubled by a question he was asked as the head of the German Bishops’ Conference during the release of a 2018 report that showed almost 3,700 children had been abused over seven decades in Germany alone.
He was asked how many bishops had resigned as a consequence of the abuse, and the answer was none. The Cardinal told reporters this month that he had decided to lead by example.
“I believe one possibility to express this willingness to take responsibility is my resignation,” the cardinal wrote in his letter, adding “I therefore strongly request you to accept this resignation.”
In rejecting the resignation, Francis added that he shared Cardinal Marx’s concerns. Silence and protecting the institution at all costs, he wrote, “leads to personal and historical failure, and brings us to live with the weight of ‘keeping skeletons in the cupboard,’ as the saying goes.”
Francis added that “I agree with you that this is a catastrophe: the sad history of sexual abuse and the way the Church approached it until recently.” He called the awareness of hypocrisy in the church a first step toward taking “responsibility for this history, both as individuals and as a community.”
Francis made clear that the church could no longer take a “head-in-sand policy.”