Michael W. Higgins is interim president of St. Mark’s and Corpus Christi colleges and a senior fellow at Massey College. His most recent work is The Church Needs the Laity: The Wisdom of John Henry Newman.
It has been a month of upheaval for the Catholic Church in Germany. Its most prominent and admired senior cleric, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, Archbishop of Munich and Freising, tendered his resignation to the Pope. Not only irregular, but shocking. The cardinal is eight years shy of submitting his resignation at 75. He has been the major driving force for ecclesiastical reform in Germany after the deluge of clerical sex-abuse charges that swept over the country, and he is a, if not the, principal architect for the pending German synod, an event awash with trepidation for conservative Catholics, with glee for progressive Catholics and with tempered anxiety for the sizable remainder of the Catholic community.
Cardinal Marx’s argument for his resignation is a form of ministerial responsibility. In other words, like a cabinet minister who may not be implicated in any crime or political miscalculation in his department but nonetheless tenders his resignation because it happened on his watch. If that is increasingly rare in parliamentary democracies, it is rarer still in the higher echelons of Catholic Church governance.
In his May 21 letter to the Pope, the cardinal states that it is critical for him “to share the responsibility for the catastrophe of the sexual abuse by Church officials over the past decades.” He sees his resignation “as a personal signal for a new beginning, for a new awakening of the Church, not only in Germany.” This is especially significant given that Cardinal Marx remains untouched by any allegation of abuse or dereliction of oversight himself. He felt a bold move was necessary, that leadership must be accountable, that moral repair is only possible when the truth is faced.
Pope Francis declined to accept the resignation. In his June 10 reply to the cardinal, he acknowledges “that historical situations must be interpreted with the hermeneutics of the time in which they occurred but this does not exempt us from taking ownership of them and taking them up as the history of sin that besets us.” The Pope pointedly observes that “every bishop of the Church must take it upon himself and ask himself: what must I do in the face of this catastrophe?”
Canadian Catholics might reasonably ask why the accountability being demanded in the wake of the sex-abuse crisis is not also being demanded in response to the sordid history of the residential schools, the damaged survivors and their descendants, the residual aftershocks of trauma and the anguished cries for reparation and reconciliation.
Cardinal Marx wrote not only of the “many personal failures and administrative mistakes but also of institutional or ‘systemic’ failure.” This is a clear, unequivocal admission of both individual and institutional culpability. Indeed, the only truly meaningful mea culpa is one that brings with it an acknowledgement of past mistakes and a firm resolve to make amends and sin no more. It doesn’t get more Catholic than this.
When J. Michael Miller, Archbishop of Vancouver, issued his “Expression of Commitment” letter on June 2 after the reported discovery of children’s remains on the grounds of the Kamloops Indian Residential School, he was unambiguous in stating that “the Church was unquestionably wrong in implementing a government colonialist policy which resulted in devastation for children, families and communities.”
“Unquestionably wrong” is very different language than “ill-advised,” “mistaken,” “politically myopic,” etc. Archbishop Miller doesn’t opt for legal manoeuvring over truth-telling, he doesn’t fudge or squirm, use language as a cheap gesture of contrition or placate with rhetoric lacquered with piety.
Derek Scally, the Berlin correspondent for The Irish Times, in writing about the collapse of the old Catholicism in the Ireland of his youth recently observed that what the Irish need is what the Germans call Vergangenheitsbewaeltigung, the task of coming to terms with the past. If that is true of Ireland – think of the Magdalene Laundries and industrial schools – and true of the Germany of Cardinal Marx, it is no less true for the Catholic Church in Canada.
For certain, there have been efforts at reconciliation, many instances of religious orders accepting responsibility for past misdeeds and of dioceses offering financial and emotional support. But more needs to be done, with transparency as a hallmark and prompt delivery of archival materials as an imperative. Coming to terms with the past is a wrenching and destabilizing task. But then, the imperatives of the Gospel are not for the weak of heart and spirit. It’s time for a transatlantic Cardinal Marx.
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