Yet another German bishop has announced his surprise resignation: after Paderborn Archbishop Hans-Josef Becker stepped down early, Bamberg Archbishop Ludwig Schick has followed suit. The pope responded differently with the archbishops Stefan Hesse, Reinhard Marx and Rainer Maria Woelki.
Under catholic canon law, bishops are not obliged to offer their resignation to the pope until they reach the age of 75. Now, however, Francis has accepted two premature resignations of bishops in Germany within a short space of time, KNA International reported.
First, at the beginning of October, that of Paderborn Archbishop Hans-Josef Becker (74) and now that of Bamberg Archbishop Ludwig Schick (73). This means that two of the seven German archdioceses and a total of 27 catholic dioceses are now without a bishop.
There is nothing to suggest that either resignation is linked to the abuse scandal that has plagued the Catholic Church in Germany for a good 12 years. In both cases, the resignations seem to have been brought forward, but ultimately were due to age. Archbishop Becker is believed to have been in poor health for some time.
Schick is different: a keen jogger, he is considered one of the most athletic bishops. When asked, he also emphasised that he was healthy. But he has been in charge of the large Franconian archdiocese for 20 years and for more than a year has repeatedly raised the idea of a premature departure while also thinking aloud about a fundamental term limit for bishops.
Explaining his decision to resign, he cited factors including profound changes that could result from the implementation of the Synodal Path reform resolutions. These should be overseen by someone who will be in office for at least another 10 years, he argued.
After initial hesitation, Pope Francis evidently did not want to deny this request. Schick presented his wish to him twice, and it was granted the second time. It appears doubtful that the pope’s response would have been the same if the requests had been made in the context of the abuse scandal. The cases are too different. Also, the archbishops embroiled in the scandal are younger.
In March 2021, for example, the archbishop of Hamburg, Stefan Hesse (then 55), submitted a letter of resignation after a law firm’s report accused him of several breaches of duty in handling abuse cases in his former role as vicar general in the archdiocese of Cologne. In September 2021, the pope decided that Hesse should nevertheless remain in his post.
In May of the same year, Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich (then 67) announced he had offered his resignation to the pope as he felt the Catholic Church had reached “a dead end” – also as a result of the abuse scandal – and did not want to stand in the way of a fresh start. Francis rejected the request and urged Marx in a personal letter to remain in his office as archbishop of Munich.
For the time being, the pope has not accepted the offer of resignation made by Cologne Archbishop Rainer Maria Woelki in spring 2022, when he was 65. His archdiocese is mired in a deep crisis of confidence mainly over the reappraisal of abuse. Francis had sent Woelki on a sabbatical for several months in autumn 2021 and later asked him to offer his resignation.
The pope told the editors-in-chief of several Jesuit magazines at the beginning of June that he had Woelki’s “resignation in my hand”, but wanted to wait until the situation in the archdiocese calmed down. “Under pressure, it is not possible to be discerning,” Francis added.
This allows the reverse conclusion that pressure played no role in the resignations of Becker and Schick. In both cases, it seemed reasonable to the pope to place the leadership of the diocese in younger hands at an early stage. This has accelerated the generational change in the German Bishops’ Conference: the “70 plus” generation has shrunk from six to four: Gebhard Fuerst (73, Rottenburg-Stuttgart), Felix Genn (72, Muenster), Franz Josef Bode (71, Osnabrueck) and Gerhard Feige (70, Magdeburg).