Over time, his thinking on the role of the church as an institution evolved, with an increasing emphasis on the need for reform.

In 2018, while serving as the head of the German Bishops Conference, he helped to form a discussion forum, called “Synodal Path,” focused on how to bring about structural change in the church, focusing on issues of celibacy, homosexuality and power structures. These topics would be off limits in other countries, but Germany’s church is among the most powerful and most liberal. It has been losing members — more than 270,000, in 2019 alone — because they are frustrated with what they see as an outdated approach to sexual morality and a failure to punish priests accused of abusing children.

In 2020, the cardinal set up a foundation called “Spes et Salus — Hope and Heal,” with an endowment of 500,000 euros, or about $610,000, of his own earnings that he said he had saved over his lifetime as a priest. The foundation’s aim is to help victims of abuse by the church to heal and reconcile with the institution.

In his letter, the cardinal stressed his continued commitment to efforts to reform the church and expressed hope that his personal decision to take responsibility through the resignation could serve as a turning point to encourage the reform needed.

But the German attempts at reform have incited fierce resistance inside Germany and out, primarily from conservative bishops and priests who are opposed to attempts to alter church doctrine.

Georg Bätzing, the Bishop of Limburg who currently serves as head of the German Bishops’ Conference, expressed his respect for Cardinal Marx’s decision, adding that it made clear that the German church needs to continue its efforts to reform.

“The Synodal Path was created to look for systemic answers to the crisis,” the bishop said. “The basic, theological discussions which determine the Synodal Path are therefore a significant and important part of this process.”

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