Cardinal Reinhard Marx has ripped the new Vatican document on parish life, lamenting with respect to the text that “no fruit is borne like this”.

– “Is this the coexistence of universal and particular Churches that one would wish? Not really”

Marx, the Archbishop of Munich and Freising in Germany, hit out at the instruction published July 20 by the Congregation for the Clergy – entitled “The pastoral conversion of the Parish community in the service of the evangelising mission of the Church” – and demanded more attentive listening between the different levels of the Church.

“It is a bit strange when a document comes from Rome without it ever having been discussed with us. Is this the coexistence of universal and particular Churches that one would wish? Not really”, lamented Marx on Friday evening in Munich’s Liebfrauendom cathedral, where the prelate celebrated a memorial service for the 44th anniversary of the death of his predecessor in the see of Munich, Cardinal Julius Döpfner (1913-1976).

Marx blasted the new Vatican instruction for having sown mistrust in the Church and deepened rifts, which he warned are leading to new splits and tensions.

He also reminded Roman curial officials that for the Church “to read the signs of the times” – as the instruction invites – requires above all the sensitivity of listening.

“But the next step is crucial: understanding. We cannot understand alone. We can understand only in the communion of the Church. We can understand only if we listen to one another and walk together”, the cardinal urged, adding that this principle applies to the entire Church if it truly desires to become missionary and proclaim the gospel.

Marx went on to caution Rome that “it is not a matter of one person proclaiming something and the others simply following, but of listening to one another, learning together, absorbing the experiences of the local Church – something I miss in the document that has been published these days”.

“As if we in Germany had never thought about missionary parishes before!”, he added.

One final cutting criticism Marx launched at the document was that in his opinion it undermines Pope Francis’ oft-repeated wish for a synodal Church.

“The synodal Church is something different from what we have now experienced”, the cardinal declared, recalling the position repeatedly taken, too, by the pontiff’s Council of Cardinal Advisors, of which Marx is a member.

“The Curia is not simply a controlling body over the bishops, but an aid to the whole Church, so that the Church may remain together”, the cardinal argued, pleading for a new closeness between Rome and the local Churches.

– More German bishops join avalanche of criticisms

For the German Church, the great bone of contention in the new Vatican instruction is that it excludes laypeople from real parish leadership and reinforces the role of the priest at the head of the local Catholic community.

In addition to the bishops who already spoke out last week against the new text, even more critics in the German episcopate have come out in the last few days against the text, including Bishop of Trier Stephan Ackermann, Bishop of Würzburg Franz Jung and Bishop of Essen and Military Bishop Franz-Josef Overbeck.

“I am irritated that there is no trace of abuse and prevention [in the instruction]. There is no awareness that parishes were and can be places of sexual violence”, Bishop Ackermann deplored. “How can a Congregation in charge of the clergy write a document in 2020 that does not even refer to it? As the representative of the German Bishops’ Conference on this question, that bothers me”.

The Trier bishop also recalled that “Pope Francis emphasises the importance of synodality and the local church. I do not recognise this concern in the instruction. On the contrary, I see limited responsibility for the diocese and the bishop”.

For his part, Bishop Jung lamented that the reader of the instruction “can get the impression that it is only about strengthening the rights of the clergy without, however, strengthening the required overall responsibility of the people of God to the same extent and giving appropriate guidelines for that”,.

Those concerns of Jung’s were echoed by Bishop Overbeck, who bemoaned the fact that “the instruction in no way takes note of the fact that we in Germany – but also in many other countries of the world Church – can no longer shape Church life according to… previous patterns”.

“I am very surprised that such a document is published without prior notice and without taking into account the actual situation in the respective local churches”, Overbeck added.

In contrast to bishops Ackermann, Jung and Overbeck, along with their fellow sceptics in the episcopate, both Archbishop of Cologne Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki and Bishop of Augsburg Bertram Meier have welcomed the focus in the instruction – in Meier’s words – on “spiritual” rather than structural reform.

Novena’s full coverage of the controversial new Vatican document on parish life and reform:

“Living in a patriarchal bubble”: ‘We Are Church Ireland’ hits out at Vatican over new instruction on parish reform

German bishops protest en masse over “absurd”, “theologically deficient” Vatican instruction on parish reform

“Last yelp of a dying religious dictatorship”: German laity hit out at new Vatican instruction on parish life

German bishop comes out swinging against Vatican instruction on parish reform, doubles-down on ‘synodal path’ as “answer to Roman challenge”

German dioceses accuse Vatican of harbouring “fear of the visibility of the laity” in new instruction on parish life

Opinion: Vatican instruction on parish life buries dream of lay-clerical co-responsibility

Vatican strengthens role of priests in local church governance, says only they should lead parishes, not laypeople


Progressive Catholic journalist, author and educator. Working on social justice, equality and Church renewal.