A German bishop has come out swinging against the new Vatican instruction on parish life, doubling-down on the German Church’s ‘synodal path’ as the “only answer to this Roman challenge”.

– A “mere repetition of the canon law in force today” and a “reversion to clericalisation”

Monday’s instruction of of the Congregation for the Clergy “took us bishops completely by surprise”, Bishop of Osnabrück Franz-Josef Bode said in a statement July 22 responding to the new Vatican document that has raised accusations of strengthening clericalism and of stifling the leadership of the laity.

“Although it was clear that Rome would comment on the pastoral changes of the past years… I had expected prior contact with the realities on the ground and a better attention to the much-invoked synodality”, lamented Bode, who is also the deputy chairman of the German Bishops’ Conference.

The Osnabrück prelate deplored that although the first part of the Vatican instruction “sketches a path towards a pastoral conversion to evangelisation and mission”, the second part consists of nothing more than “the mere repetition of the canon law in force today” and hence turns into a “reversion to clericalisation”.

“I fear that norms, however binding they may be, will not be effective if they are to a large extent long outdated by reality”, Bode continued.

He noted that the German Bishops, with their August 2015 guidelines Gemeinsam Kirche sein (“Being Church Together”), had “already years ago laid the foundation for an answer to the challenges of the times” in which laypeople, men and women religious and priests “work together in a good way for the salvation of souls”, and that much in tune with the stipulations of Church law.

– Need to employ laypeople to cover the lack of priests “will exist permanently in many places”

Principal among Bode’s concerns about the new Vatican document is its portrayal of the priest, who is reaffirmed in the instruction as the supreme leader of the parish who has the ultimate authority for the “care of souls” and the final say even in parish pastoral and financial council meetings.

In that sense, the Osnabrück bishop alleged that the specificity of ordained ministry “is too strongly emphasised” in the instruction, since although the priest has a particular call to preserve unity in the parish, his leadership in that sense “can only be accomplished together with the leadership of many”, since leadership in the Church “has many faces”, as the German Bishops affirmed in Gemeinsam Kirche sein.

There are currently five laypeople in the Osnabrück diocese serving in seven parishes as “pastoral agents”, a job description the new Vatican instruction strictly prohibits.

However, Bishop Bode said those lay appointments “are completely within the framework of canon 517 § 2, also in the names of the ministries”. That reference to canon 517 was an allusion to the Church law that permits bishops to entrust laypeople with “a share in the exercise of the pastoral care of a parish” in the face of a “shortage of priests”, but the new Vatican instruction insists that such an arrangement with non-ordained people can only be an “extraordinary and temporary pastoral solution”.

Bode made reference to those emergency powers of a bishop to appoint laypeople to pastoral care responsibilities as a response to the vocations slide, but warned that he is of the opinion that the need to employ laypeople to cover the lack of priests “will exist permanently in many places in our country”.

– “We are dependent on the intensive cooperation of the laity. Otherwise there can be no conversion to evangelisation and mission”

Despite the Vatican instruction, Bode said in his statement that for the moment he sees “no need for change in the diocese of Osnabrück” in terms of the “Church of participation” the diocese has been building, because in his opinion the roles of laypeople in pastoral ministry are well-defined and well within the scope of the Vatican directives.

However, he noted that the new Vatican text “is such a strong brake on the motivation and appreciation of the services of laypeople that I am very concerned about how we are to find new committed Christians under such conditions and how we can continue to accompany and support our pastoral workers well”.

“We are in a time in which there are notoriously too few priests who can be pastors”, Bode warned, for which reason “we are dependent on the intensive cooperation of all those who have been baptised and confirmed. Otherwise there can be no conversion to evangelisation and mission”.

The Osnabrück bishop also emphasised that the Congregation for the Clergy instruction “makes our ‘synodal path’ in Germany all the more necessary, since it is precisely these ecclesiological questions that are at stake there: the question of what a Church of participation can look like, how the priestly ministry is to be understood… and how women and men shape the Church together”.

“Only this synodal way can be an answer to this Roman challenge”, Bode underlined.

The bishop concluded his statement promising that the Osnabrück diocese would continue to include laypeople in parish leadership roles of responsibility while facing up to the questions raised in the instruction within the limits of canon law.

“In doing so, we will try to remain vigilantly connected to the ‘synodal path’ and to the development of the shape of our Church”, Bode pledged, calling on his fellow German bishops to concern themselves “even more intensively” with questions surrounding the role of laypeople in parishes, which the bishop noted have long been of particular relevance in “most dioceses”.

More on Novena on the controversial Congregation for the Clergy instruction:

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

More on the German Church:

German bishop insists: reform process in the Church is “essential”


PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.