Lamenting that “it doesn’t help a bit”, yet another German bishop has criticised the new Vatican instruction on parish reform, while Cardinal Walter Kasper has defended the document, although with nuances.

– Instruction contains “only noble principles and canonical guidelines”: Bishop of Magdeburg

Bishop Gerhard Feige of the Magdeburg diocese wrote to his flock July 27 with his reflections on the document of the Vatican Congregation for the Clergy, “The pastoral conversion of the Parish community in the service of the evangelising mission of the Church”, which was published July 20.

In his reflections, Feige reminded believers that although the decline in vocations and Catholic membership already forced the diocese, in 2010, into a restructuring that left it with just 44 parishes for 79,000 faithful, the priest-centred Church in the diocese is still in dire straits.

“Already ten parishes have no parish priest of their own and, according to today’s estimates, only about 20 priests will be in active service in 2030”, the bishop warned, adding that the Magdeburg diocese is also suffering from unspecified “further serious needs which cannot be regarded as transitional problems”.

“The shape of the Church will change even more dramatically than it already has done, and not only here”, Feige further predicted, for which reason he lamented that “it does not help a bit to conjure up only noble principles and to refer to canonical guidelines”, as the Congregation for the Clergy has been accused of doing in its new instruction.

– “Unrealistic restrictive orders that do not offer any positive solutions to the growing shortage of priests”

Feige insisted that in the face of the crisis in Catholic life “it is necessary to consider, discuss and decide in a responsible and sensitive as well as creative and courageous way, taking into account the theological and personnel, regional and economic conditions, in which form parishes and communities can continue to exist in the future”.

The Magdeburg bishop added that his diocese has been “in such a process for a long time”, and that much without “perfect solutions” but instead with nothing more and nothing less than “concrete ideas and justified hopes”.

“As learners we gladly accept suggestions. In this respect we will also consider the statements of the most recent Roman instruction”, Feige continued.

But the bishop cautioned, however, that he would not allow himself “to be paralysed and blocked” by Rome’s “restrictive orders”, which in his opinion are “quite unrealistic” – especially given Magdeburg’s great geographical size and sparse population of Catholics – and also because the Vatican indications “do not offer any positive solutions to the growing shortage of priests”.

“Certainly it was not the conscious intention of the Congregation for the Clergy to ‘break the bruised reed and quench the dimly burning wick’ (cf. Is 42:2) among the still good-natured Christians, but nevertheless the instruction leaves behind, besides perplexity and annoyance, also great damage. It will demotivate some people to commit themselves to our Church”, Feige warned.

– Praise from Kasper: Instruction contains “a theologically legitimate emphasis on the overall responsibility of the priest”

In contrast to Feige, one German prelate who was defending the Congregation for the Clergy instruction this Monday was Cardinal Walter Kasper, former Bishop of Rottenburg-Stuttgart (1989-1999) and President Emeritus of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity (2001-2010), who wrote in a guest piece in Domradio that, in his opinion, there is no trace of “authoritarian neoclericalism” in the instruction, as other critics has charged.

For Cardinal Kasper, that’s because, on the one hand, the document contains nothing more than a “theologically legitimate emphasis on the overall responsibility of the priest as the pastor of the congregation” which does not exclude the possibility that “many tasks that are not originally priestly must be and can be delegated” to laypeople.

There would be clericalism in the document, too, on the other hand, if the text allowed bishops to “turn parishes upside down, abolish them, and merge them”, Kasper said. “But that is exactly what the Instruction wants to prevent and to bind the bishop to ‘constitutional and enforceable criteria and procedures”, he added.

– Criticisms: “I would have wished for more positive, encouraging and appreciative language”

But the cardinal did have two particular criticisms for Vatican authorities.

“It would have been better, caused less trouble and corresponded better to the Pope’s synodal idea, if the publication had been preceded by a joint consultation with the Presidents of the Bishops’ Conferences concerned”, Kasper noted, on the one hand.

On the other, the cardinal wrote that “in the second part of the instruction, there is a rather one-sided differentiating and exclusionary canon law approach. Here I would have wished for more positive, encouraging and appreciative language”.

“The committed laity in many parts of the universal Church, especially the women, who often hold the congregations together in difficult situations and without whose ministry most parishes in our country would have collapsed long ago, would have deserved such an explicit word of thanks, encouragement and recognition”, Kasper concluded.

On Novena, more on the debate over the new Vatican instruction on parish reform:

“A document destined for oblivion”: New Vatican parish instruction met with criticism in Portugal, Austria

Cardinal Marx rips new Vatican document on parish life: “No fruit is borne like this”

“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

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PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. Lecturer in ethics at Loyola University Maryland, Alcalá de Henares (Spain) campus. Religion journalist with 4 years experience.