Theologians have blasted “naive and clueless” German Bishops over their proposed changes to seminarians’ training.

– Prelates want to concentrate candidates for the priesthood in seminary hubs

As a result of what they called “a spiritual process lasting several months”, a working group of bishops from the German Episcopal Conference presented June 23 a series of “proposals” as “a basis for further discussions and considerations” on the future of diocesan priestly formation in Germany.

At the heart of the proposals is a three-step plan for the preparation of candidates for the priesthood: a one-year prepatory course in either Freiburg or Bamberg; a four-year degree in theology in either Munich, Münster or Mainz; and finally pastoral training in Paderborn, Erfurt, Rottenburg-Stuttgart or a location yet to be determined in Bavaria.

The bishops’ principal justification for concentrating future candidates for the priesthood in those seminary hubs was the need to guarantee “sufficiently large study groups” in the face of the decline in priestly vocations in Germany in recent years.

Just 60 men were ordained to the priesthood in Germany’s 27 dioceses and archdioceses in 2018, down from more than 100 in 2007.

But the prelates’ ideas for the consolidation of seminaries has provoked the ire of bishops whose dioceses house historic seminaries not included in the new plan, as well as of Catholic theologians whose universities are also not included in the draft restructuring of priestly training.

– Seminary model of Council of Trent “completely inappropriate” for modern world

One such critic of the new bishops’ proposals for priestly training is Johanna Rahner, a professor at the University of Tübingen and the chairwoman of the German Conference of Catholic Theological Faculties.

In an interview with Catholic news agency KNA, Rahner blasted the plans as “ill-considered” and out of step with “the needs that actually exist for the training of the priests of tomorrow”.

With their plans for keeping candidates for the priesthood still in seminaries, Rahner accused the bishops of sticking to the ideal of training priests “as it was formulated at the Council of Trent in the middle of the 16th century”, where young men are “protected” and “sheltered” from other students and the wider world and prepared as a “caste” apart for their future priestly mission.

The Tübingen theologian described the seminary model as “completely inappropriate… in a pluralistic society” and warned that that assessment of hers “is shared by many who have decades of experience in the formation of priests”.

Neither does the proposed new model of priestly training “do justice to the biographies of the individuals who are preparing for this ministry today”, Rahner lamented, recalling too that fruits of the seminary model have been the clericalism and the abuse the Church continues to try so desperately to shake off.

In short, Rahner accused the bishops responsible for the new proposals of being unwilling “to break away from old thought structures and to develop alternatives” for priestly training, and also of risking the identity of the theology discipline as a whole and of creating “first and second-class” theology faculties for future priests, on the one hand, and future lay pastoral workers and theologians, on the other.

“Prospective priests and other prospective pastoral workers must be trained together, because they must also work together later” in the field, Rahner recalled.

One final criticism theologian Rahner levelled at the bishops was that the debate over future seminary training was being brought up entirely at an inopportune moment.

“We are once again concerned with ourselves, although we have enough to say about current social issues and future questions. Especially in times of pandemic. This debate arises completely at the wrong time”, Rahner lamented.

More news on Novena from the German Church:

German Bishops pledge “courageous changes” to stem hemorrhage of faithful

More on the challenges of seminary training in the 21st century:

Vatican cardinal: “We must radically change” how priests interact with women

Spanish Catholic women decry rise in Church misogyny due to “huge lack of female presence” in seminaries

Francis warns seminarians against clericalism: “Where there is rigidity there are serious problems”


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