German bishops are protesting en masse over the “absurd” and “theologically deficient” Vatican instruction on parish reform.

– Bishop of Mainz: “I cannot accept the interference in my ministry”

“I cannot accept the interference in my episcopal pastoral care so easily”, Bishop of Mainz Peter Kohlgraf complained in a statement July 22 after the publication of the new text prepared by the Congregation for the Clergy, “The pastoral conversion of the Parish community in the service of the evangelising mission of the Church”.

Kohlgraf explained that his principal objections to the new Vatican instruction were the effects its indications were likely to have on priests and laypeople.

“I care for the priests of my diocese”, the Mainz bishop asserted, adding that his diocese, like many all over the world, is struggling to live up to the ideal – repeated in the Vatican instruction – of a priest for every parish.

“Many priests complain about being overburdened with administration and bureaucracy. According to the instruction, however, this is precisely what the priests are supposed to do”, Kohlgraf denounced.

The Mainz bishop said he was also worried about the effects of the Vatican instruction on the laypeople still committed to contributing to parish life: a ministry the instruction regards with a certain wariness.

“Soon they will have had enough of it, if their commitment is only looked at suspiciously and judged from above”, the Mainz bishop alerted with respect to these lay volunteers and employees.

“I need these people; society needs their testimony of faith. I hear that there is increasingly no longer any motivation to join a Church that appears in this way. I cannot and will not let the pastoral commitment of these people be taken from me”, Kohlgraf warned.

Like a number of other German dioceses, that of Mainz is currently in the process of reducing and restructuring its parishes. Some, at least, were slated to be jointly led by laypeople, but Kohlgraf alerted that the local Church’s plans both to merge parishes and to put non-ordained men and women in charge of them likely run afoul of the new Vatican instruction.

Still the Mainz bishop held firm to his convictions, and argued that “the new parishes are more likely to do justice to the diversity of contemporary Church life than the small parishes in the existing structures”.

He added that it seemed “absurd” to him that, after the instruction, every parish merger will likely have to be approved individually in Rome.

– Archbishop of Bamberg: “Better not to have published” an instruction that “does more harm than good”

Another German prelate who was quick in criticising the new Vatican instruction was Archbishop of Bamberg Ludwig Schick, who in his own statement July 23 lamented that “why the Congregation for the Clergy has issued this instruction is nowhere clear: neither occasion nor purpose is explicitly mentioned. This is a great shortcoming. It opens space for all kinds of speculations that cause harm”.

Deploring that the Vatican document does little more than “vaguely and imprecisely remind[] us of the meaning and purpose of the parish and, above all, of the leadership mandate of priests”, Schick criticised the text as “theologically… deficient” in the sense that “[the] ecclesial sense of the ministry of priests” – as opposed to its sacramental sense – “does not come into play” in the document at all.

Moreover, for the Bamberg archbishop the Vatican instruction ignores the “autonomy and individual responsibility” the local Churches have enjoyed with respect to the universal Church at least since the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).

Motives all of those, for Schick, for which “it would have been better not to publish this instruction in this way, because it does more harm than good for the communion of the Church and her missionary mandate”.

– Bishop of Rottenburg-Stuttgart: Lay leadership “a great advantage for the local Church”

Along with bishops Kohlgraf and Schick, a third German prelate to criticise the new Vatican document was Bishop of Rottenburg-Stuttgart Gebhard Fürst, who said in a statement also published Thursday that he still sees no alternative to the lay-clerical co-responsibility for parishes ruled out by the Vatican but already being practised in his diocese.

“The Rottenburg model is not up for negotiation”, Fürst insisted, referring to the diocesan model of “the strong participation of the laity in all our bodies up to the Diocesan Council” which in the bishop’s opinion – along with being “a great advantage for the local Church” and “a clear consequence of the Second Vatican Council” – has also “proven itself very well” after fifty years of implementation in the diocese.

Fürst furthermore reaffirmed his confidence in the German Church’s ‘synodal path’ reform process which, among other issues, is looking into possible changes to Catholic doctrine and practice around questions the Vatican document also touched on – namely, power and authority in the Church and the priestly way of life.

– Cardinal Woelki of Cologne breaks ranks, appreciates text that “reminds us of the fundamental truths of our faith”

Unlike bishops Kohlgraf, Schick and Fürst – along with Bishop of Osnabrück Franz-Josef Bode, who also criticised the Vatican document – the Archbishop of Cologne, Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki, welcomed the instruction and thanked Pope Francis for signing off on a text that contains “many suggestions for a missionary awakening of the Church”.

In his own July 22 statement, Woelki broke ranks with his brother German bishops to say that the instruction “reminds us of the fundamental truths of our faith, which especially in Germany we may sometimes lose sight of when we are too preoccupied with ourselves”.

Woelki went on to insist that “it is not we who ‘make’ the Church, and it is also not ‘our’ Church, but the Church of Jesus Christ. The Lord himself founded it and with it the sacraments and the ministerial priesthood”.

“Pope Francis puts things right here, but not as a reprimand or disciplinary measure, but as an encouragement to rely entirely on Christ to become a missionary Church again”, the cardinal concluded.

More on Novena on the controversial 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 of Osnabrück 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


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