The German Church is at loggerheads over Bishops’ plans to reform seminaries, with a debate between a theologian and a prelate responsible for the proposals the latest show of tension over the issue.

– Theologian hits out at plan to train future priests in “sheltered” seminaries: “Vocations are clarified in encounter”

Writing in the August issue of the Herder Korrespondenz journal, Johanna Rahner, professor of dogmatics and ecumenical theology at the Eberhard Karls University in Tübingen and chairwoman of the German Conference of Catholic Theological Faculties (KThF), accused the Bishops of going the “wrong way” with their move towards the “centralisation” of priestly training when what is needed are “diverse forms of formation on the spot” in parishes.

“Society and Church are changing – and with them also pastoral work. That is why also the training of priests cannot remain as it is”, Rahner acknowledged.

But instead of the “exclusive” seminaries only for future priests that the German Bishops are planning, the Tübingen theologian wrote that the Church needs places of learning and formation that promote exchange and debate, as well as train together all those who in the future will be active in pastoral care, whether in an ordained capacity or not.

“Priestly vocations today are not clarified in a shielded, sheltered, exclusive, homogeneous milieu” such as that of the seminary, “but in the encounter of different forms of life and life plans that challenge and complement each other and thus lead to the clarification of one’s own life decision”, Rahner wrote.

– Architect defends plan for “greater diversity” of priestly formation

Also in the very same August issue of Herder Korrespondenz, one of the architects of the German Bishops’ plan to reform the seminaries, Bishop Michael Gerber of the Fulda diocese, defended the proposal against Rahner’s criticisms, and argued that the fact that the number of centres for priestly training is to be reduced by no means entails a centralisation or standardisation of the education of future clergy.

On the contrary: a “greater diversity” of priestly formation is intended, Gerber wrote.

“The Church will live in the future only where people in her midst know in the depths of their soul her ‘why’ and her ‘wherefore'”, added the bishop.

That’s why the German Bishops are interested in attracting candidates for the priesthood who can be touched by Jesus’ “missionary mandate” and at the same time can have “existential experiences of growth and failure”, Gerber explained.

In any case, the Fulda bishop insisted that the plan to reform the German seminaries is at this stage only a working document and as such the basis for further discussions.

– About the German Bishops’ seminary plans

Debate has been intense since a working group from the German Bishops’ Conference announced June 23 their plans to reform the country’s seminaries.

The proposals would see the number of places of formation for future clergy cut from the current twenty-odd to just nine, with seminaries to continue only in three cities – Mainz, Munich and Münster – preparatory courses to be held in just two – Freiburg and Bamberg – and pastoral training to be divided between four: Paderborn, Erfurt, Rottenburg-Stuttgart and an as-yet undecided Bavarian city.

The reason for the streamlining in houses of formations comes down to the fact that “the number of candidates for the Catholic priesthood has gone from 594 in 2011 to 211 at present”, as Heinrich Timmerevers, Bishop of Dresden-Meissen and another of the architects of the Bishops’ plan, explained when presenting the proposal.

But the episcopate’s plans have raised howls of protests not just from bishops whose seminaries are not included in the plan, but also from university theologians who fear a division into first- and second-class theology programs, depending on where seminarians study.

Not only that, but theologians also fear for the very future of their faculties, whose existence in the case of State institutions depends – because of concordats signed between the Vatican and the former German Empire or individual German states – on their offering training for priests.

More on the debate over the future of German seminaries:

German Bishop of Hildesheim wants more true-to-life training for seminarians

Theologian accuses German Bishops of perpetuating clericalism with new priestly training plans

Theologians blast “naive and clueless” German bishops over proposed changes to seminarians’ training


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