German laity are hitting out at the new Vatican instruction on parish life, describing it as the “last yelp of a dying religious dictatorship”.

– Congregation for the Clergy “tries in a criminal way to maintain clericalisation”

That particularly harsh assessment of the text – “The pastoral conversion of the Parish community in the service of the evangelising mission of the Church” – released Monday by the Congregation for the Clergy came from Church reform group ‘We Are Church’ Germany, which described the document as “an outrageous attempt by Rome to make the Church pre-conciliar again and to slow down urgently-needed pastoral reforms”.

What Rome may have intended to strengthen evangelisation and to safeguard parish structures will rather lead “to the further erosion of Church life, and that not only in Germany”, We Are Church Germany decried.

The principal motive for the lay reform group’s criticisms of the Vatican document was the way the Congregation for the Clergy, in the text, “tries in a criminal way to maintain clericalisation” – that is, the Church of “two classes”, clerics and laypeople – “which Pope Francis has repeatedly and rightly deplored”.

Lamenting the subordination laypeople and especially Catholic women – not even mentioned in the text – are subjected to in the document, We Are Church Germany appealed to parishes and Church associations – but also bishops and delegates to the Germany Church’s ‘synodal path’ reform process – “to no longer allow themselves to be dictated to in a petty and discriminatory way on how they should live their life as believers”.

– “The image of the parish community gathered around the priest is made impossible by the lack of priests”

Further criticism of the new Vatican document among German laity came from the President of the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK), Thomas Sternberg, who lamented that “the instruction misses the reality of the Catholic Church in Germany” and moreover “draws something as an ideal which is neither desirable nor real from a biblical and historical, theological and practical point of view”.

That unrealism of the Vatican instruction, Sternberg explained, was particularly evident in its shoring-up of the authority of priests at the expense of that of laypeople.

“Apart from being a skewed ideal, the image of the parish community gathered around the priest is made impossible by the lack of priests, which has long since taken on dramatic proportions”, the ZdK President deplored.

He added that “last year, every new priest in Germany had to replace eleven who retired from their parishes. The priests no longer exist”.

But Sternberg also criticised the blindness of Vatican authorities to all the duties laypeople carry out, and particularly to the indispensable roles the non-ordained play in parish councils, which Sternberg recalled in Germany are not just information, advisory or auxiliary bodies, as the Vatican instruction seemed to argue.

Sternberg concluded by warning that although the Vatican has made clear with the new document that the vocations slump should not be an excuse to experiment with new forms of parish leadership, the “emergency” of the dearth of priests “will accelerate a reform process that has long since begun and cannot be stopped”.

– “Unsustainable” Vatican vision “opts for fear and against a future for the Church”

Another angry reaction to the Vatican document from Germany laypeople came from the chairwoman of the Committee of Catholics in the diocese of Münster, Kerstin Stegemann, who said that the instruction triggered in her “disappointment,… anger, lack of understanding and demotivation”.

“Why go on and work on reforms when there is such a clear rejection of them?”, Stegemann asked, noting that after the publication of the instruction her patience with the Church “is getting less”.

Frustration was also expressed by those people perhaps most affected by the instruction: that is to say, those laypeople who are currently engaged in the practice of lay-clerical co-responsibility for parishes that the Vatican is looking to crack down on.

Earlier this month layman Werner Heckmann was appointed as co-pastor of a parish in the diocese of Münster: exactly the kind of job the Vatican wants to stamp out.

But Heckmann said that although he “very much regret[ted]” the Vatican document, he didn’t “take it personally”.

Noting that the instruction “does not refer to all the successful ways of lay leadership in our world church: in France, in Switzerland or in German dioceses”, Heckmann explained simply that “with all due respect: this text from Rome is simply not sustainable. Because the number of priests needed for [the Vatican vision] in our diocese of Münster does not exist”.

Heckmann’s sentiments were echoed, lastly, by head of the Catholic Workers’ Movement (KAB) in the Münster diocese, Fr. Michael Prinz, who lamented that the Vatican instruction “opts for fear and against a future for the Church”.

Speaking of the many German Catholic laypeople who have repeatedly stood up for the Church despite myriad disappointments, Prinz deplored that “Rome seems to think that these people have no part in the leadership of the Church”.

The very opposite is actually the case, though, as the priest explained: “Through baptism every Christian is given a share” in Church leadership, he Prinz insisted.

More on Novena on the debate over the new Vatican parish life instruction:

German bishop comes out swinging against Vatican parish instruction, 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


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