A German missionary has warned that establishing a true democracy in Church is the “only way out” of the “dead end of feudalism, clericalism and traditionalism” in which the institution is stuck.

– “The Church must say goodbye to traditional feudal clericalism”

“There is only one way to reform the Church: the establishment of a true democratic ecclesiastical order which respects the dignity and rights of all baptised men and women”, Father Bernd Pehle pleaded in an essay published July 23 on the website of the theological journal feinschwarz.net.

“Well-meaning consultations in ‘synodal dialogues’ will not help”, warned Pehle, a White Father who ministered in Zambia from 1968 to 2008.

“The Church must say goodbye to traditional feudal clericalism in all its forms and give up this way of exercising power which is not legitimised by the People of God”, added the missionary, now resident in Cologne.

– “Put the Church right-way up again”

In his article, Pehle lamented that he could not share the “optimism” even of the German Church’s ‘synodal path’ reform process, which is examining in a lay-clerical co-responsible way possible changes to Church doctrine and practice in regards to power and authority in the institution, Catholic sexual morality, compulsory priestly celibacy and the place of women.

In the Church “we are too deep in a dead-end street” of “feudalism, clericalism and traditionalism” in which “there is only a backward step and no forward one”, the priest deplored, explaining why he doesn’t believe even the ‘synodal path’ can bring about real and lasting reform.

On the contrary: according to Pehle, the institution can only be renewed first by “putting the Church right-way up again”: that is, by first recognising that “the local congregation gathered in the name of Jesus… is sovereign” and “calls from its ranks Personae bapticatae probatae (i.e. baptised men and women) to the different ministries”, and not just celibate men.

– The “schizophrenia” of being free democratic subjects outside Church walls and serfs within them

Pehle recalled that “in the African parishes I have led, the people chosen to lead the services were only one group among others, called to different services in the parish”.

That was in contrast to Germany, the priest wrote, where “the faithful live on two different levels of consciousness: first as free citizens in a democracy, but at the same time as vassals in a monarchically-structured Church”.

Pehle continued by warning that in order to not fall victim to the “schizophrenia” of being free democratic subjects outside Church walls and serfs within them citizens “instinctively turn[] away from the Church” out of “disappointment and anger”.

The frustration of the faithful, then, is only intensified when Church leaders continue to pin falling numbers of Catholics on secularisation, when for Pehle “exactly the opposite” – the “self-sacralisation” of the Church and of priests in particular – is really to blame.

Tracing the emergence of this self-sacralisation of priests to the 1059 Church humiliation of the monk Berengar of Tours for denying the transubstantiation of the Eucharist, Pehle lamented that from that episode on “the priesthood isolated itself more and more from the People of God” and “priests… became ‘functionaries’ who no longer had to give an account to the congregation”.

Meanwhile, “while feudalism as a form of State was gradually pushed back and democratic structures took root and proved their worth, the insistence on these structures within the church led to a sacralisation and thus to the unquestionability of episcopal and papal decisions”, the priest explained.

He added that those dynamics have created “a deep rift that separates the clerical rulers from the lay subjects”, with the faith of these now being limited to assenting to Church teaching “and their participation in church politics at most ‘advisory'”.

– To end clericalism, “the celebration of the Eucharist must regain its original value”

How then to turn today’s Church back from the clericalist impasse at which it finds itself?

For Pehle, in the first place “the celebration of the Eucharist must regain its original value” and meaning.

In condemning Berengar, the missionary explained, and in affirming transubstantiation and the Real Presence, the Church moved the emphasis in Mass away from “a commission and encouragement of the Church to serve the transformation of the world” to put it squarely on “the worship of the Eucharist”.

“No more was it asked: How can the Body of Christ, that is, the Church, continue the missionary mandate of Jesus? From then on, the preaching was only about cleaning the soul so that it would go to heaven”, Pehle lamented.

“This narrowing of the Eucharist away from an encouragement to a communal task to a questionable salvation-individualism, seems to me to be a kind of ‘Religion Inc.’ in the way of today’s capitalist economy, where each person is soteriologically the neighbour of himself”, the priest continued, deploring that “the radical call of Jesus to those who follow him to stand up in solidarity for their neighbour disappears behind this understanding of salvation”.

– “Every baptised person” can celebrate the Mass

Pehle set out a list of eight demands to end clericalism, reform the Church and put it right-way up again.

Those requests ranged from a call that there be “no more ‘independent’ clerics in the Church “but only priests called and appointed… in community”, to a plea to do away with “the shamanisation of the priest of sacrifice” interested to the exclusion of all this only in Eucharistic “hocus-pocus”.

With regard to the Mass, Pehle called for its celebration to no longer be the exclusive province of ordained men, since on the model of “the practice of the early Christian congregations… every baptised person may, through the power of the Spirit received in baptism, call down [the blessing] over bread and wine, insofar as he/she is commissioned to do so by the congregation”.

The German missionary furthermore suggested an end to the daily celebration of the Eucharist, “because only a congregational celebration on Sunday is meaningful, where the congregation can look back on its work of the past week and be strengthened for the tasks of the coming week”.

As an alternative to the daily Mass, “Word of God celebrations (e.g. with Bible sharing) during the week… would emphasise the special importance of the weekly congregational Eucharist and also provide opportunities for a genuine exchange of experiences in daily life”, Pehle proposed.

“We are challenged hic et nunc to a true metanoia, which has similar dimensions to the conversion that Jesus demanded of the leaders of Judaism”, Pehle concluded his essay, warning that “the sex abuse scandal which has now been uncovered is only the tip of the iceberg” of the more generalised abuses “priests, bishops and popes” have committed in recent centuries.

At stake in this conversion to which the Church is called today is nothing less than the future of the institution, especially in Europe, Pehle cautioned.

“In Africa I had the feeling of working in the maternity ward of the Church, back in Europe I feel like in a palliative ward. This is the final result of the long history of ecclesiastical feudalism… [which] can be compared to colonialism. And just as the traumas of colonialism still hurt peoples and people today, so the traumas of feudalism hurt within the Church”.

More on Novena on the evils of clericalism:

German bishops protest en masse over clericalism in “absurd”, “theologically deficient” Vatican instruction on parish reform

“Last yelp of a dying religious dictatorship”: German laity hit out at clericalism in new Vatican instruction on parish life

German bishop comes out swinging against Vatican parish instruction, doubles-down on ‘synodal path’ as “answer to Roman challenge”

In new document reinforcing clericalism, 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.