A German prelate has expressed a desire for the Church to establish new courts to deal with bishops who overstep their power and who are negligent in their ministry.

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“So far it has been up to the Pope alone” whether to sanction or remove a bishop who abuses his power and fails in the proper discharge of his duties, Bishop of Passau Stefan Oster told the Passauer Neue Presse December 14.

A new system of ecclesiastical courts to hold bishops to accountability could be “quicker and more effective”, Oster suggested.

The Passau bishop said he could also imagine a future scenario in which committees of laypeople had the right to choose the bishop of their diocese, a task that is presently in the hands of the papal nuncio in each country in concert with the Vatican Congregation for Bishops, and with the Pope.

That greater role for laypeople in the election of their bishops is thought to be one of the possible changes contained in the draft of the Pope’s new apostolic constitution on the Roman Curia, the reform of the Vatican’s ‘engine room’ that Francis has been working on with the help of his Council of Cardinals since he became Pope in 2013.

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In his interview with the Passauer Neue Presse, Oster also admitted that since “the question of power is central” particularly in clerical sexual abuse and in Church responses to that phenomenon, there are “real development opportunities” for the Church in better controlling that excessive episcopal influence.

The Passau bishop expressed scepticism, however, in letting Church decisions be determined by direct democracy.

Establishing doctrine and discipline by votes would “water down the bulk of the Good News too easily”, Oster warned.

The Gospel is “uncomfortable”, the bishop recalled, adding that “our truth is not simply what the majority want” especially on sexual morality, which doctrine even in early Christianity was a “huge provocation” for people.

What’s next

Though Oster was doubtful about direct Church democracy, he did express great hopes for the German Church’s ‘synodal path’, that two-year grassroots reform process looking at possible changes to priestly celibacy, Church power, sexual morality and the role of women in Catholicism.

Though the ‘synodal path’ assemblies “are not a parliament”, Oster said, “we have a sheltered space here in which everyone can and should freely say what they think, and best of all without tactics and without political interests”.

“The Holy Spirit cannot work otherwise”, the bishop recalled.

“I want us to really talk on the ‘synodal path’ . I also want to hear and learn”, Oster said, insisting that that frank discussion, respectful listening and mutual learning is what Pope Francis means by his insistence on ‘synodality'”.

Though the German synodal path began December 1 with symbolic Masses and candle-lightings, the first synodal path assembly is slated only for January 30 to February 1 2020 in Frankfurt.

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