The role of bishops is at stake in a Vatican intervention to stop German parish mergers, a canon lawyer and theologian has warned.

– “Resistance is obligatory… the bishop must protest”

Thomas Schüller, a professor of canon law at the Catholic Theological Faculty of the University of Münster, commented June 25 in the theology journal Feinschwarz.net on the “feudal and centralistic” decision of Vatican authorities to paralyse the restructuring planned for the Diocese of Trier, which would have seen, among other things, 887 parishes in the dioceses merged into just 35.

After complaints from priests and laypeople, the Vatican Congregation for the Clergy and the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts stepped in early June to put a definitive stop to the mergers, citing concerns over the pace of the planned reforms, the unwieldy size of the new parishes, the co-responsibility of pastors and laypeople in the new proposed parish leadership teams and the undermining of the authority of other diocesan priests.

Admitting to feeling “a bit depressed” over the “massive Roman intervention” into his parish reorganisation plans, Trier bishop Stephan Ackermann went back to the drawing board and last weekend presented a new preliminary plan, which included an increase in the number of new planned parishes from 35 to 172.

But theologian Schüller, in his analysis of the case, urged Ackermann not to back down, advising him that in the face of a Roman intervention that came without “any sense and respect for those local Church issues that are the sole responsibility of diocesan bishops” that “resistance is obligatory… and a diocesan bishop must protest against such interference in his jurisdiction”.

Certainly the Congregation for the Clergy and the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts were right to make sure that the parish merger plans preserved the canonical role and prerogatives of the priest as pastor and that the lay-clergy leadership teams did not also impinge on the pastor’s canonical responsibility for the management of Church assets, Schüller admitted.

But the theologian and canon lawyer insisted that that was the limit of the Vatican’s authority in the case of the Trier parish mergers.

“As far as the layout of the parishes in a diocese is concerned, as far as the speed of the implementation of structural decisions in this field is concerned: here the diocesan bishop alone is responsible”, Schüller argued.

For that reason, the Vatican had no right and no legal basis to demand either an increase in the number of parishes in the Trier reordering plans nor a much slower pace of implementation of the mergers, as indeed Rome ended up doing, the canon lawyer denounced.

– “What hubris among the Roman interlocutors!”

One of the objections raised among priests and faithful to the Trier diocesan restructuring plan was that some of the new extra-large merged parishes were to have had up to 100,000 members each with some of those Catholics having to travel 80km or more to attend Mass.

Schüller, however, rejected those arguments, and recalled that although the 2013-16 diocesan synod on which Ackermann based his plans called for 60 new parishes, and not 35, the bishop’s desire to reorder the Trier diocese was still backed by a synodal mandate of reform.

What’s more, the Roman arguments for stopping the mergers were horribly out of date, the theologian and canon lawyer lamented.

“Obviously, the Roman argument is based on the topos of the pastoral closeness of the parish priest to his faithful, as if the parish priest were the only pastoral worker; as if the parish layout had to be such that the parish priest had the possibility in principle to inspect his little sheep daily, preferably on foot. What hubris among the Roman interlocutors!”, Schüller decried.

“As if they, as curia officials with a pastoral experience that is mostly below average, could competently say for each diocese of the universal Church what is needed and what is to be done there”, he criticised.

Accusing Roman curial officials of operating out of a mindset in which the default Church reality is “the priest in the village and a few hundred Catholics” – when the pastoral reality in Western Europe is “dramatically” different – Schüller asked whether the “Roman masters” would now force bishops in places such as Latin America, Australia or Africa to set up parishes “street by street” to overcome the geographical challenges to traditional pastoral care.

Not only that, but “the basic attitude of the Roman dicasteries deeply contradicts Pope Francis’ demand for decentralised church structures according to the principle of subsidiarity, and it lets the diocesan bishop degenerate into a mere enforcement officer of the Pope and his authorities, who apparently know better… what is good for a diocese far away from Rome”, Schüller deplored.

“If the example of the contact with the Bishop of Trier becomes the precedent in Rome, there will no longer be any need for diocesan bishops; the Vatican itself, as a world diocesan curia, can take responsibility for all the world’s Catholics into its hands”, the theologian warned.

More on Novena on the Trier parish mergers:

“A bit depressed”, German bishop rethinks parish mergers after “massive Roman intervention”

Vatican accused of “cementing clericalism” with ‘no’ to German diocese’s parish merger plan

Vatican accused of “petty and embarrassing” intervention in German parish mergers

November 2019: Vatican nixes controversial German parish reform plan

November 2019: German diocese to slash number of parishes by 96%, laypeople threaten walkout

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PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. Lecturer in ethics at Loyola University Maryland, Alcalá de Henares (Spain) campus. Religion journalist with 4 years experience.