A theologian has accused the German Bishops of perpetuating clericalism with their new priestly training plans.

– Plans do not address factors underlying sex abuse crisis, train priests for modern world

Würzburg pastoral theologian Erich Garhammer made the allegation in a contribution July 8 to the Münster Forum for Theology and Church journal, in which he denounced that the German prelates’ recent discussion paper on reforms to seminaries and priestly formation “remain[s] in the old ways of thinking of the clerical milieu”.

In Garhammer’s opinion, not only do the German Bishops not sufficiently address with their new plans the problems underlying the clergy sex abuse crisis, but they also do not take account of certain aptitudes modern priests need, such as communication skills and multi-disciplinarity.

More than that, though, the Würzburg theologian accused the Bishops of reinforcing at least 200 years of contempt on the part of the Church for university theology: a disdain, Garhammer wrote, that no longer has any foundation, if it ever did.

– No to seminaries born of the “ghetto mentality” of the 19th-century German Church

In his paper for the Münster Forum for Theology and Church, Garhammer traced a brief history of the seminary, which he said was born after the Council of Trent (1545-1563) to replace the informal formation undertaken by candidates for the priesthood that could not afford to study at universities.

With the mediatisations and secularisations in Germany in the nineteenth century, however, the Church adopted a “ghetto mentality”, according to Garhammer, and converted the seminary away from the vision that the Council of Trent had for it and into a training ground where future priests would be protected, above all, from the liberal theology taught at state universities.

According to Garhammer, by the early twentieth century the Vatican began to criticise the lack of scholastic philosophy and theology in German state universities, the exposure of seminarians “without sufficient protection” to biblical exegesis and the history of dogma, and the other “heterodox teachings” and “dangerous contacts with students of other subjects” to be found in academic settings.

But as Garhammer pointed out, all of these controversies between German and Vatican authorities had more to do with Church-State relations and less to do with the formation of the individual student: a dynamic, the Würzburg theologian insisted, the German Bishops should not continue to play into.

– Lay group head: Concentrating formation in a few seminaries “will massively threaten all other locations of Catholic theology”

On June 23, the German Bishops announced “quality assurance” plans for the training of future priests.

Driven principally by the lack of vocations to the priesthood, the prelates’ plan proposed pooling candidates and centralising training in a greatly reduced number of seminaries and university theology faculties: a rationalization that raised the ire both of bishops whose seminaries were left out and of theologians who raised the alarm of a possible devaluation of university theology study.

Chairwoman of the German Conference of Catholic Theological Faculties (KThF) Johanna Rahner, for example, blasted the plans as “naive and ill-conceived” and, like Garhammer, worried that the Bishops were sending the Church back to the Council of Trent with their plans for seminarians’ formation.

Criticisms just as serious came too from president of the powerful lay Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK), Thomas Sternberg, who reminded the Bishops that seminarians’ training is being discussed in the lay-clergy-outside experts’ ‘synodal path’ Church reform process.

“Does the Bishops’ Conference want to anticipate something here and avoid a debate in the Synodal Assembly? I would not understand that”, Sternberg cautioned.

“The training of priests includes theology as a science”, the ZdK president insisted. “It takes place at our universities and is regulated by contracts [and] concordats”, he added, warning the German Bishops “very strongly against endangering this system of Catholic faculties in Germany by now playing games to concentrate the studies of candidates for the priesthood, which will massively threaten all other locations of Catholic theology”.

More on Novena on the debate over priestly training:

Layman takes joint charge of Münster parish as auxiliary bishop admits “there are simply not enough priests”

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

German Bishops pledge “courageous changes” to stem hemorrhage of faithful

April 2020: Vatican cardinal: “We must radically change” how priests interact with women


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