The Vatican has been accused of “cementing clericalism” with its ‘no’ to a German diocese’s parish merger plan.

– Complaints to Rome over the plan to merge 887 parishes into 35

Bishop of Trier Stephan Ackermann was called to Rome June 5 to explain his plan to reorganise the diocese’s current 887 small parishes into 35 larger ones.

The parish reorganisation plan was a result of a 2013-2016 diocesan synod carried out with the full participation of priests and laity which tackled such issues as the drop in attendance at Mass, the plunge in vocations, Catholics’ growing sense of estrangement from their Church and declining financial resources.

But when Bishop Ackermann formally announced the parish restructuring program in October last year in a law on the implementation of the synod, it was immediately met with a wave of opposition from both laypeople and clergy, who complained to Rome and managed to get the Vatican to suspend the implementation of the plan while authorities studied it further.

– The sticking point: parishes led by one priest and two laypeople on an equal footing

The laity and priests were concerned with such aspects in the parish merger program as the centralisation of the new “parishes of the future” – which would have meant some Catholics would have had to drive up to 80km to go to Mass – as well increased parish membership numbers, with up to 100,000 faithful in some cases.

According to a statement from the Trier diocese June 6, Vatican authorities saw the merit in those concerns, and communicated that position to Bishop Ackermann and Trier diocesan officials in a meeting with Cardinal Beniamino Stella and Archbishop Filippo Iannone, the respective heads of the Congregation for Clergy and the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts.

While insisting that the meeting between Ackermann, Stella and Iannone took place in a “positive atmosphere”, the Trier diocese acknowledged that “the Congregation for Clergy, like the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, has concerns about the proposed reform of the parishes”.

The diocese explained that the Vatican concerns over the plan were particularly to do with “the role of the pastor in the leadership team of the parish, the service of other priests, the conception of the parish bodies, the size of the future parishes and the speed of implementation”.

And indeed, those points about the role of priests under the new program have been a sore spot ever since the plan was announced, with the initial complainants to Rome having denounced Ackermann’s intention to form leadership and liturgy teams for the 35 new parishes consisting of one priest and two laypeople on an equal footing.

Other priests not involved in the management teams, moreover, were to be given no specific leadership functions, and would have ended up under the authority of laypeople.

That promise of clerical-lay co-responsibility was too much for the sceptics of the parish mergers, who complained to Rome also that “the specific transmission of the preaching, especially the homily, to volunteers/lay people will lose the specific nature of the priestly office”.

– Bishop promises to rework plan he sees as model for Europe

While Ackermann has promised to rework the parish merger plan to bring it into line with lay, clergy and Vatican criticisms, the Trier diocese explained that the bishop still sees in the plan the kernel of the answer to the “challenges” the local Church is currently facing.

In particular, the diocese said that those challenge include “the reduction in the faithful’s commitment to Church life over [several] years, the decline in [local] Church involvement and the tremors caused by the discovery of sexual abuse by clerics in the people of God”.
“In addition”, the diocese said, “demographic change, declining financial resources and the lack of priests are limiting pastoral opportunities in the diocese”.

Diocesan officials also commented to German Catholic news agency KNA that Bishop Ackermann sees the Trier parish merger plan as a model for Europe, given that local Churches all over the continent are facing similar problems.

– Commentator: a problematic restatement of the link between ordination and governance

But as Bishop Ackermann and the Trier diocese go about reworking the merger plan, Vatican authorities are once again being accused of a taking a heavy-handed approach to the issue, which in the words of Björn Odendahl, managing editor of German Bishops’ news website, amounts to a new “cementing of clericalism”.

With its intervention in Trier, “Rome insist[ed] on the connection between ordination and governance” in the Church, lamented Odendahl, adding that this is at least a “short-sighted” strategy when the number of priests continues in free-fall.

Odendahl observed that not only does concentrating holy orders, power and management in the person of the priest not only reproduce the same systemic factors that led to the sex abuse crisis, but it also “robs the local Church of its potential” as well.

“In the secular world, companies have long since recognised that the classic top-down principle, which can be imagined as a pyramid with an omnipresent and powerful boss at the top, has long since been outdated”, the journalist highlighted, stressing that “in a fragmented and individualised society, external factors change too quickly for this rigid system to react”.

Instead, in wider societies, “horizontal hierarchies and teams whose members contribute expertise in their respective fields are being used”, he explained, adding that this is the direction the Church must go in.

“If one wants innovations and creative ideas to bring people back into contact with Christ and his Church, the same should apply in parishes – regardless of whether the experts are ordained or not. This applies to the diocese of Trier, but also to all other dioceses”, Odendahl concluded.

Background on Novena on the Trier parish restructuring:

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

November 2019: Vatican nixes controversial German parish reform plan

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


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