The Vatican has fired back at German bishops after their criticisms of a controversial Roman parish reform instruction, but it has offered them the chance to clear up their “doubts and perplexity” over the document.

– Cardinal Stella: instruction “a warning signal” against mistaken ideas of the parish

Ever since it was published July 20, a steady stream of German bishops has criticised the new instruction put out by the Vatican Congregation for the Clergy entitled “The pastoral conversion of the Parish community in the service of the evangelising mission of the Church”.

Cardinal Beniamino Stella, the Prefect of the Congregation, responded to those criticisms in an interview with Vatican Insider July 28.

In that interview, the cardinal said – in comments apparently directed precisely at the critical German prelates – that the instruction included “a warning signal” against ideas of the parish “as a ‘business’ that provides different kinds of services – sacramental, social, charitable – and not as a missionary community, a family”.

One of the central points of criticism of the new document has been its shoring-up of the authority of the priest at the expense of the co-responsibility for leadership of deacons, men and women religious and laypeople.

But Cardinal Stella paid no mind to those criticisms of a warmed-over clericalism, and insisted on the need to highlight the “specificity of the parish priest as a ‘shepherd’ of [the] community” and as such the only figure mandated in Church law to bear the ultimate authority for the running of a parish.

“This doesn’t mean that the parish priest has to do everything by himself, without listening to others or without leaving room for them” to play their part in the local Church community, Stella explained.

“But it is necessary to be careful not to reduce the parish to the rank of a ‘branch’ of a ‘business’, in this case, the diocese, with the consequence of it being able to ‘be managed’ by anybody”, even by groups of lay administrators, the cardinal went on.

Reading between the lines, Stella’s remarks seemed like an admonition of those German dioceses which are experimenting with non-priest-centred parish leadership models in the face of declining vocations and plummeting Church membership numbers.

That warning aside, however, the cardinal did extend the critical German bishops an olive branch over the document, saying in comments reported by German Catholic news agency KNA that he would be pleased to meet with the prelates to “remove doubts and perplexity” over their interpretation of the text.

Stella said that meeting could take place “in due course” if the discordant German bishops were inclined to set out their objections to the instruction.

However, the cardinal reportedly declined to enter into those polemics ahead of time, refusing to address at this point such questions about the instruction raised by the German bishops including its timing, purpose, lack of consultation with regard to content and the text’s relationship with the processes of mass consolidation and restructuring of parishes that a number of German dioceses are presently engaged in.

– The debate continues: is the instruction a “return to clericalisation” or a “valuable impulse” for mission?

As a consequence of its reinforcement of the authority of priests, the new Congregation for the Clergy instruction explicitly bars deacons, religious and laypeople from leading parishes in their own right, but it also goes as far as to rule out leadership teams consisting of ordained and non-ordained members.

That restriction of the role of the non-ordained in parish life prompted the majority of German bishops to sharply criticise the document as out of touch with reality, a step back into the past or even a “return to clericalisation”.

While the bulk of German prelates came out against the document, the instruction did find a few supporters in the country’s episcopacy including Bishop of Eichstatt Gregor Maria Hanke, who said he found “many valuable impulses” for mission and evangelisation in the text.

More stories on Novena on the controversial Vatican parish reform instruction:

Congregation for Clergy member Cardinal Arborelius says “doesn’t know” how Congregation instruction on parish reform was completed

“Doesn’t help a bit”: Yet another German bishop criticises Vatican parish reform instruction as Cardinal Kasper defends it (with nuances)

Cardinal Marx rips new Vatican document on parish life: “No fruit is borne like this”

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

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


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