The new Vatican parish instruction is being met with criticism not only in Germany but also in Portugal and Austria, with one Portuguese priest theologian claiming that the text is “a document destined for oblivion”.

– Canon law “the wrong starting point”: Portuguese priest expert

On the instruction published July 20 by the Vatican Congregation for the Clergy – “The pastoral conversion of the Parish community in the service of the evangelising mission of the Church” – Fr. Tiago Freitas, a priest of the Archdiocese of Braga in Portugal and author of a doctoral thesis on new models of parishes, told the Ecclesia Church news agency that “this is a very technical document, very formal, on very concrete aspects, centred on canon law”.

“This is starting from the wrong point”, the expert claimed, explaining that “the Code of Canon Law is to help pastoral work, theological reflection, to give a framework [and a] solid and juridical structure. [The Code] is not to be the yardstick of how we are going to do it, how we are going to organise ourselves”.

Not only is the new Congregation for the Clergy instruction too canon law-heavy, Freitas added, but it presents a synthesis of documents that are over twenty years old – dating from 1997 and 2002 – to rehash as the “ideal model” for ministry and mission the old idea of “a parish priest with a parish”.

The Braga priest and theologian said he could understood that the Vatican had sought refuge in traditional models of parish ministry like that to issue a “clear response” to the German Church, whose ‘synodal path’ reform process – with its push for greater responsibility for laypeople, and especially laywomen – is “frightening the Roman Curia”.

But Freitas argued that “there is no objective reason why the laity cannot cooperate or participate in the real government of parishes”.

A slightly different scenario the priest said he could imagine the Vatican responding to with the instruction is the panorama in Switzerland, where teams of lay people have the responsibility of “governing” the parish.

That lay governance of parishes is something the Congregation for the Clergy is trying to stamp out with the instruction, and Freitas said that could be because in those Swiss arrangements “it may be debatable whether the parish priest is transformed into a kind of chaplain, a kind of functionary”.

“This is another risk, where the office of pastor is called into question”, the Portuguese priest alerted.

But even if there are experiments in lay-clerical responsibility in Germany, Switzerland and elsewhere in Europe in which the Vatican wants “to put the brakes on”, Freitas questioned whether the Congregation for the Clergy had gone about doing that in the most convincing and constructive way.

In the detail in the Vatican text, “the very assumptions of the instruction – that is, the transformation of the society and culture in which we live – are not even taken into account; “, the priest explained.

“The only focus I see here is the figure of the parish priest and leadership in the parishes”, added Freitas, lamenting the lack in the instruction of any “empowerment” of the laity and of any recognition of the “collegial government” of parishes.

The priest concluded that there was nothing wrong with the presuppositions of the instruction – namely, the modern irrelevance of the territoriality of the parish and the need for “reform of structures” and “missionary” conversion – but “the problem is that then, entering the document, there is nothing new but only a reaffirmation of all that is in force at the moment”.

That’s a shortcoming that led the priest to describe the Vatican text as a missed opportunity.

– Pope Francis’ reform program “instrumentalised for the agenda of the preservationists”: Austrian theologian

Along with Freitas, another theologian criticising the Vatican instruction was Klara-Antonia Csiszar, a professor of pastoral theology at the Catholic Private University of Linz (KU Linz) in Austria, who in a guest commentary in the Oberösterreichische Nachrichten newspaper lamented that the Congregation for the Clergy had made pastoral practice the “handmaid of canon law”.

In that vein, Csiszar called it remarkable that the Vatican Congregation concentrated so heavily on canon law “instead of looking at the pastoral reality”.

“In the light of the refusals, narrowings and the affirmation of the priestly Church given in the document, the impression arises that the eagerly-quoted passages from Pope Francis’ widely-appreciated ‘legislative program’ are instrumentalised for the agenda of the preservationists”, Csiszar deplored.

Along with Csiszar, another figure from the Linz diocese, dean Slawomir Dadas, also criticised the Vatican document in the Oberösterreichische Nachrichten, describing as “absurd” how the instruction envisions cooperation between priests and laity.

The Vatican instruction “goes in the autocratic direction. If I work like this as a priest, people will run away from me”, Dadas decried.

The Linz diocese is presently preparing to merge its 487 parishes into 40.

Though the Vatican instruction contains warnings for that type of diocesan restructuring, Dadas promised that local Church authorities would push ahead with the mergers, “because the alternative is that we priests take over even more parishes, collapse in our health or cease to be priests because we no longer have time to celebrate Mass”.

On Novena, more reactions to the Vatican parish document:

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

“Living in a patriarchal bubble”: ‘We Are Church Ireland’ hits out at Vatican over new instruction on parish reform

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

“Last yelp of a dying religious dictatorship”: German laity hit out at new Vatican instruction on parish life

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

German dioceses accuse Vatican of harbouring “fear of the visibility of the laity” in new instruction on parish life


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