Germany’s Catholic Bishops Divided Over Vatican Instruction on Parishes

Amid an ongoing debate about the role of lay people in the German Church, the country’s bishops responded to the Vatican instruction with both praise and criticism.

Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki of Cologne.
Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki of Cologne. (photo: EWTN)

TRIER, Germany — A new Vatican instruction on parishes has received a mixed reception in Germany.

The document, released July 20 by the Congregation for Clergy, urged parishes worldwide to become centers of evangelization. It also emphasized that, according to canon law, only priests can direct the pastoral care of parishes.  

Amid an ongoing debate about the role of lay people in the German Church, the country’s bishops responded to the Vatican instruction with both praise and criticism. 

The bishops’ comments followed the Vatican’s decision in June to block the German Diocese of Trier’s plan to reduce the number of its parishes from 800 to 35.

Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki of Cologne said he was “grateful” for the Vatican instruction, reported CNA Deutsch, CNA’s German language news partner.

In a July 22 statement, Cardinal Woelki thanked Pope Francis for the “many suggestions for a missionary awakening of the Church.” 

He said: “At the same time it [the document] reminds us of the fundamental truths of our faith, which especially in Germany we may sometimes lose sight of when we are too preoccupied with ourselves. It is not we who ‘make’ the Church, and it is also not ‘our’ Church, but the Church of Jesus Christ. The Lord himself founded it and with it the sacraments and the ministerial priesthood.”

“Pope Francis puts things right here, but not as a reprimand or disciplinary measure, but as an encouragement to rely entirely on Christ to become a missionary Church again.”

But Bishop Franz-Josef Bode of Osnabrück, vice-president of the German bishops’ conference, described the instruction as a “strong brake on the motivation and appreciation of the services of lay people.” 

In a statement issued Wednesday, Bishop Bode said he feared that the text, entitled “The pastoral conversion of the parish community in the service of the evangelizing mission of the Church,” indicated a “conversion to clericalization.”

He said that the instruction had taken the bishops “completely by surprise,” expressing regret that Rome had not made “prior contact with the realities on the ground” or shown more consideration of the “much-invoked” concept of synodality.

“I fear that norms, however binding they may be, will not be effective if they are to a large extent long outdated by reality,” he said. 

He defended the introduction of new “leadership models” in his diocese, which expressly entail oversight of parishes by lay people. He noted that the instruction said that this was permissible only on a temporary, emergency basis, but added: “I am of the opinion that this need will exist permanently in many places in our country.”

He said: “Unfortunately, this instruction is such a strong brake on the motivation and appreciation of the ministries of lay people that I am very concerned about how we are to find new committed Christians under such conditions and how we can continue to accompany and support our pastoral workers well.”

He also defended the German Church’s controversial “Synodal Way,” which is bringing together lay people and bishops to discuss four main topics: the way power is exercised in the Church; sexual morality; the priesthood; and the role of women.

He said: “This makes our ‘Synodal Way’ in Germany all the more necessary, since it is precisely these ecclesiological questions that are at stake, the question of what a ‘Church of participation’ can look like, how priestly ministry is to be understood and to exist today, and how women and men shape the Church together. Only this synodal way can be an answer to this Roman challenge.”

Bishop Peter Kohlgraf of Mainz claimed that the instruction represented an “interference” in his episcopal ministry that he “could not quite accept so easily.”

In a statement on Wednesday, he said that instruction called into question plans to merge parishes in his diocese as part of a project known as the “Pastoral Way.”

From the beginning, he explained, the “Pastoral Way” was conceived as a “spiritual way.” 

“The central spiritual question is how the message of the Gospel can be lived and proclaimed under today’s conditions. This is not possible without looking well at the ‘signs of the times’ and interpreting them in the spirit of the Gospel,” he said.

He lamented that every merger would apparently require approval by the Vatican, which he said was likely to reject plans to appoint lay people to administer merged parishes.

“The administrative directors we are planning are probably not appropriate according to Roman ideas,” he said, expressing concern that priests in his diocese would be overburdened with bureaucracy.

A spokesperson for the German bishops’ conference said the Vatican instruction would be “studied carefully” and discussed at a forthcoming meeting. 

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