Bishop Stephan Ackermann on the sidelines of a demonstration against large parishes (archive) © Harald Oppitz (KNA)
The diocese of Trier wanted to put its church life on a new footing in view of current and future challenges. The Vatican has shown a stop sign to the plans – and set narrow limits with its latest instruction.
CBA: How do you evaluate the new Vatican document?
Bishop Stephan Ackermann (Diocese of Trier): The document emphasizes very strongly the priest, especially in the role of pastor. I am irritated that there is no trace of the topic of abuse and prevention. No awareness of the problem is expressed that parishes have been and can be places of sexual violence. How can a congregation responsible for the clergy draft a document in 2020 that does not even refer to it? Especially as the representative of the German Bishops' Conference for this question, this bothers me.
CBA: You were familiar with the broad outlines of the contents of the document after your talks in Rome. No surprises for you, then?
Ackermann: For us it came as less of a surprise than for other dioceses, but still raises many questions. In the document, statements stand unconnected next to each other. Some things clearly point to the future, for example, when it is said that the parish should not become rigid in its structures or should also reach people outside the parish. While reading it, I wondered what was understood of our realities and our difficulties that we presented in Rome. Several times there is talk of a creativity that is desired for the further development of parish life. That is good. But if you read on, you get the impression that there is little room for creativity. The tone of the document, especially in the second part, does not invite it. Rather, opportunities for change will be severely limited.
CBA: What does it mean?
Ackermann: The responsibility of God's people is emphasized – but how that is to be lived out beyond the familiar forms remains vague and is rather reduced in possibilities. The paper states that the church is also enriched by the progress of social life. For me, this includes our democratic culture and the position of women. So: for me there is a discrepancy between a thoroughly appealing vision of the parish as a place where the Gospel is lived out and the indications for its concrete realization.
Pope Francis emphasizes the importance of synodality and the local church. I do not see this concern in the Instruction. On the contrary, I see the personal responsibility of the diocese and the bishop limited. Of course I will remain in dialogue with Rome – but one must also name things clearly.
CBA: With the reform, the diocese and the diocesan synod have stood up for a new culture of church, for power sharing, a revaluation of women and against clericalism. Does the Instruction make this impossible??
Ackermann: It will not be impossible, but the Instruction sets noticeably narrower limits – even more clearly than our talks in Rome recently indicated. The document is very principled. On the other hand, I am confident that with Rome for the concrete situations also flexible solutions can be found. And we will certainly not go back to a standard of participation that has been in practice for a long time. We stay on track in the sense that we bring the concerns of the synod into a realization that is ecclesial. Nothing else we had in mind.
CBA: Power, sexuality and abuse are also at stake in the nationwide reform talks of the Catholic Church. In view of the new Vatican paper, how should the synodal journey continue??
Ackermann: We continue on the path we have begun. The Synodal Way, of course, cannot bypass the Instruction and certainly the document will influence the talks. But not in the sense that we don't have to think forward. I do not see the paper as the end of the line. Rather, it calls for even more intense conversations with Rome. And not only on the part of the diocese of Trier, but together with other dioceses in Germany, which are facing the same challenges as we are.
The interview was conducted by Anna Fries.