Bishops consult with each other © Harald Oppitz
German bishops met for the first time after surprise mail from Rome. They want to talk about the fiercely debated instruction on parish reforms soon in the Vatican – but not alone.
Even if it was not officially confirmed beforehand – of course the Vatican instruction on the topic of community reforms was the topic at the Permanent Council, the meeting of the 27 local Catholic bishops in Wurzburg on Monday. Especially since the bishops met for the first time since the surprise mail from Rome on 20. The initiative, which landed on desks in July, has since provoked strong reactions – from theologians, but also from many bishops.
What is striking here is that the conference president – almost the only one – has not taken a position so far. Limburg's Bishop Georg Batzing, in his role as moderator, first wanted to wait for the deliberations in Wurzburg. The result: Batzing will accept the offer of talks conveyed by the prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy, Cardinal Beniamino Stella. But he wants to travel to Rome not only with bishops, but also with lay people, whose involvement in parish governance is, after all, one of the crucial sticking points of the letter.
Specifically, Batzing wants to propose that the conversation be held with the presidium of the Synodal Way, "since bishops, priests, deacons and laity are all equally addressed in the Instruction". In addition to Batzing and his deputy, Osnabruck's Bishop Franz-Josef Bode, the presidium includes the president of the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK), Thomas Sternberg, and ZdK Vice President Karin Kortmann.
Unprecedented thematic focus
The reform dialogue Synodal Way, led by the Bishops' Conference and the ZdK, deals with the future of church life. Thematic focal points of the initiative, which has never existed in this form before, are sexual morality, the priestly way of life, power and the separation of powers, as well as the role of women in the church.
How will Rome react? Even the offer of talks was an unusual step. The Congregation for the Clergy will gladly receive the German bishops in order to remove their doubts and perplexity, Cardinal Stella had told the Catholic News Agency (KNA). But there was only talk of bishops. But can Vatican now reject proposal from Germany?
A look back at the reactions so far. Batzing's deputy Bode was among the first to criticize the letter: as a "strong brake on motivation and appreciation of the services of lay people". In addition, he had expected Rome to become better acquainted with the realities on the ground beforehand. If the Vatican largely excludes lay people from parish leadership – even as part of leadership teams – and emphasizes the role of priests in this way, it is a "reversal toward clericalization.".
Criticism of Rome's approach
Batzing's predecessor, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, criticized the style: "It's a bit strange when a document comes from Rome without ever being discussed with us."This is not the way the universal and particular churches are supposed to work together. The Instruction had sown mistrust and deepened rifts, leading to new divisions and tensions, he said.
The Bishop of Mainz, Peter Kohlgraf, emphasized that he is "worried about the many who are (still) committed. These could soon have "enough of it, if their commitment is only suspiciously eyed and evaluated from above."From the point of view of Ludwig Schick, Archbishop of Bamberg, the letter "does more harm than good. It is theologically deficient, neglects new developments and does not address the situation of the church on the ground.
The bishops of Trier and Essen, Stephan Ackermann and Franz-Josef Overbeck, also criticized the fact that the instruction says not a word about the abuse cases and clerical abuse of power. "How can a congregation responsible for the clergy draft a document in 2020 that does not even refer to it?", Ackermann asked.
In view of the shortage of priests, Overbeck also sees no alternative to the ongoing renewal processes: "What the document calls for cannot in fact be realized, because there are no longer any priests who would be needed in numbers alone to meet all the requirements."
Bishop Gerhard Feige of Magdeburg added that he would not let himself be paralyzed and blocked by the "restrictive orders, however, since much in them is quite far removed from reality". The paper also shows "no positive possible solutions in view of the even greater shortage of priests".
Several bishops emphasized that they wanted to stick to their planned reforms with intensive participation of the laity – for example Rottenburg's Bishop Gebhard Furst and Archbishops Stefan Hebe (Hamburg) and Stephan Burger (Freiburg), who said, "Of course I respect these guidelines from the Vatican. But we must also do justice to the developments and realities in our country."
Cardinal Woelki welcomes paper
In addition to the criticism, some of which was unusually clear, there were also other voices: Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki of Cologne was the first to praise the paper of the Congregation for the Clergy, of which, incidentally, he himself is the only German-speaking member. There are many suggestions for a missionary awakening of the Church: "At the same time, it reminds us of the basic truths of our faith, which we perhaps sometimes lose sight of, especially in Germany, when we are too preoccupied with ourselves."
Bishop Gregor Maria Hanke of Eichstatt praised the "many valuable impulses" for the missionary awakening. At the same time, he warned against seeing in the instruction "a struggle for roles in the church or now to try the loser-winner scheme."
The Bishop of Gorlitz, Wolfgang Ipolt, stressed that he could not read out a "sole rule" of the priest. The instruction obliges the latter to cooperate with the various bodies: "Whoever smells clericalism here, for whatever reason, has probably overlooked these indications." Passau's Bishop Stefan Oster warned against a false view of power and authority. Leading in a modern way means leading as a team. At the same time he praised the suggestions of the paper for a more missionary church.
Regensburg's Bishop Rudolf Voderholzer was one of the last to welcome the letter. That the final responsibility in a parish can only be given to the pastor is "a matter of course". The latter is, of course, dependent on good cooperation with the laity.
At the same time, he warned against disparaging the priestly profession. This will certainly not overcome the shortage of priests: "But if we again ask for and receive more priestly vocations from heaven, there will also be more priests in the many other pastoral professions … give more vocations again."The church is not a "quasi-democracy," Voderholzer added, and also rejected the establishment of large parishes.
And what happens now? The topic remains a "hot potato" – in the Vatican just as it will be at the beginning of September at the next round of the Synodal Way, and also at the Bishops' Plenary Assembly at the end of September in Fulda.