The recent Vatican document on parishes, released by the Congregation for the Clergy, is altogether sensible. It challenges the status quo in a number of ways. The most important part of the document is titled “How to proceed with the establishment of Parish groupings.” The Vatican makes it clear that sweeping acts of diocesan-wide “land consolidation” (what the Germans call Flurbereinigung) are not permitted. The bishops cannot decree that parish boundaries in their dioceses be cumulatively redrawn according to what the bishop and his curia believe is generally proper and expeditious. According to the Vatican, parishes have individual dignity and cannot just be treated as organizational units; the same applies to the sacred space of consecrated church buildings. With this instruction, the pope, through the Congregation for the Clergy, openly restricts the power of bishops by establishing both procedural and substantive norms.
In Germany, many bishops are claiming that “the base” is unhappy with this document. But there is no outcry from the base against it. Catholic parishioners around the globe do not like it when their parishes are closed or otherwise amalgamated. They care much less, however, about whether diocesan boundaries are changed. In this case, the pope is coming to the aid of parish communities and priests who in many places feel that their parishes are at the mercy of the latest diocesan restructuring fantasies. No more. Did we really think it was a good idea to reduce the number of parishes from 887 to 35 in one great modernizing move (as had been planned in the diocese of Trier, the oldest in Germany)?
The German bishops claiming that “the base” is disappointed with Pope Francis are actually not speaking about regular parishioners. They are speaking about their own lay employees, about that significant portion of the German clergy that no longer knows what they are, and about members of church councils and theology professors who have made it their profession to dislike Roman instructions and Catholic tradition in general. These elites think of themselves as “the base.” The theological preferences of Germany’s ecclesiastical elite have been questionable for a long time. The current coronavirus crisis reveals this with new clarity: Alienated from expressions of popular piety and traditional practices, they are incapable of saying anything theologically meaningful about what is happening.
The New Testament teaches us that priests and bishops in the Church are to exercise leadership. In the early Church, teaching was often assigned to other, more charismatic offices, like those of apostle and prophet. Many German bishops seem to believe the time has come to improve on the biblical message: They hold that parish governance is no longer the purview of the priest but that parishes can be governed, equally well and legitimately, by laypeople; that sacramental ordination needs to be redefined, or even overcome; and that a more functional, technocratic, and participatory model of church governance needs to be developed (not that it has borne much fruit anywhere else).
In addition to forbidding parishes from being closed for the sake of grand diocesan strategies, the Vatican document states that each parish should have its own priest as proper pastor. Being the pastor of an identifiable group of the faithful is what the ministry of priests is mainly about (and it is much the same for bishops). This is what the sacrament of Holy Orders is about; this is part of the gospel that parishes, and the whole Church, are called to live by and spread. The Vatican document also encourages parishes to be courageous and creative in how they move forward and transform themselves into missionary agencies. That is an excellent project.
Unfortunately, the Germans are often not interested in reviewing their own approaches but prefer (and demand from Rome) that ecclesial guidelines be adapted so they better fit with what the Germans want. The whole Synodal Way is an embrace of this doctrine of accommodation: Under the vague motto of updating the faith in today’s culture and in the lives of people, the German church leadership is engaged in eliminating from Scripture and Tradition those things that many have a hard time accepting today. Many, as one of the not-so-trendy bishops puts it, seem to want “another faith and another Church.” The mission of ordained priests in the Church is but one area in which this is supposed to happen. Instead of old-fashioned hierarchy, the German bishops seem to wish the mechanisms of liberal democracy to be introduced into how the Church is governed: participation instead of obedience to revelation, and anything that distinguishes clergy and laity branded as clericalism.
But now the Germans are disappointed; they believe they know better. In this document, Pope Francis has taken a clear stand for supporting existing parishes against diocesan planning orgies, and a clear stand against changing or abolishing the role of pastor—although he is rightly in favor of reimagining how the role of pastor is to be exercised in a world that needs evangelization. It is ironic how the German bishops incessantly demand “more synodality” while they preside over some of the most centralized dioceses in the world; it is the dioceses that have all the church tax money—it is a top-down system.
Today, we need to rediscover and relearn the art of leadership when it comes to how priests exercise their pastoral role. Regardless of what many German bishops seem to think, priests today must not lead less, but more. And they must be better trained for it. This is what “the base” truly appreciates. The future success of evangelistic efforts will depend on little else. And yes, parish leadership will have to look different than it looked in the nineteenth century. It will be more demanding. But parish leadership is more necessary today than it was during the era of Christendom, which is now ending.
The German bishops criticize a Vatican document that contains nothing outrageous, and that comes from a Congregation entirely reformed and with a leadership deeply in sync with Pope Francis. The bishops’ criticism reveals that all their alleged loyalty to the pope is shallow. Some of them are trying to introduce a sharp division between what the Congregation wrote and what the pope really wants. This is either naïve or devious, and I am not sure which would be worse. It is certainly naïve not to realize that the hierarchical nature and structure of the Church are exactly what she needs in her evangelistic mission: This is how Christ has designed it. And it is equally naïve not to recognize that only with pastors’ commitment to excellent leadership will the evangelistic mission of the Church bear fruit.
Msgr. Hans Feichtinger is the pastor of St. George’s Parish and St. Albertus’s Parish in Ottawa.
First Things depends on its subscribers and supporters. Join the conversation and make a contribution today.
Click here to make a donation.
Click here to subscribe to First Things.