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24. August 2021 | Authority and responsibility - Theses on the Reform of the Church

Prof. Dr. Marianne Schlosser, Alina Oehler, Weihbischof Florian Wörner, Stadtdechant Dr. Wolfgang Picken |


I. The Challenge

The Catholic Church is losing massive importance and attractiveness in Germany. In 2019 more than 270,000 people left. Nowhere is the decrease more evident than in the sacraments. Even before the outbreak of the Corona pandemic, the number of people attending Mass nationwide was only around 9%. About 40,000 of the faithful were married in 2019, compared to more than 60,000 in 2000.[1] The number of new priests has also plummeted in recent years, with the number of new ordinations dropping by more than 60 percent in the last 20 years.[2]

These are figures that must shock. If the development continues at this pace, then the church as we have known her in this country up to now will be on the verge of extinction in a few decades. The retreat of the faithful raises questions: What drove people away? What is keeping them away? How can the gospel reach and inspire them?

One factor causing the decline is the loss of trust in the church as an institution. The abuse scandals were the reason for many people to leave. The Synodal Way commences here. It was started in no small part with the goal of finding out the causes of the abuse crisis and the church's failure to deal with it, as well as to initiate necessary improvements.

The church must take this issue very seriously and address the pressing questions. But she can do so only on the basis of what, according to the Catholic faith, constitutes her essence. Situations of crisis call all members of the Church to rediscover what she is from Christ and to become more what he wants her to be.

The goal must be to make it clear again to the outside world that, despite all human fallibilities, God can be found in the Church; who wants the good for all people; who became man in his Son Jesus Christ and turned to mankind to the point of death on the cross; who rose from the dead and promised eternal life; whose love is encountered and heals in the sacraments.

In order to achieve this goal, the handling of official authority in the church must be reconsidered and possibilities for deeper participation of all the baptized within the framework of ecclesiastical synodality must be identified. We want to outline concrete, precise steps for reforms that can be implemented in fidelity to the faith of the church and in accordance with her juridical order but which also show that inquiries made to the church from society are taken seriously.

We must not take our eyes off the Lord while looking at the structures. "Without new life and an authentic evangelical spirit, without the Church’s ‘fidelity to her own calling’, any new structure will soon prove ineffective",[3] Pope Francis writes.But at the same time, structural renewal is called for in the face of visible flaws. Where there are flaws, they must be improved. Where there are blind spots that have encouraged abuse, they must be named and corrected. Where participation corresponds to the nature of the church community, it must be made possible, without fuss or quibble.

This is the only way that the Good News can shine again and that every baptized person will be happy to be an "agent of evangelization".[4] Only in this way can clergy and laity, each in their own mission, work in the world as "apostles of his love" (St. Vincent Pallotti).

To this end, the following text is committed.



II. Authority and Sacramental Ministry in the Church

The starting point: the nature and mission of the Church

1 What is the Church? Much depends on this simple question. The what-question is the question about the essence. Its answer determines how one looks at the church: at the necessity and purpose of her existence, at her ministries and structures – as well as on guilt and failure in the church, in the wake of which discussions about the justification, distribution and exercise of church power have become inevitable.

2 If one wants to know what the Church is, one must know where she comes from. "The mystery of the holy Church is manifest in its very foundation", teaches the Second Vatican Council (LG 5). The catechism of the Catholic Church specifies this principle in the statement that the Church has "her origin in the Holy Trinity's plan" (CCC 758).

The Church as understood by the Second Vatican Council is more than one of many institutional bodies within society. It emerges from the inner life of God himself, who communicates himself as triune out of love into the created world. The Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, develops this idea already in its first paragraphs (cf. LG 2-4). God the Father wanted all people to share in the fullness of divine life. In order to complete the plan of his love which begins with creation, he turns to mankind, chooses a people and makes a covenant with them. Through his Word and Spirit, he is at work in the history of mankind from the beginning, in a special way in the history of the people of Israel. The climax of God's self-communication is the visible mission of his eternal Word, who comes into the world as a human being. The invisible mission of the Holy Spirit moves people to open their hearts to this Word. The Spirit enables them to become children of God in faith, hope and love in the Son Jesus Christ. He brings together those scattered in the world as members of a single spiritual body. This body, whose head is Christ and whose soul is the Holy Spirit, is the Church. In it, all people are to be united under the kingship of God and led on the path of perfection into his eternal kingdom.

Jesus himself, at the hour of his Passion, prayed "that they may all be one" (Jn 17:21). […] God wills the Church, because he wills unity, and unity is an expression of the whole depth of his agape. In effect, this unity bestowed by the Holy Spirit does not merely consist in the gathering of people as a collection of individuals. It is a unity constituted by the bonds of the profession of faith, the sacraments and hierarchical communion.10 The faithful are one because, in the Spirit, they are in communion with the Son and, in him, share in his communion with the Father: "Our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ" (1 Jn 1:3). For the Catholic Church, then, thecommunion of Christians is none other than the manifestation in them of the grace by which God makes them sharers in his own communion, which is his eternal life. Christ's words "that they may be one" are thus his prayer to the Father that the Father's plan may be fully accomplished, in such a way that everyone may clearly see "what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things" (Eph 3:9). To believe in Christ means to desire unity; to desire unity means to desire the Church; to desire the Church means to desire the communion of grace which corresponds to the Father's plan from all eternity.

John Paul II, Encyclical Letter Ut unum sint (25.02.1995) n.9

If God is a dialogical unity, a being in relation, the human creature made in his image and likeness reflects this constitution: thus he is called to fulfil himself in dialogue, in conversation, in encounter. In particular, Jesus has revealed to us that man is essentially a "son", a creature who lives in the relationship with God the Father, and in this way in relationship with all his brothers and sisters. Man is not fulfilled in an absolute autonomy, deceiving himself that he is God but, on the contrary, by recognizing himself as a child, an open creature, reaching out to God and to his brethren in whose faces he discovers the image of their common Father.  (…)

In a society fraught between globalization and individualism, the Church is called to offer a witness of koinonìa, of communion. This reality does not come "from below" but is a mystery which, so to speak, "has its roots in Heaven", in the Triune God himself. It is he, in himself, who is the eternal dialogue of love which was communicated to us in Jesus Christ and woven into the fabric of humanity and history to lead it to fullness. And here then is the great synthesis of the Second Vatican Council: the Church, mystery of communion, "in Christ is in the nature of sacrament - a sign and instrument, that is, of communion with God and of unity among all men" (Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium, n. 1).

Benedict XVI., Homily (Pastoral Visit to Savona and Genoa, Eucharistic Concelebration 18.05.2008).

Christ, sacrament of God in the world

3 Because the incarnation of the Son is at the center of the Trinitarian God's attention to the world, the mystery of the Church is to be understood in a special way from the mystery of Jesus Christ. Following a motif deeply rooted in the Greek theology of the fathers which Thomas Aquinas continued in the Middle Ages, the incarnate Christ has been called the sacrament of God in the world in theology since the 19th century. Sacraments are visible and effective signs (real symbols) of a spiritual reality. Thus the man Jesus of Nazareth is an icon of the invisible God in the world, a realizing sign of the divine will of salvation in history. In the human words and deeds of Jesus, the hidden God speaks to human beings, makes himself bodily touchable for them, offers them his closeness and communion. The life that the incarnated Son leads in deepest union with his heavenly Father and that culminates in his self-giving on the cross is an expression of God's boundless love and opening up of his innermost being.

"No one has ever seen God," writes St. John, in order to stress the truth that "the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known."10 This "making known" reveals God in the most profound mystery of His being, one and three, surrounded by "unapproachable light."11 Nevertheless, through this "making known" by Christ we know God above all in His relationship of love for man: in His "philanthropy."12 It is precisely here that "His invisible nature" becomes in a special way "visible," incomparably more visible than through all the other "things that have been made": it becomes visible in Christ and through Christ, through His actions and His words, and finally through His death on the cross and His resurrection.

John Paul II., Encyclical Letter Dives in misericordia (30.11.1980) n.2

The real novelty of the New Testament lies not so much in new ideas as in the figure of Christ himself, who gives flesh and blood to those concepts—an unprecedented realism. In the Old Testament, the novelty of the Bible did not consist merely in abstract notions but in God's unpredictable and in some sense unprecedented activity. This divine activity now takes on dramatic form when, in Jesus Christ, it is God himself who goes in search of the “stray sheep”, a suffering and lost humanity. When Jesus speaks in his parables of the shepherd who goes after the lost sheep, of the woman who looks for the lost coin, of the father who goes to meet and embrace his prodigal son, these are no mere words: they constitute an explanation of his very being and activity. His death on the Cross is the culmination of that turning of God against himself in which he gives himself in order to raise man up and save him. This is love in its most radical form. By contemplating the pierced side of Christ (cf. 19:37), we can understand the starting-point of this Encyclical Letter: “God is love” (1 Jn 4:8).

Benedict XVI., Encyclical Letter Deus caritas est (25.12.2005) n.12

The sacramental reality of the Church in Christ

4. In communion with Jesus Christ in faith and love, people become children of God in a new sense, as sisters and brothers of the eternal Son of the Father. Thus Christ gathers the family of God, makes repentance and forgiveness of sins possible, and directs people toward a goal in their lives that they could never reach by their own efforts. Through the death and resurrection of Jesus and the sending of the paschal Spirit, this gathering movement gains universal form: the People of God of the Old Covenant is opened into the new People of God, the Church of Jews and Gentiles.

Because “the Church is the continuation of the Body of Christ in history”,[5] it participates in the sacramental being of the incarnate Son. All that she possesses, she receives from Christ - that is why she has been compared to the moon, which does not shine by itself, but receives its light entirely from the sun. "In Christ," the Council teaches, "the Church is like a sacrament or as a sign and instrument both of a very closely knit union with God and of the unity of the whole human race" (LG 1). This means that the Church makes visible to the world how individuals from all peoples and nations are united to the Father through Christ in the Holy Spirit and thereby also to one another in a unique way. At the same time, she is a living instrument for the realization of this double unity for all who want to join her.

"For this reason, by no weak analogy", the church "is compared to the mystery of the incarnate Word": "As the assumed nature inseparably united to Him, serves the divine Word as a living organ of salvation, the visible social structure of the Church serves the Spirit of Christ, who vivifies it in the building up of the body (cf. Eph 4:16)." (LG 8).

While emphasizing the analogy between Christ and the Church, the Council here at the same time points out the difference between the sacramentality of the Church and the sacramentality of Christ. The human nature of Jesus is irrevocably incorporated into the person of the divine Son. Through its union with the Godhead, it is sanctified and preserved from all sin. It is at every moment a pure medium of the divine activity in the world. The same does not apply to the human reality of the Church. It is true that to the Church, through the action of the Spirit, objective holiness and even indestructibility are promised, so that through the proclamation of the Word, the celebration of the sacraments and the pastoral ministry, she can make present and continue the action of Christ in the world. However, the members of the Church are human beings who carry the treasure of God's grace "in fragile vessels" (cf. 2 Cor 4:7) and remain free to refuse their vocation and mission. Therefore, the sin of the baptized in its individual as well as structural dimension can darken the sacramental mission of the Church in a significant way and even make it doubtful in the eyes of many people. It can place the real shape of the church in an almost unbearable tension with its inner nature.

The theology of all centuries hovers in its statements about the "immaculate" and at the same time "disfigured" Church between these two poles, the final mediation of which, as Augustine already knew, remains the object of eschatological hope.[6] But wherever Catholics have denounced the "adulterous" depravity of the Church in sometimes sharp words, the simultaneous reality of her sanctification in Christ has never been questioned. "It is not in herself but in us that the Church is wounded. Let us beware, then, lest our lapse become the wound of the Church," wrote St. Ambrose (De Virginitate c. 8, n. 48).

One can conclude from this that what is true for all individual sacraments is true for the sacramental Church: her objective spiritual power (the efficacy ex opere operato) is guaranteed by Christ himself and never owes itself to human opinion in the process of presentation and interpretation of the sacred sign; consequently, it cannot be destroyed by human fault. But the "fruitful" arrival of the signified reality in those to whom it is addressed (the efficacy ex opere operantis) can be seriously affected by the misconduct of human beings in the sacramental communication event. Catherine of Siena expressed this in an image: the gift of grace, which cannot be affected by men but is delivered by men, could be despised if the bearer were disgustingly dirty (Dialogo 120.122). When administrators of the sacraments give cause for offense by acting culpably, they not only make the Christ-representation of the ordained ministry untrustworthy, but even become an obstacle for others in their encounter with God in the sacraments they administer. This aspect is justly mentioned in descriptions of the current church crisis.

By its union with Christ, the People of the New Covenant, far from closing in upon itself, becomes a “sacrament” for humanity,39 a sign and instrument of the salvation achieved by Christ, the light of the world and the salt of the earth (cf. Mt 5:13-16), for the redemption of all.40 The Church's mission stands in continuity with the mission of Christ: “As the Father has sent me, even so I send you” (Jn 20:21). From the perpetuation of the sacrifice of the Cross and her communion with the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist, the Church draws the spiritual power needed to carry out her mission.

John Paul II., Encyclical Letter Ecclesia de Eucharistia (17.04.2003) n.22

Many people see only the outward form of the Church. This makes the Church appear as merely one of the many organizations within a democratic society, whose criteria and laws are then applied to the task of evaluating and dealing with such a complex entity as the “Church”. If to this is added the sad experience that the Church contains both good and bad fish, wheat and darnel, and if only these negative aspects are taken into account, then the great and beautiful mystery of the Church is no longer seen.

It follows that belonging to this vine, the “Church”, is no longer a source of joy. Dissatisfaction and discontent begin to spread, when people’s superficial and mistaken notions of “Church”, their “dream Church”, fail to materialize! Then we no longer hear the glad song “Thanks be to God who in his grace has called me into his Church” that generations of Catholics have sung with conviction. […]

“Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me ... for apart from me [i.e. separated from me, or outside me] you can do nothing” (Jn 15:4f.). Every one of us is faced with this choice. The Lord reminds us how much is at stake as he continues his parable: “If a man does not abide in me, he is cast forth as a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire and burned” (Jn 15:6). In his commentary on this text, Saint Augustine says: “The branch is suitable only for one of two things, either the vine or the fire: if it is not in the vine, its place will be in the fire; and that it may escape the latter, may it have its place in the vine” (In Ioan. Ev. Tract. 81:3 [PL 35, 1842]).

Benedict XVI., Homily in Berlin during the Apostolic Journey to Germany (22.09.2011)

Official empowerment of persons in the church

5 In all this, it remains true that, insofar as the Church is primarily a sacramental reality through and in Christ, the human, visible, institutional aspects cannot be separated from the divine, invisible, spiritual aspects. These two dimensions form one complex reality which coalesces from a divine and a human element" (LG 8). It is also the basic principle for a theological understanding of the ecclesiastical ministry.

Even before Easter, Jesus involves people in his sacramental ministry. Whoever enters into the discipleship of Jesus receives a share in his being and in his mission. In a solemn act at the beginning of his public ministry, Jesus "creates" twelve men "so that they may be with him and that he may send them forth to proclaim and to cast out demons with authority" (cf. Mc 3:14s.). They stand for the eschatological renewal of the twelve tribes of Israel chosen by God. After Easter, the risen Lord, invoking his universal authority, sends the apostles again to proclaim the Gospel to people all over the world, to make them his disciples and to baptize them in the name of the Triune God. For this work he promises them his constant presence (cf. Mt 28:18-20).

6 It is part of the Catholic faith that Christ's appointment of the apostles established a permanent spiritual ministry in the Church, which is sacramentally mediated through the imposition of hands and prayer. This ministry represents, on the one hand, the victorious risen Christ and his activity as the exalted Lord of the Church: "By the greatness of His power He rules the things in Heaven and the things on earth and with His all-surpassing perfection and way of acting He fills the whole body with the riches of His glory (cf. Eph 1:18-23). " (LG 7)

On the other hand, the specific form in which the Presentation of Christ must take place in the Church's earthly journey remains that which the Lord Himself gave in His earthly life as the form of discipleship: participation in His proexistence, in His unconditional commitment to God and to men, and in His loving self-emptying even unto death (cf. Mk 9:35; Mk 10:42-44). "The one sent is not greater than the one who sent him" (Jn 13:16), Christ tells the disciples after symbolically summarizing the program of his life in the washing of the feet. The Gospel pretends that authority in the Church is given solely for the sake of disinterested service, and that greater accountability is required of the one called into service for this purpose. This is a high ideal with which the apostles (beginning with Peter) already struggled and which must at all times challenge the Church.

The mission entrusted by Jesus to the Apostles is to last until the end of time (cf. Mt 28:20), since the Gospel which they have been charged to hand down is the life of the Church in every age. It was precisely for this reason that the Apostles were concerned to appoint for themselves successors […]. The special outpouring of the Holy Spirit with which the Risen Lord filled the Apostles (cf. Acts 1:5; 8; 2:4; Jn 20:22-23) was shared by them through the gesture of laying hands upon their co-workers (cf. 1 Tim 4:14; 2 Tim 1:6-7). These in turn transmitted it by the same gesture to others, and these to others still. In this way, the spiritual gift given in the beginning has come down to our own day through the imposition of hands, in other words, by episcopal consecration, which confers the fullness of the sacrament of Orders, the high priesthood and the totality of the sacred ministry. Thus, through the Bishops and the priests, their co-workers, the Lord Jesus Christ, seated at the right hand of God the Father, remains present in the midst of believers. In every time and place it is he who proclaims the word of God to all peoples, administers the sacraments of faith to believers and guides the people of the New Testament on their pilgrimage to eternal happiness. The Good Shepherd does not abandon his flock but preserves and protects it always through those who, by their ontological share in his life and mission, carry out in an eminent and visible way the role of teacher, shepherd and priest, who act in his name in exercising the functions associated with the pastoral ministry, and who are constituted his vicars and ambassadors.

John Paul II., Post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation Pastores Gregis (16.10.2003) n.6


“Sanctify them in the truth”: this is the inclusion of the Apostles in the priesthood of Jesus Christ, the institution of his new priesthood for the community of the faithful of all times. “Sanctify them in truth”: this is the true prayer of consecration for the Apostles. The Lord prays that God himself draw them towards him, into his holiness. He prays that God take them away from themselves to make them his own property, so that, starting from him, they can carry out the priestly ministry for the world. (…)

Did not Christ say of himself: “I am the truth” (cf. Jn 14:6)? Is he not himself the living Word of God, to which every other word refers? Sanctify them in the truth – this means, then, in the deepest sense: make them one with me, Christ. Bind them to me. Draw them into me. Indeed, when all is said and done, there is only one priest of the New Covenant, Jesus Christ himself. Consequently, the priesthood of the disciples can only be a participation in the priesthood of Jesus. Our being priests is simply a new and radical way of being united to Christ. In its substance, it has been bestowed on us for ever in the sacrament. But this new seal imprinted upon our being can become for us a condemnation, if our lives do not develop by entering into the truth of the Sacrament.

Benedict XVI., Chrism Mass 09.04.2009, Homily.

The Sacramental Ministry of Bishops, Presbyters and Deacons

7 The specific form of the sacramental ministry in the three stages of bishop, presbyter and deacon developed rapidly in the early post-apostolic period. It was the Spirit of the Risen Lord - this is the judgment from the perspective of faith - who also in this respect introduced his Church into all truth (cf. Jn 16:13). Just as the Church as a whole, in the power of the Pentecostal Spirit of God, sacramentally continues the work of her incarnate Lord, so also the office of leadership in the Church possesses sacramental form: it is an operative sign of the abiding presence of Christ, the Head, in his Church. In this way, the ordained ministry makes visible that the Church is not self-grounded and self-sufficient, but remains at all times referred to the anticipatory, constitutive action of her Lord.

The sacramentality of the Church and her apostolic ministry is not primarily a "program" to be (more or less convincingly) implemented by human beings, but a characteristic inscribed in the Church by Christ himself. The pneumatic participation in the mission of Jesus through inclusion in his threefold mission of teaching, leading and sanctifying, given to the Church as a whole and to the faithful in her (cf. LG 31), is realized through the sacramental ministry in a special way, namely as pastoral ministry to all the baptized in the person of Christ, the head of the Church.

Thus, as the Constitution on the Church of the Second Vatican Council already makes clear by its structure, the common election and dignity of the whole People of God is admittedly the foundation of the ecclesial mission (cf. LG 9-12): the gift of sonship to God, the vocation to holiness in following Christ, and the manifold giftedness by God's Spirit to participate in the apostolate of the Church precede, both temporally and factually, any official empowerment through ordination. However, although the official ministry entrusted to bishops, priests and deacons always involves action on behalf of the Church and in this respect can be seen as a concretization of the common baptismal and confirmation charisms, it is not exhausted therein. It is not merely the result of congregational delegation or functional differentiation within the social history of a religious institution. Christ himself also empowers people to act in his person through sacramental ordination. The church is presided over by pastors who are enabled to do so through sacramental ordination (LG 11), which confers "sacred power" (LG 18); and who are endowed with their own ministerial charism.

8 In the first place, according to Catholic understanding, the bishops are called to the sacramental office of pastor in the Church. Thus, in today's prayer for the ordination of bishops (a text already known at the beginning of the 3rd century), the same "governing Spirit” is invoked upon the person to be ordained that Christ “bestowed upon the holy Apostles". The bishops have "by divine institution … succeeded to the place of the apostles, as shepherds of the Church" (LG 20) and exercise a ministry established by the Lord for perpetual continuance "even to the consummation of the world" (LG 18). The bishop is "appointed to feed the Church in Christ's name with the word and the grace of God" (LG 11). He is "marked with the fullness of the sacrament of Orders" (LG 26); the pastoral office in the Church is entrusted to him "completely" (LG 27).

In the exercise of his pastoral and presidential mission, the bishop continues the threefold ministry of Christ: "as teachers for doctrine, priests for sacred worship and ministers for governing" (LG 20). Just as in Christ the aspects of the threefold ministry (munus triplex) interpenetrate each other undividedly, so also the integral Christ-representation of the bishop unites all three dimensions (cf. LG 21; CD 2). Linked to his office is, as from Christ, the concern for the unity and identity of the Church, in which the faithful are united by the “profession of faith, the sacraments, and ecclesiastical government and communion" (LG 14).

It follows not only that the bishops, in both a synchronic and diachronic perspective, have an indispensable function for the intact and living preservation of the Gospel (cf. DV 7), which distinguishes them from other instances in the fabric of the Church's active tradition and for which they receive "the sure gift of truth" (DV 8). It is also clear that separation of powers in the modern sense is not compatible with monepiscopal church government.

The episcopate, however, knows another limitation, which results from the collegial integration of the individual bishop into the universal episcopate and the intertwining of the episcopally governed particular Church with the universal Church, the unity of which is entrusted to the special care of the Petrine ministry. Thus, although the power of ordination conferred by Christ is proper to the bishop as his "proper, ordinary and immediate" power; nevertheless, "its exercise is ultimately regulated by the supreme authority of the Church, and can be circumscribed by certain limits, for the advantage of the Church or of the faithful " (LG 27). The legitimate exercise of pastoral authority takes place only "in hierarchical communion with the head and members of the college" into which the individual bishop is incorporated qua ordination. In addition to sacramental ordination, the assignment of a canonical mission remains indispensable for him, which is carried out by the Pope, who thereby represents the primacy of Peter in the Circle of the Twelve. As the Nota praevia to Lumen gentium emphasizes, the "participation in the sacred offices" received qua ordination must be juridically "determined" so that it becomes true authority, in which the bishop then functions for his diocese as legislator, judge, and person responsible for liturgical and apostolic operations. In this way the Church is "governed by the successor of Peter and by the Bishops in communion with him" (LG 8).

9 The other sacramentally ordained persons, presbyters and deacons, take part in the pastoral ministry of the Church as "assistants" and "fellow workers" of the bishops (cf. LG 20) in differentiated form. To them, too, the "the ministry of the Word and the sacraments is entrusted in a special way" (AA 6), always exercising it in close union with the bishop. Like the bishop, presbyters "are consecrated to preach the Gospel and shepherd the faithful and to celebrate divine worship" (LG 28). In their ordination they are also given an indelible imprint, so that they assume their spiritual ministry in the form of a lifelong mission involving their whole existence. "The ministry they receive from your hand, O God, the participation in the priestly ministry, be their portion forever," prays the bishop in the prayer of ordination at the ordination of the presbyters. As "true priests of the New Testament" (LG 28), presbyters receive their permanent sacramental empowerment from Christ and not, for example, from the bishop, who does not ordain priests on his own authority but only as a servant of God.[7]

The center of the "sacred ministry" of presbyters is the celebration of the Eucharist, "by which acting in the person of Christ and proclaiming His Mystery they unite the prayers of the faithful with the sacrifice of their Head and renew and apply in the sacrifice of the Mass ... the only sacrifice of the New Testament ..." (LG 28). Pope Francis recently recalled this center of priestly ministry: " The priest is a sign of that head [sc. Christ] and wellspring of grace above all when he celebrates the Eucharist, the source and summit of the entire Christian life. That is his great power, a power that can only be received in the sacrament of Holy Orders."[8] For this reason, Vatican II teaches an essential, not merely gradual distinction between the particular priesthood of service and the common priesthood of all the baptized (LG 10).

In the Church and on behalf of the Church, priests are a sacramental representation of Jesus Christ - the head and shepherd - authoritatively proclaiming his word, repeating his acts of forgiveness and his offer of salvation - particularly in baptism, penance and the Eucharist, showing his loving concern to the point of a total gift of self for the flock, which they gather into unity and lead to the Father through Christ and in the Spirit. In a word, priests exist and act in order to proclaim the Gospel to the world and to build up the Church in the name and person of Christ the head and shepherd. This is the ordinary and proper way in which ordained ministers share in the one priesthood of Christ. By the sacramental anointing of holy orders, the Holy Spirit configures them in a new and special way to Jesus Christ the head and shepherd; he forms and strengthens them with his pastoral charity; and he gives them an authoritative role in the Church as servants of the proclamation of the Gospel to every people and of the fullness of Christian life of all the baptized.

John Paul II., Post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation Pastores dabo vobis (25.03.1992) n.15

As a service to the unity of faith and its integral transmission, the Lord gave his Church the gift of apostolic succession. Through this means, the continuity of the Church’s memory is ensured and certain access can be had to the wellspring from which faith flows. The assurance of continuity with the origins is thus given by living persons, in a way consonant with the living faith which the Church is called to transmit. She depends on the fidelity of witnesses chosen by the Lord for this task. For this reason, the magisterium always speaks in obedience to the prior word on which faith is based; it is reliable because of its trust in the word which it hears, preserves and expounds (DV n.10). In Saint Paul’s farewell discourse to the elders of Ephesus at Miletus, which Saint Luke recounts for us in the Acts of the Apostles, he testifies that he had carried out the task which the Lord had entrusted to him of "declaring the whole counsel of God" (Acts 20:27). Thanks to the Church’s magisterium, this counsel can come to us in its integrity, and with it the joy of being able to follow it fully.

Francis, Encyclical Letter Lumen fidei (29.06.2013) n.49 

The different vocations in the one ecclesial mission

10 Consequently although the Council clearly affirmed the indispensability and autonomous sacramental foundation of the pastoral office and can therefore call the Church a "society structured with hierarchical organs" (LG 8; cf. LG 20), it also emphasized in several respects the reference of the office to the totality of the People of God. Hence, the ecclesiastical hierarchy is obliged to appreciate and promote the various charisms, whose evaluation and integration into the unity of the ecclesial community is at the same time commissioned to it (cf. AA 3). Underlying these definitions of relationships is the conviction of the common call of all the baptized to holiness, which encourages and obliges them to understand their manifold charisms as the richness of the Church and to recognize them as the basis for the participation of all in the common ecclesial mission.[9]

The explicit recognition of the growing sense of responsibility of the laity in the Church (cf. AA 1) and their independent vocation to the apostolate through Baptism and Confirmation (LG 33) is linked to the exhortation: "Let the spiritual shepherds recognize and promote the dignity as well as the responsibility of the laity in the Church. Let them willingly employ their prudent advice. Let them confidently assign duties to them in the service of the Church, allowing them freedom and room for action. Further, let them encourage lay people so that they may undertake tasks on their own initiative" (LG 37; cf. PO 9; CD 6; AA 24). The ordained ministry is not an end in itself, but a service to the salvation of all the members of the Church (cf. LG 18). It is not set up "to take upon itself alone the entire saving mission of the Church toward the world" (LG 30), but must fulfill this task together with the whole People of God. Therefore, "in the Church there is diversity of ministry but a oneness of mission" (AA 2; cf. LG 13). Envy or competition should not characterize the relationship between pastoral ministry and lay apostolate but both are destined to cooperate with trust (cf. LG 37), to complement one another (cf. AA 6) and to witness together to the action of the one Spirit of God (cf. LG 32). Also in the hierarchical Church it is true that " the bonds which unite the faithful are mightier than anything dividing them" (GS 92).

11. The Council explicitly teaches that lay people, beyond their proper apostolate, which has its center "in the world" (cf. AA 2), "can ... be called in various ways to a more direct form of cooperation with the apostolate of the Hierarchy" (LG 33), following the example of those women and men who already assisted the apostles in their ministry. "Further, they have the capacity to assume from the hierarchy certain ecclesiastical functions, which are to be performed for a spiritual purpose" (ibid.). These fundamental directives of the council allow different concretizations for the involvement of lay people in pastoral care which in the decades after the Council have already come to fruition - with regionally varying emphases - in a broad field and will allow further developments in the future. In them, a wide variety of charisms, including those of spiritual teaching, leadership and accompaniment of other Christians, can find recognition.

Post-conciliar canon law does not recognize a general binding of church offices (officia) to a sacred ordination (cf. CIC 1983, can. 145). On this basis, in many parts of the universal Church the appointment of lay people, women as well as men, to pastoral and liturgical ministries, various offices of ecclesiastical administration and jurisdiction (below the level of vicar general or officiant and their deputies), or to theological research and teaching has long been a self-evident fact. Elected councils and bodies support pastoral work at the various ecclesial levels of parishes, deaneries, dioceses and national episcopal conferences. They are an expression of the fact "that synodality is an essential dimension of the Church. Through synodality, the Church reveals and configures herself as the pilgrim People of God and as the assembly convoked by the risen Lord".[10]

12. However, the question arises anew in the present time in which areas of ecclesiastical leadership functions the connection between jurisdiction and ordained authority may not be abandoned, because it concerns in a special way a pastoral ministry which is connected with sacramental representation of Christ and therefore arises from the integral unity of teaching, leadership and sanctification. Thus, even in current canon law, offices dedicated to pastoral care in the full sense are explicitly linked to priestly ordination (cf. CIC 1983, can. 150).

With regard to the office of diocesan bishops, it is undisputed today that the separation of jurisdiction and ordination practiced in many places for centuries was a grave grievance that must not be repeated. Today, on the other hand, it is not uncommon to hear the demand that lay people be formally entrusted with the leadership of parishes and therefore, in effect, be placed in an office that has hitherto been linked to priestly ordination. In this context, reference is made not only to the pastoral consequences of the increasingly dramatic shortage of priests in many parishes, but also to the charismatic qualification rooted in baptism and confirmation, which for some Christians is supposed to be connected with the competence to lead parishes.

Against such efforts, the Congregation for the Clergy clarified in 2020, with the approval of Pope Francis, that the title or functions of a canonical pastor cannot be transferred to lay people even in situations of priest shortage.[11] This does not affect other forms of pastoral collaboration and, where appropriate, a "participation in the exercise of pastoral care of the community" according to CIC 1983, can. 517 § 2,[12] which has been practiced for some time in the universal Church in various concretions. The Instruction of the Congregation for the Clergy thus reminds us that the ideal of the connection between the office of leadership and ordination, even below the episcopal level, must not be arbitrarily put up for disposal. A solution to those problems which undoubtedly result from the shortage of priests in many parts of the universal Church must be sought within the limits then marked out.


The Holy Spirit, while bestowing diverse ministries in Church communion, enriches it still further with particular gifts or promptings of grace, called charisms. These can take a great variety of forms, both as a manifestation of the absolute freedom of the Spirit who abundantly supplies them, and as a response to the varied needs of the Church in history. […] The charisms are received in gratitude both on the part of the one who receives them, and also on the part of the entire Church. They are in fact a singularly rich source of grace for the vitality of the apostolate and for the holiness of the whole Body of Christ, provided that they be gifts that come truly from the Spirit and are exercised in full conformity with the authentic promptings of the Spirit. In this sense the discernment of charisms is always necessary. […] For this reason no charism dispenses a person from reference and submission to the Pastors of the Church. The Council clearly states: "Judgment as to their (charisms) genuineness and proper use belongs to those who preside over the Church, and to whose special competence it belongs, not indeed to extinguish the Spirit, but to test all things and hold fast to what is good (cf. 1 Thess 5:12 and 19-21)“ (LG 12) so that all the charisms might work together, in their diversity and complementarity, for the common good (LG 30).

John Paul II., Post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation Christifideles laici (30.12.1988) n.24


The office of Parish Priest, sometimes referred to as Pastor, involves the full care of souls cf. CIC c.150). In order, therefore, for a member of the faithful to be validly appointed Parish Priest (parochus), he must have received the Order of Presbyter (cf. CIC c.521 §1), thus excluding the possibility of conferring this office on one who lacks this Order and its related functions, even where priests are scarce. Precisely because of the relationship of familiarity and closeness that is required between a pastor and the community, the office of Parish Priest cannot be entrusted to a juridic person (cf. CIC c.520 §1). Apart from what is envisioned by can. 517, §§1-2, the particular office of Parish Priest may not be entrusted to a group composed of clerics and lay people. Consequently, appellations such as “team leader”, “équipe leader", or the like, which convey a sense of collegial government of the Parish, are to be avoided.

Instruction "The pastoral conversion of the Parish community in the service of the evangelising mission of the Church", of the Congregation for the Clergy (20.07.2020), n.66.

Criteria for the appropriate exercise of ecclesiastical offices

13 We have already spoken of the fact that sacramental ministerial authority in its exercise remains committed to the ecclesial community in whose service it is and whose unity it is intended to promote. Therefore, the powers conferred by ordination may be legitimately exercised only in connection with a canonical mission. But it would fall short of the mark to judge the exercise of power within the Church solely by legal standards. The Holy Scriptures already place the ministers under the spiritual-moral obligation to be "not rulers of the congregations, but models for the flock" (1 Pet 5:3).

Especially in our time, the exercise of office in the church must be authentic and convincing in order to find acceptance among the people. Official representatives of the church are expected to act in a way that is characterized by transparency and reliability and, not least, by personal credibility and moral integrity. It is true that, as a rule, bishops and pastors do not come to their office by election like political officeholders in modern democracies and do not assume it only for a time clearly limited in advance. In principle, this will continue to be the case in the future. But in our present day, traditional institutions and their representatives no longer enjoy automatic trust and must reckon with the fact that their misconduct will not be tacitly tolerated but will be brought into the (media) public eye and relentlessly denounced. As for other social institutions, public scrutiny of actions is a reality for churches in a pluralistic society, which should not be understood sweepingly as a threat, but also as an aid to transparent action and a call for credible communication.

14 When people give their time and skills to the church voluntarily and without payment but also when they take on a remunerated full-time ministry, they want to know that they are taken seriously and valued. In a communal view of the church, it should be self-evident that opportunities for participation and independent, responsible action of all active believers, even if they are not endowed with sacramental authority or formal official authority, are used to the best possible extent. In some respects, this will require a change in ecclesial mentalities and structures. It will be helpful in this regard for the church to further professionalize its ministers in the areas of communication, personnel management, and staff motivation.

In addition, holders of church offices must understand more than in the past that their authority is not aimed at autocracy and solitary decision-making, but realizes its Christ-like character of service precisely by involving as many Christians as possible and empowering them to act independently. Church authority loses nothing by communicating itself. It realizes its deepest task by understanding itself as a form of representation in the biblical sense, which does not replace the actions of others, but makes them possible. This promotes the realization of the individual vocation of all baptized persons in the common space of the church. For in the words of the Second Vatican Council, the ecclesial ministry should be concerned that "all who belong to the People of God and therefore enjoy true Christian dignity, attain salvation by working together freely and in an orderly manner toward the same end" (LG 18).


The bishop must always foster this missionary communion in his diocesan Church, following the ideal of the first Christian communities, in which the believers were of one heart and one soul (cf. Acts 4:32). To do so, he will sometimes go before his people, pointing the way and keeping their hope vibrant. At other times, he will simply be in their midst with his unassuming and merciful presence. At yet other times, he will have to walk after them, helping those who lag behind and – above all – allowing the flock to strike out on new paths. In his mission of fostering a dynamic, open and missionary communion, he will have to encourage and develop the means of participation proposed in the Code of Canon Law (cf. CIC cc.460-468; 492-502; 511-514; 536-537) and other forms of pastoral dialogue, out of a desire to listen to everyone and not simply to those who would tell him what he would like to hear. Yet the principal aim of these participatory processes should not be ecclesiastical organization but rather the missionary aspiration of reaching everyone.

Francis, Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii gaudium (24.11.2013), n.31.


During every Synodal Assembly, consultation of the faithful must be followed by discernment on the part of the Bishops chosen for the task, united in the search for a consensus that springs not from worldly logic, but from common obedience to the Spirit of Christ. Attentive to the sensus fidei of the People of God – “which they need to distinguish carefully from the changing currents of public opinion”     (Address on the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Synod of Bishops) – the members of the Assembly offer their opinion to the Roman Pontiff so that it can help him in his ministry as universal Pastor of the Church. From this perspective, “the fact that the Synod ordinarily has only a consultative role does not diminish its importance. In the Church the purpose of any collegial body, whether consultative or deliberative, is always the search for truth or the good of the Church. When it is therefore a question involving the faith itself, the consensus ecclesiae is not determined by the tallying of votes, but is the outcome of the working of the Spirit, the soul of the one Church of Christ” John Paul II., Pastores Gregis n. 58). Therefore the vote of the Synod Fathers, “if morally unanimous, has a qualitative ecclesial weight which surpasses the merely formal aspect of the consultative vote” (John Paul II., Address to the Council of the General Secretariat of the Synod of Bishops, 30.04.1983).

Francis, Apostolic Constitution Episcopalis communio on the Synod of Bishops (15.09.2018), n.7.

Abuse of power in the church and how to overcome it

15 Ecclesial authority can be abused in many ways when its holders use it to advance questionable self-interests or even commit crimes with its help. This has always been known in the Church, as canonical criminal law testifies. One of the most painful experiences of the present day is the realization that this legal system has failed many times in dealing with sexual and spiritual abuse in the ecclesiastical sphere, especially when the perpetrators were priests or religious.

The processing of the relevant cases from the past decades, which makes the suffering of countless, especially underage victims visible, is far from complete with the presentation of the so-called MHG study and diocesan individual reports. However, it is already apparent that with the intention of protecting the church as an institution and the reputation of the priestly office but also due to personal biases and deficient administrative structures, crimes were covered up by church leaders, clerical perpetrators were spared and victims were not taken seriously with their suffering. It is true that in recent years many concrete measures have already been taken in Germany's dioceses and religious congregations to come to terms with the abuse scandal and to implement preventive measures that are having an effect. However, many more efforts will be needed so that the church can fully acknowledge the suffering of the aggrieved parties and regain lost trust in the future through consistent prevention and punishment of abuse crimes.

16 The Synodal Path in Germany was initiated not least with the aim, in view of the abuse crisis, of initiating an unsparing analysis of the causes of systemic failure in connection with clerical abuse cases and of drawing the necessary conclusions so that the crimes of the past are as far as possible not repeated. This concern is shared by all participants in the Synodal Path. Already now, there are indications of consensual proposals for better organization of the exercise of power within the church which are to be understood as a concrete response to the challenges of the abuse crisis and can be implemented at the level of the German Bishops' Conference within the framework of current church law.

Other aspects of a changed practice of inner-church exercise of power which offer real potential for reform, especially at the level of local parishes, and which tie in with the observations of the previous section, have hardly been included in the discussion so far. The theses in the third part of this paper will make concrete proposals that address both areas.

17 In the current debate on church renewal, the necessity of which has become obvious through the abuse crisis, positions are often put forward whose contents have no secure connection with the reappraisal or prevention of abuse of power within the church. Thus, the calls for the introduction of women's ordination or the desire for a comprehensive adaptation of church structures to the standards of modern democracies (especially with regard to the separation of powers), as well as doubts about the spiritual authority of the ordained ministry, the plea for its consistent desacralization or a far-reaching reorganization of the church's sexual morality are components of a reform agenda whose origins lie far before the abuse crisis and have only been secondarily associated with it.

Such a conflation of interests does not serve the serious concern with which the Synodal Path was begun and brings with it the danger of new divisions within the German Church as well as in its relationship with the Vatican and the universal Church. Pope Francis has expressly warned Catholics in Germany about them.[13] If the hope is raised that majority votes of a German synodal assembly could lead to changes in official church doctrine and universal canon law or at least legitimize a German Sonderweg / special path in questions of the doctrine of faith and morals the end result threatens to be a potentiation of the energy-sapping frustration that has already been associated for decades with the struggle for radical reforms in the Catholic Church. The German Synodal Path would be well advised to avoid such disappointments by setting the right priorities in advance. Only then will it be possible to dovetail fruitfully with the synodal process for the whole church, which Pope Francis initiated in the spring of 2021.

18 The crisis that has arisen from the revelation of grave guilt of ordained ministers and the failure of church authorities in dealing with them will not be overcome by a rejection or relativization of basic ecclesiological convictions of the Catholic faith, but only by understanding them more deeply and taking them seriously anew. Abbess Christiana Reemts OSB put it in a nutshell in a speech on the current reform debate: "The Church must change. Yes and yes again! But not according to the standards of secular society but in listening to God's Word. And what does the Word of God tell us? 'You shall not do the same as these nations when you worship the Lord your God.... You shall not do what each individual thinks is right, as is still done here with us today' (Dt 2:4, 8). And the people today answer the same thing that the people of Israel then answered the prophet Samuel: 'We want to be like everyone else' (1 Sam 8:20)".[14]

The fact that crimes of abuse, with which our society is confronted on many levels, were able to spread for a long time also in the Church and its clergy, without being effectively combated, confirms this diagnosis. The Church as an institution, its clergy and all the baptized individuals within it must allow themselves to be led by God's Word on a path of genuine conversion and spiritual renewal that involves the change of wrong attitudes which can extend to de facto godlessness as well as the reform of structures that have proven to be inadequate. The crisis is a call to the church to seek out Christ anew as the true and ultimately only source of healing and sanctification for all people, to take seriously his call to repentance and to place herself under his merciful judgment.

19 The basis for all structural reforms must remain the sacramental definition of the nature of the Church as presented by the Second Vatican Council. In the already quoted passages from LG 8 it is expressed in a particularly profound way. The experience of clerical abuse of power underlines that the visible-institutional reality of the Church, to which the ministry also belongs, must at all times be aware that her reality is grounded in Christ alone and must serve him. In this sense, the Church is in a way "sacrament of the sacrament"; the human in the Church, like the human in Christ, is never in immediate, personal union with the divine.

Wherever the ecclesiastical institution or the holders of the ordained ministry are "deified" in a false sense, there is a theological error that must be overcome. Therefore, neither consideration of the objective sacrality of the office nor the charismatic authority of individual ministers or their position in the ecclesiastical hierarchy may in the future be used as reasons to relativize or cover up clerical crimes.

On the other hand, it would be just as wrong to question the indestructible sanctity of the Church as such on the basis of the painful experience of human failure and to raise the undifferentiated demand for desacralization of the priestly ministry. Precisely because the ordained ministry is associated with "sacred authority," its abuse has the character of sacrilege and therefore constitutes, from the perspective of faith, an even greater scandal than failures of ministry and authority in other areas of human society. The Church owes it first and foremost to the victims to consistently investigate and combat sexual and spiritual abuse within its own ranks. But she is also under this obligation because the objective characteristic of holiness is the standard by which the actions of the Church must be judged and by which all members of the Church must constantly allow their personal existence to be shaped (cf. LG 39-42).


To the victims of abuse and their families

[…] I know that nothing can undo the wrong you have endured. Your trust has been betrayed and your dignity has been violated. Many of you found that, when you were courageous enough to speak of what happened to you, no one would listen. Those of you who were abused in residential institutions must have felt that there was no escape from your sufferings. It is understandable that you find it hard to forgive or be reconciled with the Church. In her name, I openly express the shame and remorse that we all feel. At the same time, I ask you not to lose hope. It is in the communion of the Church that we encounter the person of Jesus Christ, who was himself a victim of injustice and sin. Like you, he still bears the wounds of his own unjust suffering. He understands the depths of your pain and its enduring effect upon your lives and your relationships, including your relationship with the Church. I know some of you find it difficult even to enter the doors of a church after all that has occurred. Yet Christ’s own wounds, transformed by his redemptive sufferings, are the very means by which the power of evil is broken and we are reborn to life and hope. I believe deeply in the healing power of his self-sacrificing love – even in the darkest and most hopeless situations – to bring liberation and the promise of a new beginning.

Speaking to you as a pastor concerned for the good of all God’s children, I humbly ask you to consider what I have said. I pray that, by drawing nearer to Christ and by participating in the life of his Church – a Church purified by penance and renewed in pastoral charity – you will come to rediscover Christ’s infinite love for each one of you. I am confident that in this way you will be able to find reconciliation, deep inner healing and peace.

Benedict XVI., Pastoral Letter to the Catholics of Ireland (19.03.2010) n.6

The brutality of this worldwide phenomenon becomes all the more grave and scandalous in the Church, for it is utterly incompatible with her moral authority and ethical credibility. Consecrated persons, chosen by God to guide souls to salvation, let themselves be dominated by their human frailty or sickness and thus become tools of Satan. In abuse, we see the hand of the evil that does not spare even the innocence of children. No explanations suffice for these abuses involving children. We need to recognize with humility and courage that we stand face to face with the mystery of evil, which strikes most violently against the most vulnerable, for they are an image of Jesus. For this reason, the Church has now become increasingly aware of the need not only to curb the gravest cases of abuse by disciplinary measures and civil and canonical processes, but also to decisively confront the phenomenon both inside and outside the Church. She feels called to combat this evil that strikes at the very heart of her mission, which is to preach the Gospel to the little ones and to protect them from ravenous wolves.

Here again I would state clearly: if in the Church there should emerge even a single case of abuse – which already in itself represents an atrocity – that case will be faced with the utmost seriousness. Brothers and Sisters: in people’s justified anger, the Church sees the reflection of the wrath of God, betrayed and insulted by these deceitful consecrated persons. The echo of the silent cry of the little ones who, instead of finding in them fathers and spiritual guides encountered tormentors, will shake hearts dulled by hypocrisy and by power. It is our duty to pay close heed to this silent, choked cry.

Meeting „The Protection of Minors in the Church“, Address of Pope Francis at the end of the Eucharistic celebration 24th February 2019.


 The Sources of True Church Reform

20 Official authority in the church as has become clear, requires a genuine theological justification; it goes back to the institution by Christ and is conferred in the power of the Holy Spirit. It is understandable that in a time of progressive secularization and a deep crisis of faith, which has its roots long before the abuse crisis (which certainly has a catalyzing effect) and would not be eliminated with its overcoming, the recourse to revelation-theological guidelines for the justification of church offices and structures arouses general reservations in many people.

It is more astonishing when even some Catholics reject the Christological foundation of the sacramental office as an ideological immunization. An ecclesiology in the line of Vatican II cannot do without it. Therefore, it does not go far enough to draw up plans for church reform that are primarily oriented toward current forms of exercising political power in democratic communities. Conflicts over core dogmatic statements concerning the office of the pope and the bishop or other aspects of the ordo-sacrament would thus be pre-programmed.

Instead, Christians are called to ask "what the Spirit is saying to the Church today (cf. Rev 2:7) in order to discern the signs of the times, which is not synonymous with merely conforming to the Zeitgeist (cf. Rom 12:2). All the efforts of listening, deliberation and discernment are aimed at making the Church daily more faithful, available, dexterous and transparent in proclaiming the joy of the Gospel, the foundation on which all questions can find light and answers."[15].

21 In reflecting on herself, the Church will always refer to Holy Scripture, authentically interpreted in tradition as her own ultimate and critical standard; the obligation to dialogue with all people of good will given to her by the Second Vatican Council also presupposes this clear orientation. Today, as in previous centuries, the Church will not bind herself unilaterally to particular political and social systems.

The complaint about an allegedly insufficient inculturation of the Church in democratic societies sometimes proceeds from the unspoken premise that in the social and political development of modernity the spirit of the Gospel has found purer expression than in the parallel development of the Church itself. The directives decisive for the church's path into the future are then sought not first in Scripture and tradition, but above all in "foreign places" (loci alieni) of divine presence in the world, which can lead to the reversal of the principle of "interpreting the signs of the times in the light of the Gospel" (GS 4). The mission of the church to change social conditions in the spirit of the message of Jesus and to criticize when developments, even democratically legitimized ones, contradict the natural moral law and the commandments of God, thus recedes into the background.

This shift in standards must be critically assessed from a revelation-theological perspective. It is based on an interpretation of the texts of the Second Vatican Council that is not convincing in view of the conciliar teaching as a whole.

22 This is not to deny that the shape of church structures and the concrete handling of power in the church have at all times also developed in interaction with the respective political and social realities. Changes in values and standards in the civic world do not leave the church untouched. As in the past, the church today will be able to benefit from positive developments in the secular sphere, whether in law, administration or culture, by optimizing or correcting her own structures by this standard, provided she considers it necessary and theologically legitimate (cf. GS 44). Thus, current debates about participation, justice and transparency can undoubtedly contribute to the renewal of the Church. But they should not lead to the questioning of Catholic convictions because one hopes thereby to reduce the distance of the church from society as a whole or to secure its public influence.

23 Finally, it should be remembered that the questions of ministry and the exercise of power, significant as they may be, are only a limited aspect of the nature of the Church. To quote Pope Francis once again: " Jesus Christ appears as the Spouse of the community that celebrates the Eucharist through the figure of a man who presides as a sign of the one Priest. This dialogue between the Spouse and his Bride, which arises in adoration and sanctifies the community should not trap us in partial conceptions of power in the Church. The Lord chose to reveal his power and his love through two human faces: the face of his divine Son made man and the face of a creature, a woman, Mary."[16]

The reality of the Church, as the Pope makes clear, is ultimately determined by her loving acceptance by Christ, by her reception into a "new and eternal covenant". This life-giving and sanctifying communion, which we can compare to the conjugal covenant of husband and wife as the highest form of interpersonal love, is affirmed and deepened in every celebration of the Eucharist. In this, the official representation of Christ by the priest unfolds its true meaning only against the background of the Marian character of the Church as a whole. She is the bride of Christ, chosen by him and receiving him.

This determination of essence factually precedes all forms of Petrine Christ-representation and should always remain recognizable also in the exercise of spiritual authority, which has an official character. Just as the Petrine dimension of the Church is marked by the bestowal of the key power on this apostle as well as by his blatant failure and betrayal, so in the Marian reality of the Church one encounters her inalienable grace and holiness through reference to the pure archetype. It is this encounter from which a reform of the Church at all times must proceed.


(8) Every crisis contains a rightful demand for renewal and a step forward. If we really desire renewal, though, we must have the courage to be completely open. We need to stop seeing the reform of the Church as putting a patch on an old garment, or simply drafting a new Apostolic Constitution. The reform of the Church is something different.

It cannot be a matter of putting a patch here or there, for the Church is not just an item of Christ’s clothing, but rather his Body, which embraces the whole of history (cf. 1 Cor 12:27). We are not called to change or reform the Body of Christ – “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever” (Heb 13:8) – but we are called to clothe that Body with a new garment, so that it is clear that the grace we possess does not come from ourselves but from God. Indeed, “we have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Cor 4:7). The Church is always an earthen vessel, precious for what it contains and not for how it looks. […]

The right approach, on the other hand, is that of the “scribe, who has been trained for the kingdom of heaven”, who “is like a householder who brings out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Mt 13:52). That treasure is Tradition, which, as Benedict XVI recalled, “is the living river that links us to the origins, the living river in which the origins are ever present, the great river that leads us to the gates of eternity” (Catechesis, 26 April 2006). I think of the saying of that great German musician: “Tradition is the guarantee of the future, not a museum, an urn of ashes”. The “old” is the truth and grace we already possess. The “new” are those different aspects of the truth that we gradually come to understand. No historical form of living the Gospel can exhaust its full comprehension. There are those words from the fifth century: “Ut annis scilicet consolidetur, dilatetur tempore, sublimetur aetate”: that is what tradition is, and how it grows. If we let ourselves be guided by the Holy Spirit, we will daily draw closer to “all the truth” (Jn 16:13). Without the grace of the Holy Spirit, on the other hand, we can even start to imagine a “synodal” Church that, rather than being inspired by communion with the presence of the Spirit, ends up being seen as just another democratic assembly made up of majorities and minorities. Like a parliament, for example: and this is not synodality. Only the presence of the Holy Spirit makes the difference.

(9) What should we do during a crisis? First, accept it as a time of grace granted us to discern God’s will for each of us and for the whole Church. We need to enter into the apparent paradoxical notion that “when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12:10). We should keep in mind the reassuring words of Saint Paul to the Corinthians: “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your strength, but with the temptation will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it” (1 Cor 10:13).

Francis, Address to the Roman Curia (21.12.2020) nn.8-9.



The reservation of the priesthood to males, as a sign of Christ the Spouse who gives himself in the Eucharist, is not a question open to discussion, but it can prove especially divisive if sacramental power is too closely identified with power in general. It must be remembered that when we speak of sacramental power “we are in the realm of function, not that of dignity or holiness”.     [73] The ministerial priesthood is one means employed by Jesus for the service of his people, yet our great dignity derives from baptism, which is accessible to all. The configuration of the priest to Christ the head – namely, as the principal source of grace – does not imply an exaltation which would set him above others. In the Church, functions “do not favour the superiority of some vis-à-vis the others”.     [74] Indeed, a woman, Mary, is more important than the bishops. Even when the function of ministerial priesthood is considered “hierarchical”, it must be remembered that “it is totally ordered to the holiness of Christ’s members”.     [75] Its key and axis is not power understood as domination, but the power to administer the sacrament of the Eucharist; this is the origin of its authority, which is always a service to God’s people. This presents a great challenge for pastors and theologians, who are in a position to recognize more fully what this entails with regard to the possible role of women in decision-making in different areas of the Church’s life.

Francis, Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii gaudium (24.11.2013), n.104

III. Theses on a Changed Approach to Power and Abuse of Power in the Church

  1. The holiness of the church does not prevent mistakes. In the church, with regard to ministers and functionaries as well as the baptized and confirmed individuals, the imperfection and sinfulness of the human being and therefore also individual and institutional misconduct must be reckoned with at all times, not least in dealing with power. Therefore, in addition to the fundamental trust in the indestructible resources of holiness that the Lord has given to His Church, there is a need for a constant willingness to reform, a constant turning back and reorientation of all members of the Church to the precepts of Jesus. What is necessary is a constant reflection on what has demonstrably protected the Church from certain abuses in the past and what can protect her from them in the future. At the same time, the error must be avoided that people could put a new, better church in place of the old one. Such a form of hubris would disregard the church's difference from purely human institutions and would inevitably lead to new forms of abuse of power.
  1. Mistakes have been made and continue to be made. Wrong attitudes have favoured many forms of sexual and spiritual abuse and have hindered their reappraisal and prevention. Among the certain causes of abuse of power in the church are an erroneous divinization of institution and ministry, the exploitation of dependency relationships in pastoral relationships, the fatal assumption that as a perpetrator one is protected by the institution, and the tabooing of sexuality and its pathological manifestations. Factors that have hindered the processing or prevention of such abuse include the intention to protect the ecclesiastical institution from any criticism, the lack of knowledge of human-scientific assessments of sexual abuse, naive trust in psychiatric or psychological reports that have proven unreliable from today's perspective, as well as a questionable understanding of mercy in the application of canonical criminal law. The leniency shown to the perpetrators of abuse, the lack of attention to the victims and a lack of identification of system-internal errors have additionally made the detection and prevention of abuse more difficult. It should not go unmentioned that in addition to sexual and spiritual abuse, other forms of abuse of power can always establish themselves in the church, such as financial corruption, deliberate non-perception of responsibility, or manipulative behaviour in hierarchically structured ministerial relationships. Such forms must also be counteracted.
  1. Something has to change. In order to be able to counteract abuse of power in the church (especially preventively), there is a need for a) the recognition of victims in preference to all institutional interests; b) a careful selection and qualification of all persons who exercise a function in the church; this includes not only knowledge of the legal framework of their respective task, but also solid training, especially with regard to the appropriate shaping of all proximity-distance relationships and abuse prevention;c) the greatest possible transparency in internal church decisions and their justification, d) a clear definition of the limits of the respective official authority, e) a clear shaping and implementation of church (criminal) law and procedural regulations in dealing with (substantiated) accused clerics and lay people, f) the development of appropriate, independent control instruments, g) the unreserved and comprehensive cooperation of church authorities with the state judiciary in order to report crimes and to bring the perpetrators to their punishment also according to secular law.
  1. Abuse of power must be consistently reported and prosecuted. In all dioceses, it is necessary to establish or institutionally safeguard contact points for victims of internal church abuse of power, intervention bodies and independent control instruments. In every diocese there must be reliable contact points that can be called upon in cases of abuse of power of any kind, but also in cases of leadership conflicts; contact points, which offer those affected a protected space in which to voice their complaints and concerns. Here, initial therapeutic accompaniment and support can be arranged and, if necessary, an intervention can be initiated. If a substantiated suspicion arises, it must be ensured in the diocese that the case is reliably assessed and decided according to the objective standards of church law. This also includes a report to the Holy See. There should be an institution that verifies the victims' entitlement to compenzation in recognition of their suffering in a comprehensible manner and allocates funds according to criteria that are as uniform as possible for the territory of the DBK. Alleged criminal offences will in any case also be reported to the state judiciary, but not against the will of the alleged victim or his or her custodian; this exception does not apply if there are indications of further victims. The processing of sexual abuse within the church with the help of independent commissions and state authorities is to be advanced.
  1. Important decisions must be comprehensible. Personnel decisions and serious material decisions require transparency. They must be substantiated in writing. This is the only way to ensure that decisions can be reviewed and, if necessary, appealed. Personnel files must be kept carefully and tamper-proof according to the best administrative standards and must reliably document misconduct by church employees. The relevant files must be inspected before any personnel decision is made.
  1. The church must improve its communication. In order to promote participation in church decision-making processes and their verifiability, it is necessary to optimize church communication both internally and externally. This includes the further professionalization of press and media work and the increased inclusion of media training in church education and training.
  1. More synodality is needed at all levels of the Church. "Synodality, as a constitutive element of the Church, offers us the most appropriate interpretive framework for understanding the hierarchical ministry itself." (Pope Francis[17]). In the communion of the Church,it is necessary to distinguish between the process of decision-makingthrough a joint exercise of discernment, consultation and co-operation, and decision-taking,which is within the competence of the Bishop, the guarantor of apostolicity and Catholicity. Working things out is a synodal task; decision is a ministerial responsibility."[18]. This principle allows for the consideration of synodal structures at all levels of the Church and their full involvement in decision-making processes. In order to motivate people to participate in these processes, it is essential to reliably define consultation or decision-making rights. Every responsible decision by church officials involves consultation with the relevant bodies, consideration of the arguments put forward by them and the votes they adopt. In the event of dissent, all those involved have the possibility of having decisions reviewed by the next highest ecclesiastical authority in accordance with ecclesiastical law.
  1. Church offices and ministries require clear profiles. For all church offices in the narrower sense (cf. CIC, can. 145 § 1), but also for functions (both full-time and voluntary) permanently assumed in the church, profiles are formulated in writing, from which it can be clearly inferred what the prerequisites, competences and limitations of delegated power consist. It can be helpful to formulate concrete target agreements in writing, in which the relationship to other offices and ministries in the church is reliably described with regard to a specific task. This prevents legal uncertainty and a clandestine expansion of power or the exercise of "shadow rule" and reliably ensures participation. To this end, each diocese issues binding guidelines for the ecclesiastical offices and the most important ministries (both full-time and voluntary) exercised in its area.
  1. Lay people must be more fully involved. The vocation of lay people, whose apostolate is fundamentally "a participation in the salvific mission of the Church itself", "to a more direct form of cooperation in the apostolate of the Hierarchy" (LG 33), must be further developed. Canon law provides for the possibility of involving baptised and confirmed persons who have not received the sacrament of Holy Orders in the exercise of leadership (CIC, can. 129 § 2). They can be entrusted with ecclesiastical offices (cf. CIC c. 145), provided they are not those offices, “which entails the full care of souls” and therefore require priestly ordination (CIC, can. 150). Lay people are already involved in various offices of diocesan administration, parish and categorical pastoral care, proclamation of the faith and theological research and teaching. In these activities Christians contribute their spiritual charisms and professional competences for the good of the Church's overall mission (cf. CIC c.204 §1). The local churches have a variety of ways of putting this into practice, as is shown in Germany by the long-established full-time pastoral ministries or the more recently created positions of full-time administrative leaders in parishes or parish associations. With the expanded access to the lay ministries of lectors and acolytes (MP Spiritus Domini, 10.01.2021) and the establishment of the lay ministry of catechist (MP Antiquum ministerium, 05.2021), Pope Francis has recently shown new ways for the intensified commitment of all members of the Church in the work of evangelization. Here, as in the filling of all offices and ministries that do not require the sacrament of Holy Orders, women and men are to be considered equally wherever possible.
  1. Cooperative forms of leadership are to be further developed. Even if the leadership of a parish is reserved to the pastor endowed with priestly ordination (CIC c. 517/519), other persons may be involved in the exercise of his pastoral care (c. 517 § 2). In this case, it is necessary that there is clarity in the delegation of (leadership) competences to baptised and confirmed persons who have not received the Sacrament of Orders, and in the assignment of responsibilities. To this end, particular legal frameworks must be created in the dioceses which serve to clearly profile the various offices and ministries and also include a complaints system in the event of conflicts.
  1. Professional and spiritual qualification is indispensable. Care must be taken to ensure that ordained ministers, as well as all baptised and confirmed persons commissioned for specific ministries, are sufficiently professionally and spiritually qualified. Sacramental prerequisites alone (baptism and confirmation or ordination) do not guarantee that someone actually possesses the qualifications required for the exercise of a leadership office. With the expansion of pastoral spaces, the establishment of new forms of cooperative pastoral ministry and the changing social conditions, the demands on the bearers of leadership responsibility in the space of the church are changing. The exercise of this responsibility therefore requires constant further training and education at all levels (diocese, deanery, parish, federations and associations) as well as solid spiritual formation. All dioceses have to lay down binding framework regulations for the qualification of office bearers and functionaries. Opportunities for cooperation between different dioceses should be used.
  1. The appointment of church office bearers must be transparent. When appointing church officials, internal church participation shall be promoted. To this end, a binding profile description of the position to be occupied shall be drawn up in advance by the responsible appointing bodies. The post shall be advertised publicly, stating the job profile. The qualification of the possible applicants or candidates shall be examined in consultation with synodal bodies, which shall also vote on the appointment. The decision made with regard to an appointment shall be documented in writing and the reasons shall be substantiated. Existing rights of participation that go beyond the hearing (election and presentation rights) shall be retained.
  1. The parish needs more say in filling parish positions. Before a parish priest is appointed, the relevant parish council is asked by the bishop to submit wishes and expectations regarding pastoral priorities in written form. The bishop will give due consideration to these votes. He remains free in his decision, but the parish council is entitled to have the bishop's personnel decision explained to it. In the case of appointments to other clerical offices, the relevant councils at deanery or diocesan level are to be involved in an analogous way. The deliberations shall be strictly confidential in order to safeguard the personal rights of the candidates concerned. Proven breaches of the confidentiality obligation can be reported to the contact point for leadership conflicts (see 4 above) and, if they can be proven, must be punished by immediate exclusion from the relevant council.
  1. Further proposals shall be included prior to bishop appointments. Diocesan councils as well as the cathedral chapter make separate personnel proposals in advance of bishop appointments. The nomination of suitable candidates shall be strictly confidential. The lists of the councils shall be drawn up in such a way that a priorization of possible candidates is recognizable. A compilation of all lists shall be forwarded by the diocesan administrator to the Holy See. The election or appointment of the bishop shall take place in accordance with the applicable concordats. Whether lay people can also be directly involved in the election of a bishop by the cathedral chapter in future, for example comparable to the non-resident cathedral chaplains, is left to the future development of the concordat law.



[1] Sekretariat der Deutschen Bischofskonferenz (Hg.), Katholische Kirche in Deutschland Zahlen und Fakten 2019/20.


[3] Francis, Apost. Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium (24.11.2013), n. 26.

[4] Ibid. n. 120

[5] Francis, Apostolic Letter Patris Corde [8.12.2020], n. 5.

[6] Cf. Hans Urs von Balthasar, Casta meretrix, in: id., Sponsa Verbi. Skizzen zur Theologie II, Einsiedeln 1961, 203-305.

[7] Cf. Thomas Aquinas, S. th. III, 82, 8 ad 2.

[8] Francis, Post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation Querida Amazonia (2.2.2020), n. 88.

[9] Cf. also DBK, „Gemeinsam Kirche sein“. Wort der deutschen Bischöfe zur Erneuerung der Pastoral (1.8.2015), Chap. 1 and 2.

[10] International Theological Commission, Synodality in the Life and Mission of the Church, n. 42.

[11] Congregation for the Clergy, Instruction The pastoral conversion of the Parish community in the service of the evangelising mission of the Church (20.07.2020), n. 66.

[12] Cf. ibid. n. 87–93.

[13] Cf. Francis, Letter to the pilgrim people of God in Germany (29.6.2019), n. 10.

[14] [Entry from 5.2.2021].

[15] Cf. Francis, Letter to the pilgrim people of God in Germany (29.6.2019), n. 8.

[16] Francis, Post-synodal Apostolic Exhortation Querida Amazonia, n. 101.

[17] Address at the 50th Anniversary of the Establishment of the Synod of Bishops (17.10.2015). URL:

[18] International Commission of Theologians, Synodality in the Life and Mission of the Church (2018), n. 69.

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