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The first assembly of the German synodal path took place from January 30 to February 1, 2020Rudolf Gehrig / CNA Deutsch

(LifeSiteNews) — The Reverend Doctor Martin Grichting, a Catholic priest and the former vicar general of the Diocese of Chur, Switzerland, kindly sent LifeSiteNews a text in which he discusses the idea of separating the power of ordination from the power of governance in the Church. This concept stems from the discussions of the German Synodal Path which is currently taking place in Germany.

The German Synodal Path is an assembly of the German bishops and organized lay organizations that has been meeting twice a year since 2019. In early February of this year, new documents were presented and approved by the assembly. In its document on “Power and Separation of Powers in the Church,” the assembly argues that “leadership must always be co-decided by those over whom decisions are taken” and calls for lay power.

“In many dioceses, structures of shared responsibility and decision-making by the faithful and priests in the parishes and at diocesan level have already emerged and proved their worth,” the authors write.

“They need to be strengthened. There is, however, also a need to readjust the Church’s constitutional structure in order to strengthen the rights of the faithful in the governance of the Church.”

That is to say, the German Synodal Path wishes to admit lay people to positions of governance in the Church.

The Rev. Dr. Grichting, in his new statement (see full text below), is responding to exactly this point. He argues that the separation of ordination and governance was actually an old weakness of the Church that had been remedied by the Second Vatican Council. He reminded us of practices up into the 19th century, for example, where local bishops were not even ordained but merely sought their position for the acquisition of wealth and social positions, while auxiliary bishops – who were ordained – did the pastoral work. According to Grichting, a canon lawyer and experienced ecclesiastical official, this aberration of the Church’s practice was one of the causes for the Reformation.

“One needs little imagination to imagine the pastoral damage such abuses caused,” he wrote. “They were among the triggers of the Reformation, because the faithful felt pastorally neglected and resorted to self-help.”

He therefore says that the German Synodal Path’s call for a separation of the ordaining power and the governing power is “not progress, it is a step backward.”

This text by Dr. Grichting is an important contribution to the current discussion of ideas for reform in the universal Church, not only in Germany. Let us remember that it was Cardinal Paul Josef Cordes, a retired German prelate, who criticized Pope Francis’ post-synodal exhortation Querida Amazonia for exactly the same weakness: the idea of separating ordination from governance in the Church.

Cardinal Gerhard Müller resisted these ideas and stated that “at ordination, there are not being transferred individual particular competences without any inner order and interconnection. It is the one service in the Word, through which the Church is being assembled as a community of the Faith, in which the Sacraments of the Faith are being celebrated and through which God’s flock is being governed by its appointed shepherds, in Christ’s Name and Authority. That is why the priestly offices in doctrine, worship, and governance are united at the root and are merely different in their theological aspects, under which we look at them (Presbyterorum Ordinis 4-6).”

Let us now turn to Dr. Grichting and his important insights and arguments in defense of keeping the power of ordination and the power of governance united.

Please see here Dr. Grichting’s new statement:

Summary: Supposedly progressive forces think they have found the Egg of Columbus to promote the laity in the Church: the separation of power of ordination and power of governance. But this is not progress; it is a step backward.

By Martin Grichting, translated from the original German by Maike Hickson

To be “pre-conciliar” was, until recently, a disgrace. With this label, traditionally oriented believers were put in the naughty corner. Now, however, it is suddenly chic again to be “retro.” For supposedly progressive forces are digging up an old aberration to which the Vatican Council II put an end: the separation of the power of ordination from the power of governance.

This aberration is a legacy of feudal times and was rampant as a serious grievance from the Middle Ages until the beginning of the 19th century. The problem was particularly visible in the case of the bishops: some of them held the power of leadership, the office, but were not ordained bishops. As members of the feudal aristocracy, they pursued interests other than pastoral care. The income from the office and the social position were enough for them. They kept auxiliary bishops for pastoral care. These were – as the name [in German “Weihbischof”] suggests – actually ordained bishops and could administer the sacrament of Holy Orders as well as Confirmation. The cathedral chaplains were also not infrequently younger sons of noble families who had not received priestly ordination. They often had little inclination to work for the Kingdom of God. The auxiliary bishop’s actual collaborators were priests from the bourgeoisie who were called “clerical councillors.” Also, many parish priests in the late Middle Ages were not ordained priests. They did hold the office and enjoyed the income flowing from it. However, they did not show up in their parish. Rather, they often paid a “people’s priest” [“Leutpriester”], who performed the pastoral work as an employee without real authority.

One needs little imagination to imagine the pastoral damage such abuses caused. They were among the triggers of the Reformation because the faithful felt pastorally neglected and resorted to self-help.

These abuses were made possible by the fact that the power of ordination, conferred by the sacrament, and the power of governance, conferred by appointment, were not merely theologically and legally differentiated, but factually separated and distributed among different persons.

The Second Vatican Council put an end to this state of affairs with the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, Lumen Gentium. In passage n. 21, it says: “But Episcopal consecration, together with the office of sanctifying, also confers the office of teaching and of governing, which, however, of its very nature, can be exercised only in hierarchical communion with the head and the members of the college.” Thus, the unity and inseparability of the power of consecration and the power of governance has been clearly expressed. By its very nature, the power of consecration can be exercised only in communion with the head and members of the college of bishops. Ordination is the qualification to receive the power of governance. Therefore, a separation of these powers has not been possible since then.

The teaching of the Second Vatican Council was taken into account in the Codex Iuris Canonici  (Code of Canon Law) of 1983, when it states in Can. 129: “Those who have received sacred orders are qualified, according to the norm of the prescripts of the law, for the power of governance, which exists in the Church by divine institution and is also called the power of jurisdiction.” Lay persons may “cooperate” in the exercise of the power of governance, but not in their own right and not independently (cf. Can. 129 § 2). And c. 274 § 1 therefore clarifies,”Only clerics can obtain offices for whose exercise the power of orders or the power of ecclesiastical governance is required.” Thus, the lay pastor of the Middle Ages can no longer exist, nor can the lay bishop, nor the lay cathedral chapter, nor the lay vicar general.

The new curia constitution recently issued by Pope Francis (Praedicate Evangelium) does not change this. It was admittedly pushed into the foreground that “every believer”, i.e. also laymen, could now lead a dicastery. But it was added restrictively: “taking into account the special competence, governing authority and task” of these dicasteries (II Principles and Criteria, n. 5). For precisely: as soon as heads of a dicastery exercise deputy power of governance on behalf of the pope, the power of ordination in addition to the power of governance conferred by the pope is required. Otherwise, medieval abuses would be restored.

Curial bodies that organize congresses and initiatives on topics such as marriage, family, or migration, and bodies that conduct dialogue with other religions or Christian communities, do not thereby exercise ecclesiastical power of governance. Such offices may also be headed by lay persons. However, the Congregation for Bishops, for example, which appoints Apostolic Administrators in the name of the Pope, or the Congregation for the Clergy, which decides on hierarchical appeals concerning official acts of diocesan bishops, exercise power of governance. And there no layman can be the leader.
If progressive circles today demand pre-conciliar conditions, it is regrettable. In the Middle Ages, the aberration was that bishops and priests were de facto laymen. Contemporary aberration 2.0 is to demand that lay people should be de facto bishops or priests. Both is pragmatism devoid of theology, which would also do pastoral damage to the Church this time. For the spiritual minister, acting in the authority of Christ, would become a manager after the manner of the world.

Finally, it is important to consider the following: trying to give some lay people ecclesiastical governance authority which they cannot have, by means of misguided pre-conciliar theories, is not an answer to the question of what the ecclesiastical mission of all lay people is. In this question, too, unfortunately, the “progressives” are often pre-conciliar. For they tend to identify the Church with its hierarchy, as was common before Vatican II. The fixation on structures of the “Synodal Path” is an example of this.

Vatican Council II said something different. It outlined a spiritually profound theology of the ecclesial mission of the laity in Chapter IV of Lumen Gentium and in the decree on the lay apostolate Apostolicam Actuositatem. What was described there is the proper ecclesial mission of all the laity, which is already theirs by virtue of their being baptized and confirmed. Only if this teaching of Vatican Council II is accepted by the whole Church can it transform the world anew in a Christian way.

To summarize:

1. There are progressives who want to become pre-conciliar. The philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel would have enjoyed this dialectic, but it will bring only deeper divisions to the Church.

2 “Back to the Future” is a good Hollywood movie, but a bad recipe for evangelization, which, according to the new curia constitution, is now the top priority among the dicasteries.

Dr. Martin Grichting, a Catholic priest who has a post-doctoral degree in canon law, was vicar general of the diocese of Chur and publishes on philosophical and theological issues.


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Dr. Maike Hickson was born and raised in Germany. She holds a PhD from the University of Hannover, Germany, after having written in Switzerland her doctoral dissertation on the history of Swiss intellectuals before and during World War II. She now lives in the U.S. and is married to Dr. Robert Hickson, and they have been blessed with two beautiful children. She is a happy housewife who likes to write articles when time permits.

Dr. Hickson published in 2014 a Festschrift, a collection of some thirty essays written by thoughtful authors in honor of her husband upon his 70th birthday, which is entitled A Catholic Witness in Our Time.

Hickson has closely followed the papacy of Pope Francis and the developments in the Catholic Church in Germany, and she has been writing articles on religion and politics for U.S. and European publications and websites such as LifeSiteNews, OnePeterFive, The Wanderer, Rorate Caeli,, Catholic Family News, Christian Order, Notizie Pro-Vita, Corrispondenza Romana,, Der Dreizehnte,  Zeit-Fragen, and Westfalen-Blatt.