The prefect for the Vatican’s Dicastery for Divine Worship has objected to plans for regular lay baptisms and lay preaching at Masses endorsed by Germany’s controversial “synodal way.”
Cardinal Arthur Roche made his objections known in a letter to German bishops’ conference chairman Bishop Georg Bätzing, the official news website of the Catholic Church in Germany reported March 30.
Katholisch.de said that it had seen the letter, which had not been published by the Vatican or the German bishops’ conference at press time.
The synodal way — a three-year initiative bringing together German bishops and select lay people to discuss changes to Church teaching and practice — formally ended March 11 after approving a document entitled “Proclamation of the Gospel by lay people in word and sacrament.”
The text called on the German bishops’ conference to develop regulations “for the qualification and commissioning of lay men and women to lead the celebration of baptism.”
It also asked German bishops to “draw up a particular norm and obtain permission for this from the Holy See, according to which the homily can also be taken over in Eucharistic celebrations on Sundays and feast days by theologically and spiritually qualified faithful commissioned by the bishop.”
According to katholisch.de, Cardinal Roche referred in his letter to canon law, which says that bishops, priests, or deacons are the “ordinary ministers” of baptism, and that exceptions can only be made when they are “absent or impeded,” or “in a case of necessity.”
The prefect of the Dicastery for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments reportedly said that the exceptions applied when an ordinary minister could not be found within a month.
He said that such conditions “do not seem to exist in any diocese in the area of the German bishops’ conference, based on the data from the papal yearbook on the clergy available.”
He added that “in any case, there were still enough ordained ministers to cope with the annual number of baptisms in the German dioceses, which is in decline.”
Regarding lay preaching, the cardinal also referred to canon law, which says that “lay persons can be permitted to preach in a church or oratory, if necessity requires it in certain circumstances or it seems advantageous in particular cases,” but the homily “is reserved to a priest or deacon.”
“This is not an exclusion of the laity,” Cardinal Roche wrote, “nor is it, of course, a denial of the right and duty of every baptized person, male or female, to proclaim the Gospel, but rather a confirmation of the specificity of this form of proclamation, which is the homily.”
He suggested that “misunderstandings about the figure and identity of the priest” could “arise in the consciousness of the Christian community” if lay people preached at Mass.
He stressed that this did not mean that there were inequalities among baptized Catholics, but rather “that there are discernments made by the Spirit, which produces different charisms that are different and complementary.”
“Word and sacrament are inseparable realities, and inasmuch as they are not merely formal expressions of the exercise of sacra potestas [sacred power], they are neither separable nor can they be separable.”
The cardinal highlighted Pope Francis’ opening in 2021 of the ministries of lector and acolyte to women.
“This openness offers lay people the opportunity to engage in meaningful liturgical ministry in the exercise of the ministry of lector and acolyte,” he wrote, expressing interest in “how this possibility was received in the dioceses in Germany.”
Both lay homilies and baptisms are already an established practice in some German dioceses. Katholisch.de noted that a 1999 document set out conditions for lay preaching at Masses in the Diocese of Rottenburg-Stuttgart. Last October, the diocese’s current Bishop Gebhard Fürst issued a decree permitting lay theologians to preside at baptisms.
Bishop Franz-Josef Overbeck of Essen formally commissioned lay people to administer baptisms in March 2022.
Cardinal Roche’s letter is the latest in a long line of Vatican interventions concerning the synodal way.
It comes little more than two weeks after Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin indicated that the Vatican opposed a synodal way resolution supporting blessings for same-sex unions in churches.
He told reporters on the sidelines of an event in Rome March 13 that “the Holy See has already expressed itself very clearly with the document of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith.” He was referring to the 2021 Vatican declaration that “the Church does not have, and cannot have, the power to bless unions of persons of the same sex.”
Cardinal Roche reportedly ended his letter to Bishop Bätzing by underlining that the Vatican remained open to dialogue.
A spokesman for Germany’s bishops’ conference told katholisch.de: “We realize that the dicastery’s letter describes the current situation on the issues discussed. At the end, there is an invitation to further dialogue, which we are happy to accept. It’s good that we’re staying in touch with Rome in this way.”
A spokeswoman for the powerful lay Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK) told the website that the Vatican letter was a welcome sign of Rome’s interest in the consequences of the synodal way in Germany.
“Talks in Rome are overdue and are in the heartfelt interest of Catholic civil society in this country,” said Britta Baas.
She added: “In just a few years, no one will be able to seriously oppose lay sermons and baptisms by lay people if the Church still wants to have meaning for the local people. We already have a glaring shortage of priests.”
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