Swiss Benedictine Abbot Speaks of Church Reform

The Benedictine abbot of Einsiedeln in Switzerland, Abbot Martin Werlen, penned a brochure which has caused a bit of uproar: “Discover Together the Embers under the Ashes.” The abbot of Einsiedeln is a member of the Swiss Catholic bishops’ conference.

All the baptized and confirmed of a diocese, he suggests, should be involved appropriately in the naming of their bishop. Maybe cardinals could have term limits – “For example, people from the whole world, women and men, young and not so young, could be called for five years into the college of cardinals,” wrote the abbot. Further: “If, for example, these people could meet every three months with the Pope, it could bring a new dynamism into the leadership of the Church.”

The abbot isn’t making demands; he intends rather to offer some starting points for a broad discussion within the Church. He said, “Fire is missing. We have to face the situation and see what’s behind it.” And this: “The problems are known. But little is happening by way of solution for the problems.”

The title of the brochure hearkens to Cardinal Martini’s last interviewi in which he said, “I see in the Church today so many ashes above the enbers that I’m often assailed by a sense of powerlessness.”

The abbot speaks of “disasters of our own making” (selbstverschuldete Schlamassel) in the Catholic Church today. Some church officials complain that the same problems keep being brought up since 40 years, to which the abbot remarks, “When problems are not taken up, or one is not permitted to speak about them, such behavior puts at risk the credibility of the church and even the very content of the faith.” Playing off the “Appeal to Disobedience” (Pfarrer-Initiative) of the rebel Austrian priests, the abbot states that it is an “act of disobedience” when people and realities are not taken seriously.” (The word “obedience” has as its stem the Latin word for “listening.”) “Because officials do not do their duty and thus are disobedient, initiatives are begun as emergency measures and cries for help. This is understandable, but can also lead to schism and abandoning the institution.” Although he has understanding for such initiatives, he wishes to go down another path: together, discovering embers in the ashes.

European media are reporting great interest in the abbot’s provocative statement. The brochure sold out in the abbey gift shop on the third day and is now in its second printing.

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7 comments

  1. I have long thought that the next logical stage in the evolution of the papacy from a temporal monarchy to the role of today’s popes as spiritual leaders and bishops would be the conversion of the (now atrophied) papal monarchical autocracy into a constitutional monarchy. In other words, the devolution of power from the Pope to the various congregations would be codified. In addition to giving his “Royal Assent” to the local election of bishops, the pope would reign but not rule over a parliament of sorts. Although I greatly respect Abbot Martin Werlen’s idea for a parliament, I would only add that any permanent “college of Cardinals” would have to be written into this constitution. I am certain that many more traditional Catholics would demand that significant papal “reserve powers” be written into the constitution. Let’s hope, however, that just like today’s European constitutional monarchs, the Pope would always defer to his MPs.

    Something tells me this will never happen, as a “constitutional Pope” will not gain the support of many clergy and laity. And yet, the Church greatly needs to listen to Abt Werlen. As it is, a Church which preaches the Gospel only from one half of the human population speaks with only half the message of Christ.

    1. @Jordan Zarembo – comment #1:
      A nice idea, Jordan. But: have you reflected on the moral state of the modern constitutional monarchies? Do we really want a Church in which all significant decision-making was in the hands of what would inevitably become a purely political machinery? Of ‘sacred’ politicians and MPs (and PMs) whose only god is the ballot box? A church whose only creed would inelluctably become unintelligible from current sociological norms?
      Of course, none of us is so blind or witless that he thinks there isn’t already plenty of ‘politics’ at all strata of the Church. But at least we take comfort in the apostolic system’s sure guardianship of orthodox belief and practice.
      Your idea seems to me a genuinely tantalising Pandora’s box.

  2. Surely what we need is not devolution from Cardinals to congregations, but rather a recovery of two key Vatican II themes – subsidiarity and collegiality. The Synod of Bishops is “fig-leaf” collegiality, and when a show of subsidiarity, as ICEL has now become, is overlaid – smothered by the appointment of bodies like Vox Clara, then describing the current situation as leading to “disasters of our own making”, doesn’t seem too far off the mark. And so here in Japan we still use “interim” translations while “negotiating” with the Vatican regarding a new and definitive translation.

  3. The ‘Curial Administration’ in Rome is centralizing more and more. It is acting out at present in a manner even worse than the ‘dreams’ of ultramontanism expressed before and at Vatican I. One ‘word change’ showing this which I recently noticed, is that when the choice of a Bishop is officially announced on the Bull from Rome, the Latin still says ‘elected’ but the English ‘translation’ of this announcement printed in the Diocesan newspapers and even in the ‘news release’ and read out at the Enthronment/Installation says ‘appointed’ by the Pope. This is a serious change in at least the ‘official theory of ecclesiology for the role of Bishops. It certainly undermines any real thought of ‘collegiality’ or ‘subsidiarity’. Maybe ultimately Bismark had it right, the Bishops are now to be seen as only the ‘postmen’ or ‘branch managers’ for the Pope and Curia.

  4. In my experience teaching and ministering in parishes, nearly all Catholics I’ve known think of the Church as a top-down bureaucracy with the pope acting as President/CEO/Chairman of the Board and the other bishops as Regional Vice Presidents. This is equally true of people who are great supporters or great critics of the pope. We’re already there in people’s minds.

  5. The Council of Constance had some wise comments on the need to open Church governance in the decree Frequens (1415).

    A frequent celebration of general councils is an especial means for cultivating the field of the Lord and effecting the destruction of briars, thorns, and thistles, to wit, heresies, errors, and schism, and of bringing forth a most abundant harvest. The neglect to summon councils fosters and develops all these evils, as may be plainly seen from a recollection of the past and a consideration of existing conditions. Therefore, by a perpetual edict, we sanction, decree, establish and ordain that general councils shall be celebrated in the following manner, so that the next one shall follow the close of this present council at the end of five years. The second shall follow the close of that, at the end of seven years, and councils shall thereafter be celebrated every ten years in such places as the Pope shall be required to designate and assign, with the consent and approbation of the council, one month before the close of the council in question…

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