Interview with Thomas von Mitschke-Collande on Church Reform

The following interview may be of interest to at least some members of the Pray, Tell blog. The practices Mitschke-Collande cites seem to have some relation to official reforms of liturgical books for the Roman Rite in the present era.

Thomas von Mitschke-Collande, _Schafft sich die katholische Kirche ab?Analysen und Lösungen eines Unternehmensberaters_. Mit einem Vorwort von Kardinal Karl Lehmann. 256 Seiten.
ISBN: 978-3-466-37054-2 € 19,99

A Bavarian consultant analyzes the church crisis

Is the Catholic Church going out of business? is the provocative title of a new book. The author is a former McKinsey consultant Thomas von Mitschke-Collande who has advised the German Bishops’ Conference, and several dioceses. In the interview, the 62-year-old talks about his diagnosis and treatment suggestions for the church crisis.

Katholische Nachrichtenagentur (German Catholic News Service): Mr. von Mitschke-Collande, are you – as the title of your new publication suggests – the Catholic Sarrazin?
Mitschke: If the book triggers a similarly intense debate within and outside the church, be it ever so controversial, I would have no problem with the comparison. Otherwise, I would not want to be stuck in the same pigeon-hole.

Katholische Nachrichtenagentur: What are you concerned with?
Mitschke: The official church to recognize the seriousness of the situation and seize the opportunities to take in the future not with a backward-looking behavior, but in a forward strategy. The church has no demand problem, but rather a supply problem. It reaches fewer people today, just as they are, with all their hopes and needs. Actually, the church should be booming. More than ever, people are looking for spirituality, community, and a direction. My concern is already fully described with the first sentence of the book: “I’d rather break the law of the Church than a man’s heart.” This was the guiding pastoral principle of my late parish priest.

Katholische Nachrichtenagentur: Whoever reads your book gets the impression that you eventually lost patience with your church. Was there a pivotal moment?
Mitschke: Actually, no. The book has evolved from lectures and publications, observations and discussions of recent years. In some places the experiences come through with the content, especially with what went on in the context of regional planning with my diocesan bishop Konrad Zdarsa in Augsburg. I have experienced the powerlessness of the faithful in the face of the decisions of episcopal authority, the helplessness of many committed Catholics that soon changes over into anger and disappointment.

Katholische Nachrichtenagentur: What could have been done differently?
Mitschke: We have put the cart before the horse. Rather than integrate the people from the beginning, they were told this is how it is going to go. That now not so much is happening as was initially planned, is due to the fact that many Augsburg Catholics did not commit themselves and protested. Although they are no revolutionaries. Of course, there must be larger pastoral regions.
The fundamental question is: How do I get and promote church life at the base? It is from there that higher-level structures develop.

Katholische Nachrichtenagentur: You diagnose in church decision-makers powerful mechanisms of repression. How would you want to break through?
Mitschke: The data I collected are essentially not new. But I hope that the compact synopsis will not weaken their effect. We have a crisis of faith and a church crisis. Both are related to each other and must be addressed simultaneously. On the other hand, we do not have a resource problem.
Adjusted for inflation, the Catholic Church in Germany has now over four times as much money as in 1960. During the same period, the participation of the faithful in church life from just under 50 percent has collapsed to less than 13 percent now. That is, we have a relationship problem and a communication problem. Here is where deliberations must begin. This is not about conforming to the spirit of the age. The church has to deal on the basis of the Gospel with the time and answer the questions that today’s people ask and understand.

Katholische Nachrichtenagentur: Your proposals seek to change the church culture of how it does things. Experience has shown that such processes need time. What needs to happen first?
Mitschke: Those responsible should first have the courage to face up to the diagnosis. The overall picture may not be complete, but it is consistent. The initial starting point is a changed self-understanding. The church exists for the people, it must again be come more evangelical, simple. We need a theology of failure and compassion in order to be credible again. That this is not synonymous with the weakening of dogmatic principles, you can learn from the Orthodox Church. Then the church needs to become more Catholic – not Roman.

Katholische Nachrichtenagentur: What do you mean?
Mitschke: It would never occur to a global corporation to have a national hymnal blessed by headquarters. The top must not control everything, but focus on the preservation of the basic truths. The Church developed superbly in the first millennium without centralism. “Catholic” also means all-inclusive, appealing to all, not just the head. It is also about emotions.

Katholische Nachrichtenagentur: You advocate “loyal disobedience.” A business consultant would immediately lose his job if he advised the workforce of his customer to stand up more to the bosses.
Mitschke: You may be surprised, but a fundamental company policy of McKinsey is: An employee is obliged to object if he has a different opinion than his boss. And the latter is obliged to deal with the criticism.

Katholische Nachrichtenagentur: What would that be like, applied to the church?
Mitschke, we are talking about reforms for years, and nothing happens. Eventually you have to take action. Today we have something like pre-Reformation mood everywhere. There are enough stumbling blocks. And there are powerful communication capabilities. From angry Catholics will come courageous Catholics. For something to start rolling, we lack perhaps only a charismatic figure like Francis or Martin Luther. Let’s not forget: Many saints were initially rebellious outsiders. But one should not exclude the possibility that the Holy Ghost might again give us an endearing revolutionary like John XXIII on the Chair of Peter. We do not have a knowledge problem but a problem of action.

Interview conducted by Christoph Renzikowski.
Transcription linked by, accessed September 4, 2012.
English translation based on and corrected from a Google Translate version


  1. This man speaks what is on many people’s mind. Even on their lips when out of earshot of authorities who want to control the conversation. In 1965 I was standing outside the cathedral with other seminarians waiting for an ordination procession to begin. The discussion was about changes in the church some of which were beIng resisted. One of the ordinands cracked a line intended to be humorous that the whole renewal enterprise struck him as rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. Most of us laughed as the procession began. I’ve never forgotten it and have often observed in recent years–including here–that it does seem at times that the church acts as if it is going out of business. At a time when so many people are longing for some kind of connection with God, we are closing and consolidating parish communities. We do this because it has been declared out of the question that we should consider opening the priesthood to mature married men. Instead the bishops frantically forge deals with their confreres in India or Africa or God-knows-where to import celibates who struggle with our language, culture, and distinctly American ecclesiology. I admire them greatly, but they come and go without making much of an impact. What will it take for the authorities to realize we have a new sitz im leben that requires fresh thinking. We must learn how to speak to secular people without first telling them their present beliefs and practices are sinful and must go. That’s a non-starter

  2. I think Thomas von Mitschke-Collande somewhat overstates the lack of hierarchy and control in McKinsey, his old firm; I speak from experience because I worked there for almost 15 years and left after a long time as a partner. The firm has a very clear structure of authority and control. In the Mary Douglas model of individual-enclave, hierarchy-isolate, McKinsey is a classic hierarchy. It is not an accident that the firm was sometimes described as “a cross between the Jesuits and the US Marines”.

    But on matters of fact, analysis and action implication, he is right: the newest graduate hire was free – in fact, was expected to challenge the oldest partner if the junior felt that the data in a model was incorrect, or that sums had been done incorrectly, or that there was a better way to solve the client’s problem. The senior would eventually decide, but was not free to tell the junior to shut up. This was known as “upholding the right and obligation to dissent”, and it was a core value of the place.

    What is distressing about the Catholic Church nowadays – and here I agree entirely with von Mitschke-Collande – is that even asking questions seems to be construed as sinful. Raising concerns about a badly done translation is tagged as “dissidence” and “rebellion”. Questioning a bit of badly drawn up canon law or shoddy theological writing is equated with preaching heresy.

    I wonder how the Schoolmen and St Thomas Aquinas would have fared with their disputationes in this environment.

    Catholic studies were once something of a laughingstock in leading universities; this could easily happen again.

  3. “…the Catholic Church in Germany has now over four times as much money as in 1960. During the same period, the participation of the faithful in church life from just under 50 percent has collapsed to less than 13 percent now.”
    Dare we admit that the implementation of the post V2 liturgical reform contributed mightily to this decline?

      1. @Karl Liam Saur – comment #4:
        Problem with your observation is that the rapid decline in Catholicism happened most quickly precisely in those religious communities & dioceses that implemented the post V2 liturgical reform most earnestly.

      2. @Shane Maher – comment #16:
        And yet the broad satisfaction with Vatican II reform is undeniable. 1975, for American Catholics, was the high water mark for satisfaction with the clergy and bishops. It was a steady climb to that point, and it’s been downhill ever since.

    1. Dare we admit that the implementation of the post V2 liturgical reform contributed mightily to this decline?

      I’ll readily admit it when there is proof–not conjecture, not anecdote, but proof. To my mind, there is as yet no such proof.

  4. Here’s a partial list of events and movements that occurred contemporaneous with the decline in Mass attendance in US:

    The profound impact on the Catholic psyche by the mass mourning of JFK
    (why would God let such an awful thing happen)

    The civil rights movement challenging so many people’s prejudices about race
    (hm, if blacks have equal rights with blacks, why do clergy stand so high above the laity)

    The Vietnam war protest movement calling into question the trust of higher authorities

    The insistence by Paul VI in HV that all contraceptive acts are intrinsically evil
    (why should churchmen who know nothing about sexual practice tell married people what to do in their bedrooms?)

    The reaction of priests and bishops to HV seeking to moderate the impact of the document.

    The sexual revolution and it’s witness against long entrenched moral teachings

    I could go on, but clearly all of these things contributed to the growing phenomenon of Catholics thinking for themselves. Now if critical thinking is regarded as some kind of evil ushered in by “the spirit of Vatican II”………

  5. We greatly underestimate what was happening in the 40’s and 50’s. Take the example of women religious.

    They had been placed in the very difficult situation of having a full contemplative life (office, Mass, cloister etc.) and a full active life of teaching schools or running a hospital.

    Added on to the top of this were developments in the educational world and health care world to which they had to respond.

    In education it was credentialing of teachers. At first the nuns adopted the “20 year plan” of going to school in the summer. However state after state moved in the direction of firmer credentialing requirements. If the Catholic schools wanted the cheap sisters rather than more expensive laity the nuns had to take time off and go college and graduate school right away. Hence nuns were set on the path of becoming well educated much earlier than Vatican II.

    Similar thing happened in healthcare. As hospitals became more sophisticated women religious found themselves the only women in regional meetings of hospital administrators with usually much older males.

    Both in terms of being educated and being talented women, nuns were placed out there by the very nature of the work that they were doing, and how that work had evolved and become much more sophisticated in the 40’s and 50”s. The feminism of the 60’s and 70’s was decades in the future.

    The nuns were able to respond so quickly to Vatican II because they had already evolved greatly in the previous 20 years, and understood that they had to rethink what they were doing as Vatican II asked them to do.

  6. In 2003 I attended a workshop on the Liturgy by the late Jesuit liturgist (no oxymoron intended) Fr. Paul Cioffi. He offered some insights into the decline in the appreciation of the Mass and subsequent loss of Catholics in attending Mass these past forty years.

    For the most part, Fr. Cioffi suggests, the Sunday experience of Mass throughout our country fails to nourish our need for mystery and the transcendent. The main culprit in this failure is that many liturgists and liturgical architects rushed to an uncritical horizontal/communitarian approach to celebrating Mass so much so that it has overshadowed the vertical/transcendent. Fr. Cioffi states that new Liturgical forms “did not sufficiently reinforce awareness that we are in another story and on Someone else’s agenda”—God’s agenda. To an outsider the Mass appears to be merely a humanistic feast.

    We have forgotten that we are not just a community; we are a forgiven community with a forgiveness, which comes from God’s intervention in the human community and more importantly in the lives of individuals. We have tried to produce at Mass a sense of a fellowship of joy and warm feelings whereas God’s intervention in the gathered community and in the individuals celebrating Mass produces exultation.

    Fr. Cioffi states that the “notion of sin was lost” also. We can only appreciate our salvation and justification in Jesus Christ to the extent that we recognize the “wretchedness” of our sinfulness and how our sin is responsible for the one sacrifice of Jesus, his shedding of his blood on the cross, his death and his glorious resurrection. If sin and redemption are trivialized in the celebration of Mass, as they have been over that last few decades, then the central Christian experience of being forgiven and being a “wretch” in need of forgiveness will be trivialized as well. Only the one who truly understands the need for forgiveness will hunger and thirst for the body, blood, soul and divinity of Jesus Christ.

    Fr. Cioffi states that “we have carried the principle of variability of ritual and musical forms to a degree which destroys the very concept of ritual whose nature is to be the same.” Without contemplation created by “silence, sameness, repetition, and precision in the ritual,” there is the unfortunate tendency to keep improvising which then destroys the essence of ritual.

  7. Nice opinion piece that is reinformed by what – more opinions based upon what?

    Some liturgists (e.g. Baldovin) have done research on this question and the data suggest that one of the most significant obstacles currently and over the past 30+ years is the US *consumer mentality* – as Baldovin states – we have to get something out of it. Yet, liturgy is about the community gathering to give back – to give thanks – to give, period. This ritual notion flys in the face of the last 60 years in terms of society, societal mentalities, etc.

    So, Baldovin doesn’t jump to the conclusion that it was VII liturgical reform – in fact, his research indicates that liturgical reform helped delay the exodus; lack of attendance, etc.

    Any casual study of the 1950’s liturgy leads one to see that the early 20th century liturgists were well aware of the shortcomings of the Tridentine liturgy; the state of most liturgical activities with the subsequent desire to reform and build up communal liturgies. Pius XII’s writings clearly show that he was aware of the need for reform.

    The *notion of sin* is a church meme – depending upon how you define, explain, and parse that statement – it could apply to any period of the church over the last two hundred years.

    (what happened to your retreat, Allan?)

    1. @Bill deHaas – comment #11:
      Bill I had an excellent retreat with the good Benedictine, Father Eugene Hensell who describes himself as a Biblical scholar but not a liturgist, thank God.
      What Father Cioffi, God rest his soul, was saying is not in any way to denigrate Vatican II or the document on the liturgy or even the subseqent documents reforming the liturgy. Rather he is criticizing the way in which the reformed Mass is celebrated in so many places and the fact that so many priests (at least in 2003) do not celebrate it properly, do not have a “good art” of celebrating the Mass. He castigated too, much of the popular liturgical music of our day and the variations or creativity imposed on the liturgy by priests and congregations, but mostly by priests.
      Indeed, though, the liturgical movement of the early part of the 1900’s led Pope Pius XII, quite a visionary, to reform the Tridentine Mass and that led to Vatican II acknowledging the ground work that was laid.
      It is simply unfortunate that we have made a mess of the Ordinary Form of the Mass by banality, poor liturgical architecture which is a breach of our liturgical history and poor music and loss of the Introit, and Offertory and Communion antiphons. Certainly a trivialization of sin or dismissing it altogether undermines in the worst way why Jesus came to redeem us as a part of God’s salvation history that won’t culminate until His return to judge the living and the dead and the resurrection of the body. If I didn’t believe in sin and the need for salvation from it and eternal life because of Jesus then I wouldn’t go to Mass no matter how joyful and community oriented, instead I would look for those things in worldly pleasures and to the nth degree and not in any silly rituals the Church would offer to make us a happy, clappy people.

      1. @Fr. Allan J. McDonald – comment #14:
        I think much of this comment does a grave and myopic disservice. Nothing like coming to a liturgy blog and dissing liturgists in the first sentence, eh? May I stand on the hill of castigating the castigators?

        Fr Cioffi’s opinions would be interesting without the lens, I think. But the whole meme that Catholic liturgy is going to h*** in a handbasket is pretty tired, not to mention untenable.

        Where today’s clergy lack a notion of ars celebrandi, they stand on the shoulders of Low Mass providers of previous centuries. And what of bishops? We seem awash in canon lawyers and careerist sycophants. When was the last time we had a liturgist, a musician, a spiritual director, a poet, a writer, or even a Bible scholar named to head a diocese? How in the h*** can we possibly expect a renewal of ars celebrandi if we’re up to our elbows in letter-of-the-law prelates? A smile and a clap on the back passes for good preaching at the top of the heap.

        Fr Allan offers a classic example of Misdiagnosis: Liturgy–an unwillingness to look honestly at Catholic culture, misinformed about post-WWII architecture, or even engage the notion that perhaps human beings have never lost a sense of sin because most all of us, especially the bishops these days, were never all that excited about it to begin with.

  8. Ah yes, the usual clerical self righteousness from the right and the left, the people have either loss the notion of sin or they have developed a consumer mentality.

    Again I speak on behalf of the 40,000 plus people who filled out the Vibrant Parish Life survey in the more than a hundred parishes of the Diocese of Cleveland including more than a thousand in my local parish:

    They know what they want: their top priority was liturgy, their second priority was community.

    They know what is not being done well: liturgy and community were both halfway down on the list of things being done well. Buildings (church, facilities, and school) were at the top of the list.

    They told us why liturgy and community are not being done well. Parish leadership that listens to the concerns of parishioners ranked 7th in importance but 29th in being well done. The largest discrepancy between importance and being well done in the whole study.

    The clerisy (lay as well as ordained) are the problem.

  9. I have always appreciated Mr. Rakovsky’s insights in assessing the results of information gained from social science instruments in his contributions to this blog. Did the instrument from the Vibrant Parish Life survey offer any insights into what the respondents meant by liturgy or community that was “done well”?

    1. @Fr. Jan Michael Joncas – comment #13:

      The Vibrant Parish Life study is no longer posted on the diocesan website. So I have separated it into a number of content areas for easier reading.

      Parish leadership that listens to the concerns of parishioners was ranked as #7 in importance but #29 in being well done. Reading the results of the study suggests a huge disconnect between how people perceive the parish and how the parish leadership perceives it.

      Vibrant Parish Life: Worship, the Sacraments and Prayer.

      The following is a list of items in order of importance; followed by its ranking in being well done.

      1Masses that are prayerful, reverent and spiritually moving #21

      9 A church large enough for worship #1

      14 Attention to the spiritual and sacramental needs of the sick& shut-in #13

      16 An interior environment that creates a good atmosphere for worship #11

      22 The availability of the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick #10

      27 The Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults #9

      36The availability of the Sacrament of Reconciliation (Confession) #22

      38 Devotional services (rosary, Stations, evening prayer, etc.) #23.

      While the Mass is at the top of the list in importance, and Confession and the Rosary are at the bottom, there is essentially no difference in their ranking of being well done (#21, #22, 23) and all were below the mid-point of 39 items (i.e. #19.5)!!!

      The Anointing of the Sick and the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults are both ranked in the top ten in being well done, but are in the bottom half of the list in importance.

      Essentially only the Mass appears to be important, and likely influences #9 size of church and #16 quality of the interior.

      I suspect #14 has more to do with community than with worship and so I have placed it also with the community items.

    2. @Fr. Jan Michael Joncas – comment #13:

      Vibrant Parish Life: Community Related Items

      The following is a list of items in order of importance; followed by its ranking in being well done.

      2 The parish as a supportive, caring community #18
      4 The parish exhibiting a spirit of warmth and hospitality #19
      6 New members of the parish are welcomed #24
      8 Support for families who have experienced death #17

      11Ease in obtaining help and answer when calling the parish #16
      14 Attention to the spiritual and sacramental needs of the sick& shut-in #13

      Clearly many community items near the top of the list in importance, yet all of them being evaluated just slightly above the middle in being well done.

      However there are three items at the bottom of the list in importance that are a warning to pastoral staff not to mistake the desire for community as a willingness to be a volunteer labor force for a non-profit corporation .

      32 Encouragement to become involved in parish ministries #25
      33 Invitation of members to share the responsibility of leadership #32
      34 An annual stewardship appeal, asking for time, talent, and treasure #20

      In a local parish which does a very good annual stewardship appeal, the parish ranked their appeal as #11 on the list for being well done. However the parish ranked the stewardship appeal’s importance as #34, the same as the rest of the diocesan. Pastoral staff often mistake praise for doing a job well as indicators that the people share their priorities. This study in several places suggests otherwise.

      Vibrant Parish Life: Religious Education

      5 Religious education for children #7

      23 Youth ministry programs for teens #26
      26 Religious education for adults #30
      29 Programs or activities to promote spiritual growth #27

      Although religious education for children is both highly important and well done, other religious education is not highly valued. Again do not mistake the desire for community for a willingness to be indoctrinated.

    3. @Fr. Jan Michael Joncas – comment #13:

      Vibrant Parish Life: Social Witness

      The following is a list of items in order of importance; followed by its ranking in being well done.

      3 Promotion of respect for human life #8
      10 Outreach to the poor #15

      15 Cooperation with groups in the community to meet local needs #12
      19 Programs that strengthen and foster family life #34
      20 Encouragement of racial and ethnic harmony #31
      21 Sensitivity to special needs (divorced, separated, singles, etc) #35
      24 Cooperation with other Christian churches #28
      31 Encouragement of parish members to work for social justice #33

      Clearly when it comes to the most vulnerable (life, poor) Social Witness is in the top ten of the Vibrant Parish in importance and in being well done.

      There are of course many other social programs of lesser priority; note that except for community cooperation none of the other areas got high marks for being well done.

      Vibrant Parish Life: Parish Buildings

      The following is a list of items in order of importance; followed by its ranking in being well done.

      9 A church large enough for worship #1
      12 Well-maintained parish facilities and grounds #2
      13 Easy access to the church and facilities for the physically disabled #3
      16 An interior environment that creates a good atmosphere for worship #11
      18 Adequate facilities for meetings and other activities #5
      25 Access to a Catholic Elementary school in the area #4

      Clearly the Diocese of Cleveland (and I suspect many other dioceses )does buildings well (all five top ratings for well done)!!!. Note that while most facilities, except for an elementary school, made it into the top half of the importance items, only a church large enough for worship made it into the top ten.

      If we just did worship and community as well as we do buildings we would be in great shape.

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