News & Commentary

Report: Germany’s Catholic Church shrinks; over 400,000 left in 2023

A man leaves an empty church in Bonn, Germany, June 12, 2020. The Catholic Church in Germany continues to shrink, according to a new report released June 27, 2024, by the German bishops' conference. The latest statistics show that more than 400,000 people left the country's Catholic Church last year. (OSV News photo/Harald Oppitz, Reuters)

BERLIN (OSV News) — The Catholic Church in Germany continues to shrink, a new study has found. More than 400,000 people in the European country left the church in 2023, according to statistics presented by the German bishops’ conference in Bonn on late last month.

The day after the results were published, German bishops were summoned to the Vatican to discuss changes in the so-called Synodal Council and the limits of the body overseeing decisions of bishops.

The exact number of people leaving the Catholic Church — 402,694 — is down from 522,821 the previous year, but is still the second-highest figure so far.

Bishop Georg Bätzing of Limburg, president of the German bishops’ conference, expressed concern when speaking of the results.

“The figures are alarming. They show that the church is in a wide-ranging crisis,” Bishop Bätzing said. His own diocese saw 13,000 people leave the church in 2023 — 2,000 fewer than a year earlier, The Associated Press reported.

At the same time, the bishop called for reforms, saying these alone would not solve the church crisis, German Catholic news agency KNA reported.

“But the crisis will worsen without reforms,” Bishop Bätzing said.

The statistics do not indicate the formal rejection of Catholic faith, but signing off from the church tax system, which helps finance church structures in addition to the regular taxes the rest of the population pays. If members of the church register their departure with local authorities, they no longer have to pay the church tax.

The country’s Catholic Church had around 20.35 million members at the end of 2023. The bishops’ conference didn’t detail reasons for the departures, but according to commentators, the abuse crisis and ideological rifts are to blame.

For Winfried Wingert from the Diocese of Hildesheim in northern Germany, it’s the abuse crisis that made him sign out in the local registry office. Since 2018, the dimension of the crisis “shook” him, he told KNA.

For 40 years, the 71-year-old from Bad Nenndorf, who once considered a vocation to the priesthood, worked as a pastoral counselor for the Catholic Church, but today he feels “homelessly Catholic,” quoting a book title by Regina Laudage-Kleeberg that has since become a catchphrase.

Wingert knew the former Bishop Heinrich Maria Janssen of Hildesheim, who died in 1988 and was accused not only of covering up abuse but also of sexually abusing children. The fact that he was an alleged perpetrator was something “I would never have expected,” said Wingert.

His appointment at the registry office took less than five minutes, the former pastoral counselor said as he resigned from his commitment to paying church taxes. “I’m still Catholic, I can’t let that go,” Wingert said. But he is no longer interested in the institutional church, nor does he think it can be reformed. “Leaving … was the right thing to do,” he said.

The number of Catholic parishes in Germany is also declining, falling from 9,624 in 2022 to 9,418 in 2023. The current statistics also show fewer priests, with 11,702 priests in Germany in 2023 (compared to 11,987 in 2022), of which 5,971 are parish chaplains (in 2022 there were 6,069).

Archbishop Stephan Burger of Freiburg, commenting on the survey, announced that the church will continue to change, including structurally. “But as long as we are on the side of the people, the Church will continue to exist in a largely secular world,” Archbishop Burger said.

The numbers are alarming for German faithful.

Dominik Blum, parish representative in the Catholic parish community of Artland in the Diocese of Osnabrück, wrote in his editorial that even if the results of the survey are published in the threshold of summer vacation, “there are problems that don’t get any smaller during the holiday season.”

“Three quarters of the Catholic respondents tend to leave the church. Three quarters! For heaven’s sake, we can’t just accept that,” he said in the June 26 editorial.

Pointing to “anger and annoyance” as main reasons to leave the institutional framework of the church, Blum said the Catholic community is often too busy to ask people ahead of time what their concerns are.

“Of course, only after the people have left (we ask), ‘Oh, we’re sorry, what’s wrong? Have we done something wrong? Why don’t you get in touch with us,…'” and the “response is zero,” he pointed out, calling for more dialogue before the faithful leave.

“We must prepare ourselves for the fact that several hundred thousand people will leave the church in the coming years,” said Irme Stetter-Karp, president of the lay-run Central Committee of German Catholics.

Along with the committee, the German bishops led a three-year reform process, the Synodal Way, marked by tensions between progressive and conservative wings of the church — and drawing open opposition from the Vatican. Its final assembly in 2023 called for the church to approve blessings of same-sex unions.

Commenting on the results of the survey, Bishop Peter Kohlgraf of Mainz said the reason for the high number of people leaving is a growing alienation between churches and society.

“Many people in our society lack nothing: They are content without God, without a church and without any religious faith,” the bishop remarked.

On June 27, only a day after the church in Germany published the results of the survey, the Vatican asked the representatives of the German Synodal Way to change the name of the Synodal Council that would permanently oversee the church in Germany.

The joint June 27 statement of the German bishops and the Holy See said that “with regard to the position of this body, there is agreement that it is not above or equal to the Bishops’ Conference,” referring to the Synodal Council.

At the request of the Vatican, the committee responsible for preparing the new body in Germany is now to work closely with the relevant Holy See authorities. The joint press release also specified that future drafts of documents from the German side must be formally reviewed and approved by the Vatican.

The June 27 meeting was kept on the highest personnel levels of the Vatican and the German church.

The Holy See was represented by Cardinal Víctor Fernández, prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith; Cardinal Kurt Koch, prefect of the Dicastery for Promoting Christian Unity; Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican’s secretary of state; Cardinal Robert Francis Prevost, prefect of the Dicastery for Bishops; and Cardinal Arthur Roche, prefect of the Dicastery for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments.

The German bishops’ conference was represented by Bishop Bätzing, Bishop Stephan Ackermann of Trier, Bishop Bertram Meier of Augsburg and Bishop Franz-Josef Overbeck of Essen, as well as Beate Gilles, lay theologian and secretary-general of the conference.

According to KNA, both sides have agreed to meet again after the World Synod on Synodality in October.

By OSV News