Continuing a years-long trend, the Catholic Church in Germany saw a significant drop in membership this past year, losing more than 200,000 members in 2018.
According to the German Bishops’ Conference, the Catholic Church in the country declined by 216,078 members last year. Protestant churches saw a similar drop, with 220,000 members leaving during that time period.
Fr. Hans Langendörfer, SJ, secretary of the German Bishops’ Conference, said the numbers show a need for the Church in Germany to be “more self-critical and constructive.”
“The current statistics are worrying. There is nothing to gloss over about the numbers, they confirm a trend that has shaped the Church in recent years,” he said in a statement.
Adding that a loss of trust and credibility has caused great damage, the priest went on to say that Church leaders must examine the question of how to make the Catholic Church a welcoming environment, where people can find hope and feel at home.
Recent sex abuse scandals in the Catholic Church could be contributing to some of this drop, according to surveys cited by German broadcaster Deutsche Welle (DW).
However, Church membership in Germany has been declining for years.
Priestly ordinations have also plummeted. In 2005, a total of 122 diocesan priests were ordained in the country. Ten years later, just 58 men were ordained priests.
Some 53% of the country’s population remains either Catholic or Protestant, according to DW. Both churches currently have more than 20 million members.
However, the University of Freiburg predicted that membership in both churches will be cut in half by 2060, dropping from a combined total of 45 million currently to below 23 million in the next 40 years.
German law collects an automatic income tax of up to 9% on the country’s Church members, which it distributes to Church organizations, among them the Catholic Church and the Evangelical Church of Germany, a federation of Protestant groups, mostly Lutheran, which constitutes the largest Protestant group in Germany.
Taxpayers have the option of opting out of tax payment by notifying state authorities that they have left the religious group in which they are enrolled. In 2017, the Church tax generated $13.5 billion for religious groups in the country.
The predicted decline in membership would lead to major budget shortfalls for the Catholic Church in Germany.
Several German bishops have been embroiled in a number of controversies in recent months, some of which have also led to tensions with the Vatican, in particular pertaining to the reception of the Eucharist by Protestants who are married to Catholics — a practice now officially established in several German dioceses — along with the reception of the Eucharist by divorced-and-remarried Catholics.
At least one bishop recently voiced support for a ‘church strike’ advocating women’s ordination.
Last month, Pope Francis sent a 28-page letter to Catholics in Germany calling for a focus on evangelization in the face of the “erosion” and “decline of the faith” in the country.
In his letter, Pope Francis issued a warning about the “synodal path,” a process announced the German bishops’ conference in March. The conference said issues of priestly celibacy, the Church’s teaching on sexual morality, and a reduction of clerical power would be subject to a process of “synodal progression” that could lead to a binding, but as yet undetermined, outcome.
“Synodality presupposes and requires the action of the Holy Spirit,” Francis said in the letter.
The pope warned that “despite all serious and inevitable reflection, it is easy to fall into subtle temptations … therefore caution should be exercised, since they, anything but helpful to a common path, hold us in preconceived schemes and mechanisms that end in alienation or limitation of our mission.”
The pope also reiterated concerns he raised with the German bishops during their ad limina visit in Rome in November 2015 in which he had already noted a grave lack of participation in the sacraments among Catholics in Germany. He challenged bishops to “pastoral conversion” and warned of “excessive centralization.”
“To accept and endure the present situation … is an invitation to face what has died in us and in our congregations, which requires evangelization and visitation by the Lord,” Francis said. “But this requires courage, because what we need is much more than structural, organizational or functional change.”