There is a paradox at the heart of German Catholicism today. On the one hand, the official figures paint a stark picture of continuing decline in terms of Church membership, Mass attendance and participation in the sacraments. On the other hand, the German Church is enormously wealthy and continues to wield significant influence both at home and abroad, not least in the Vatican. The combination of dwindling spiritual influence and major financial clout does not look healthy: no wonder one bishop, Rudolf Voderholzer, has called for a new “Reformation” of a different sort from Luther’s 500 years ago.
The latest figures from the German Bishops’ Conference (DBK) paint a familiar picture. Over 160,000 Catholics left the Catholic Church in 2016, while only 2,574 converted (most of them from Lutheranism). The total number of priests in Germany in 2016 was 13,856 – a fall of more than 200 from the previous year. Marriages, Confirmations and other sacraments are all in decline. The sacrament of Confession, which the DBK does not provide numbers for, has to all intents and purposes disappeared from many, if not most, parishes.
These latest figures are just the latest example of a long-term trend. Throughout the 1950s and 60s, the number of German Catholics going to church on Sunday was quite stable, reliably sitting between 11.5 and 11.7 million per year. Then from 1965 onwards, attendance suddenly began to drop: from 10.2 million in 1970 to 7.8 million in 1980, down to 4.4 million in 2000. By 2015, a mere 2.5 million Catholics went to church on Sunday. Meanwhile, the overall number of Catholics stands at 23.8 million – just less than a third of the total population. So it is no surprise that last year, only one in 10 German Catholics worshipped God on Sunday by attending Holy Mass. (And that figure is down one third from 2000.)
There is a high level of regional diversity across Germany, resulting in stark differences in the number of churchgoers depending on where you live. Attendance is lowest in the historically Catholic regions along the Rhine, with the dioceses of Aachen and of Speyer registering a rate of only 7.8 per cent of Catholics going to Mass on Sunday.
The highest rates of attendance can be found among the small diasporic communities in the formerly communist Eastern sector, in places such as Saxony or Thuringia. Here, attendance rates are closer to 20 per cent. A close second are some parts of Bavaria, home of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, where a long history of Catholic identity continues to show signs of life, growing, sometimes haphazardly, in an area famous for its baroque churches. These beautiful structures, evidence of the Counter-Reformation, are still standing thanks to the support of the Church; even if the Catholic Reformation’s exuberance, confidence and Lebensfreude are sorely lacking nowadays.
The reason why these churches and many other buildings, from Bavaria to the North Sea, continue to be lavishly maintained, though fewer and fewer people frequent them, is the same reason why dioceses have thousands of employees, and why the Church is one of the biggest employers in the country: it is because the Church can afford it.
As prescribed by the Church tax system, Catholics pay an amount equal to an additional eight or nine per cent – depending on which state they live in – of their income tax. From this source, the Church received the record sum of well over €6 billion (£5.4 billion) in 2016. Thanks to the booming German economy, the departure of many thousands of Catholics every year has not (yet) put a dent in the ecclesial coffers. What is more, many activities of the Church are fully or partly funded by the states, including educational institutions and even the salaries of most bishops. These commonly run to a monthly income of more than £9,000.
In every diocese, a plethora of jobs and roles proliferates, from diocesan artistic commissions fashioning museums and exhibitions to environmental engineers advising ecological experts on how to make parish outbuildings sustainable. In fact, the Catholic Church, together with the Lutheran Evangelical Church (EKD), is the second largest employer in the country, right behind the public sector. From kindergartens to schools, hospitals to retirement homes, meals on wheels to many more Caritas services, the Church is involved with German life at every stage and in every area.
She also runs a large network of charitable organisations that contribute aid and assistance to the tune of hundreds of millions of euros abroad. In 2015, projects in Africa, Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe received more than €451 million in funding from German Catholic aid organisations.
With so much influence and money at hand, one might expect that the bishops would use this embarrassment of riches to spread the Gospel further and evangelise an increasingly secular society.
And yet, this is the one thing that appears to elude the Church in Germany, so flush with money: its core business of spreading the Gospel and watching over the sheep, helping a growing flock better to know, love and serve God.
“The faith has evaporated,” a wistful Cardinal Friedrich Wetter told me in 2014. Wetter, a deeply spiritual, prayerful cleric, was Archbishop of Munich and Freising from 1982 to 2007. He followed Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger in this role, and was the predecessor of Cardinal Reinhard Marx. We had spent the last hour mostly talking about Edith Stein, a saint he greatly admires. When I asked him why he thought this “evaporation” had taken place, he shrugged, biting his lip. It was the kind of shrug you make when asked about deterministic forces, things you cannot change.
When the Church’s current reality – spiritually impoverished and in decline, yet rich in material means – is actually discussed, two suggestions are brought forward. Some propose that the Church tax should be abolished. They seem to assume that if money will not solve the problem, then the absence of it will. (Though there is some merit to the idea, it is rarely thought through). The other response is an appeal for more heterodoxy.
Bishop Voderholzer, of the diocese of Regensburg, recently noted how “remarkable” these suggestions were. In a sermon that received widespread attention, the Bavarian bishop said: “Again and again, we’re sold the idea that there is a universal solution for reverting these trends and maintaining social relevance. We’re told that we must – I quote – ‘further open up and dismiss conservative dogmas’. We are then also told this means: abolition of priestly celibacy; abnegation of different responsibilities and vocations of women and men in the Church as well as the admission of women to the apostolic ministry.”
Instead of these debates and demands, Voderholzer proposed something different entirely. On the anniversary of a schism that is commonly called “reformation”, the bishop reminded his flock of a different meaning, which is the only way forward for the German Church:
“The first and foremost step on this path is the daily struggle for sanctity, listening to God’s Word and being prepared to start the reform of the Church with oneself. For that is what reformation means: renewal from within the faith, restoration of the Image of Christ, which is imprinted in us in baptism and confirmation. Where that is granted to us, by the grace of God, where this succeeds, we will also make the people of our time once again curious about the faith that carries us. And then we will also be able to bear witness to the hope that fulfils us.”