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.
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