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Germany now a ‘mission country,’ Bishop Bätzing says amid declining Catholic numbers

Bishop Georg Bätzing addresses journalists on Sept. 28, 2023. / Credit: Martin Rothweiler/EWTN Germany

CNA Newsroom, May 14, 2024 / 09:32 am (CNA).

The German Bishops’ Conference president has called Germany — a nation whose very history is entangled with the Catholic Church — a “mission country.”

In an interview with the Society of the Divine Word’s German-language magazine, Bishop Georg Bätzing of Limburg said: “We live in a missionary country when we realize that less than half of Germany’s citizens still belong to the Christian denominations.”

According to CNA Deutsch, CNA’s German-language news partner, Bätzing said evangelization had been a central theme “since [Pope] John Paul II and also for [Pope] Francis.”

The German prelate continued: “But the other half are not simply faithless or don’t ask any questions, and in this respect, I believe we need to do much more.” 

“We should get in touch with these people, talk to them without being intrusive. These times of a mission with a negative tone are over, but speaking and answering questions about the hope that fills us, as the letter to the Hebrews says, is part of Christianity.”

Bätzing has led the Diocese of Limburg since 2016 and the German Bishops’ Conference since 2020. In 2016, more than 630,000 Catholics resided in Limburg. By 2022, this number had dropped to fewer than 540,000. 

The Catholic population in Germany, a nation of about 83 million people, has significantly decreased.

In 2020, there were approximately 22.19 million Catholics. However, by 2022, this number had dropped to about 20.94 million.

Researchers paint a stark picture of the future: In 2019, a project of scientists at the University of Freiburg predicted that the number of Christians paying church tax in Germany would halve by 2060.

Three years later, in 2022, more than half a million baptized Catholics left the Church, figures released by the German Bishops’ Conference confirmed. 

At the time, Bätzing stated on his diocese’s website that the “alarming” figures underscored the need for continued “cultural change” and the implementation of the German Synodal Way resolutions.

However, the German Synodal Way, which has advocated for significant changes to traditional Church teachings since 2019, has not stemmed the dramatic decline in Catholic numbers. 

A 2021 report by CNA Deutsch noted that 1 in 3 Catholics in Germany were considering leaving the Church. The reasons for leaving varied, with older people citing the Church’s handling of the abuse crisis and younger people pointing to the obligation of paying church tax, according to one earlier study.

The German Bishops’ Conference currently stipulates that leaving the Church results in automatic excommunication, a regulation that has sparked controversy among theologians and canon lawyers.

In June 2019, Pope Francis addressed a 28-page letter to German Catholics, urging them to focus on evangelization amid a “growing erosion and deterioration of faith.” He warned against relying solely on internal strengths, stating: “Every time an ecclesial community has tried to get out of its problems alone, relying solely on its own strengths, methods, and intelligence, it has ended up multiplying and nurturing the evils it wanted to overcome.”

The Synodal Way initially struggled to embrace this call. In September 2021, a motion to emphasize evangelization was narrowly passed but was initially rejected due to misinterpreting abstention votes. Bätzing later confirmed the proposal had been accepted, acknowledging the procedural error.

One year later, in September 2022, Bätzing said the shortest definition of religion was “interruption” and that some forms of continuity people seek from religion are “frankly suspect.”

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