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400,000 Germans quit Catholic Church as talks between Vatican, Synodal Way continue

Photo credit: The Catholic Cathedral of Limburg in Hesse, Germany. | Credit: Mylius via Wikimedia (GFDL 1.2)

400,000 Germans quit Catholic Church as talks between Vatican, Synodal Way continue

By AC Wimmer

Just one day after the news that hundreds of thousands of Catholics left the Church in Germany in 2023, the Vatican met with representatives of the German Synodal Way to discuss the controversial plans for a permanent synodal council.

The meeting on Friday resulted in Rome demanding the Germans change the name of the body and agree it cannot have authority over — or be equal to — the bishops’ conference, reported CNA Deutsch, CNA’s German-language news partner.

The gathering came at a critical time: According to the official statistics released by the German Bishops’ Conference on Thursday, more than 400,000 people officially left the Church in 2023.

While this represents a decrease from the 522,000 departures in 2022, the trend remains alarming for Church leaders and Catholics alike.

Currently, there are 20,345,872 Catholics registered in Germany. If trends persist, the number could drop below 20 million in 2024.

Moreover, only 6.2% of Catholics regularly attend Mass: This translates to approximately 1.27 million practicing Catholics in a country of over 80 million, CNA Deutsch noted.

The new official numbers also reveal significant disparities in Mass attendance across Germany. 

The Diocese of Görlitz, bordering Poland, leads with a 13.9% attendance rate despite being the smallest diocese with fewer than 30,000 Catholics. In contrast, the Diocese of Aachen, on the Rhine in Western Germany, reports only 4.2% of Catholics practicing their faith regularly.

A 20-year comparison, released by the bishops’ conference, paints a bleak picture of the Church’s decline: Since 2003, the number of Catholics has decreased by almost 6 million, while Sunday Mass attendance has plummeted from 15.2% to 6.2%.

The number of active priests has also declined, with 7,593 in pastoral ministry in 2023, down from 7,720 in the previous year. Priestly ordinations have dropped significantly, from 45 in 2022 to 28 in 2023.

A 2021 report by CNA Deutsch noted that 1 in 3 Catholics in Germany were considering leaving the Church. The reasons for leaving vary, 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.

Scientists at the University of Freiburg predicted in 2019 that the number of Christians paying church tax in Germany will halve by 2060.

‘A concrete form of synodality’

Warning of a threat of a new schism from Germany, the Vatican intervened as early as July 2022 against plans for a German synodal council. 

Against the backdrop of ongoing dramatic decline and internal division, the Vatican engaged in yet another round of discussions with representatives of the German Synodal Way last Friday.

As CNA Deutsch reported, the meeting on June 28 involved high-ranking Vatican officials and representatives from the German Bishops’ Conference.

On the Vatican side, secretary of state Cardinal Pietro Parolin and four prefects attended: Cardinal Victor Manuel Fernandéz, prefect of the Dicastery for the Doctrine of the Faith; Cardinal Kurt Koch, prefect of the Dicastery for Promoting Christian Unity; Cardinal Robert 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 cardinals were joined by Archbishop Filippo Iannone, prefect of the Dicastery for Legislative Texts.

On the German side, bishops Georg Bätzing, Stephan Ackermann, Bertram Meier, and Franz-Josef Overbeck represented the Synodal Way. They were joined by the bishops’ conference general secretary Beate Gilles and communications director Matthias Kopp.

The talks centered on the proposed synodal council, which initially was intended to oversee the Church in Germany permanently but was rejected by the Vatican. 

According to a joint press release, both sides want to “change the name and various aspects of the previous draft” for the controversial body. Both sides also agreed that the synodal council would not be “above or equal to the bishops’ conference.”

The meeting had a “positive, open, and constructive atmosphere,” the statement said, adding discussions focused on balancing episcopal ministry with the co-responsibility of all faithful, emphasizing canonical aspects of establishing a “concrete form of synodality.”

‘Who has actually read this letter?’
The ongoing dialogue may mark a significant step in the negotiations between the Vatican and the organizers of the German Synodal Way, following previous repeated interventions by Pope Francis and the Vatican

Both parties have agreed to continue talks after the conclusion of the world Synod on Synodality in October, with plans to address further anthropological, ecclesiological, and liturgical topics.

This is a significant development: Amid the ongoing exodus of the faithful, the news that the German process will not simply dovetail with the Synod on Synodality in Rome raises the question of the overall purpose of what has proven to be an expensive German exercise.

In a video message released Saturday, Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki of Cologne urged German Catholics to take the Vatican’s concerns seriously. The archbishop reminded the faithful that Pope Francis said “everything he had to say” in a historic letter to German Catholics five years ago.

Pope Francis warned of disunity in the 5,700-word letter. He also cautioned German Catholics to avoid the “sin of secularization and a secular mindset against the Gospel.”

Woelki pulled no punches in his video. “Let’s be honest: Who has actually read this letter?” the German prelate asked pointedly. 

Noting the pope had called on German Catholics to evangelize, Woelki said: “We should fulfill his so urgently expressed wish — for our own sake, but also the sake of the Church in Germany, because only then will she have a future [here].”

Photo credit:
The Catholic Cathedral of Limburg in Hesse, Germany. | Credit: Mylius via Wikimedia (GFDL 1.2)

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