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German Church could lose a third of property

Jonathan Luxmoore - The Tablet - Tue, Jun 6th 2023

Up to 40,000 places of worship, rectories and community centres could be abandoned in coming years.

German Church could lose a third of property

St Michael's Church in Munich under repair. The cost of maintenance could imperil the future of Germany's 42,500 Catholic and Evangelical churches.

Germany's Catholic Church will be forced to give up a third of its properties because of dwindling participation and revenues, according to a report, with many facing demolition unless converted to other uses.

“The Catholic and Protestant Churches both have an extensive, heterogeneous building stock throughout the Federal Republic – with their membership and financial strength continuously declining, their buildings have long been a focus of concern,” said the report in Germany's Kirche und Recht review.

“Both face massive changes in how their diverse tasks and mission are perceived, with religion no longer having any place in the lives of many people. This is having an impact on their real estate.”


The report, by legal experts Adalbert Schmidt and Karl Schmiemann, said 80 percent of Germany's 42,500 Catholic and Evangelical churches were officially listed as architectural monuments. 

However, it added that at least 1,200 had been boarded up in the last two decades, and said 40,000 places of worship, rectories and community centres would have to be abandoned in future unless alternatives uses were found for them by Germany's 27 Catholic dioceses and 20 regional Evangelical churches.  

“Co-operation between Church and state heritage authorities varies greatly and is sometimes problematic,” the report added.

“Politicians and large sections of society also claim a public interest and right of participation because churches naturally affect the local atmosphere.... Future-proof protection can only succeed if state and Church are given equal and joint responsibility.”

Catholics make up around 26 percent of Germany's 84.5 million inhabitants, although church attendance has dropped sharply since 2019, with only 4.3 percent of Catholics currently coming to Mass, according to the online agency. 

In June 2022, the bishops’ conference president, Bishop Georg Bätzing, said he had been “deeply shaken” by new data showing 359,338 Catholics quit the Church in 2021, 60 percent more than during the previous year, with exit rates largest in the Berlin, Cologne, Hamburg and Munich-Freising archdioceses.  

Although the Church's Kirchensteuer, or tax income, has returned to pre-pandemic levels, reaching €6.73 billion in 2022, experts have warned that rising inflation, personnel, energy and refurbishment costs will increasingly consume church budgets, as more tax-paying Catholics reach retirement age. 

The Church has already merged and reorganised parishes, and sold off ecclesiastical assets, to cope with the decline, a trend reflected in other European countries, while convents and religious houses have closed or rented out their premises, and several dioceses have announced plans to close a proportion of their schools. 

The Kirche und Recht report said the Catholic Church had no central control over its building stock, which was governed by local laws and regulations, as well as concordats between federal states and the Vatican. It urged a switch to standardised rules nationwide to cope with current difficulties. 

“Given the number of Church monuments, the dimension of the problem is enormous and will present state and Church with a Herculean task in seeking to preserve them,” the report added.

“An attitude of dialogue, consensus and compromise, specifically formulated and jointly controlled, could help avoid paralysing disputes and overly long administrative procedures, whereas a vertical, hierarchical decision-making process will merely escalate the legal problems.”

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