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Drop in German church membership causes concern

Anne-Bénédicte Hoffner - La Croix International - Thu, Aug 1st 2019

More people are leaving each year and nothing seems to be stopping the slide.

A sister of the Ursuline convent in Erfurt, May 26, 2019. Jens Meyer/AP

There is widespread anxiety at the publication of the annual statistics of the German Catholic Church for 2018. The German Bishops' Conference (DBK) is not even trying to hide its concern.

According to a short report posted on the DBK website on July 19, Catholics numbered just over 23 million at the end of last year, representing 27.7 percent of the total population in Germany.

They are therefore only slightly ahead of the Protestants, who number 21.1 million as members of the Evangelical (Lutheran) Church.

Moreover, the number keeps dropping. Last year, 216,078 Catholic faithful decided to "leave the Church" by ceasing to pay church tax: 18,000 in the dioceses of Freiburg and Cologne and even 22,000 in the diocese of Munich.

The figures for each of the Länder (states) are all equally overwhelming. The traditionally Catholic state of Bavaria, where participation at Sunday Mass is down to 11.5 percent, lost 64,000 Catholics out of 6.3 million - or 1 percent - in a single year. The capital, Berlin, has lost 2 percent of its 320,000 followers.

The rate of "departures from the Church" is increasing from year to year, the fall was "only" 162,000 in 2016. Then it increased to 167,000 in 2017. Nothing seems to be stopping this slide.

Out of its 27.4 million faithful in 1997, the German Church has now lost more than 6 million in the space of ten years. And in a country that has chosen an ecclesiastical tax system, with Länder levying between 8-9 percent, the consequences are also financial.

"There is nothing to embellish on the figures: they confirm a significant trend in the Church in recent years," says the DBK. "For this reason, we want to be more self-critical and constructive."

General Secretary of the DBK, Jesuit Father Hans Langendörfer, expressed his "regret" that so many people were turning away from the Catholic Church.

He acknowledged that some faithful may ultimately feel "alienated" from the Church or be "losing confidence" in it.

"In dioceses, the big question is how to give people hope and perspective from faith, how to give them a place in the Church, even to those who have left and may wish to resume the conversation," he wrote.

He cited "initiatives like Maria 2.0" -a strike led in mid-May by German women involved in the Church- that "show us that people want change", even though the operation had been much criticized by a number of bishops.

"The synodal process, which we want to follow together, should also take these criticisms into account," he said.

In March, during its Plenary Assembly in Lingen, the DBK announced its intention to "undertake a binding synodal journey for the Church in Germany," opening in particular the debate on priestly celibacy, to discuss the Church's teaching on sexual morality and to adopt measures to reduce ecclesial power.

In hi Letter to the pilgrim People of God in Germany, published on June 29, Pope Francis sought to encourage German Catholics, while also warning against "the search for immediate results generating rapid media but ephemeral consequences."

With the exception of marriage, all other sacraments are in "slight decline."

The Church has a total of 13,285 priests (compared to 13,560 the previous year), including 6,672 diocesan priests. It also has 3,327 permanent deacons (19 more than in 2017), 3,273 pastoral assistants - almost as many women as men - and 4,537 community assistants, the vast majority of whom are women.

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