German President Laments Church’s Diminished Role at ‘Catholics Day’

Speaking at the opening of the “Katholikentag” in the central German town of Erfurt on Wednesday, President Frank-Walter Steinmeier decried the Church’s diminishing role and standing in German society.

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier delivers a speech during the opening ceremony of the103rd German Catholic Convention on May 29, 2024, in Erfurt, Germany.
German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier delivers a speech during the opening ceremony of the103rd German Catholic Convention on May 29, 2024, in Erfurt, Germany. (photo: Filip Singer - Pool/Getty Images / Filip Singer - Pool/Getty Images)

Amid an exodus from Catholicism and ongoing struggles over the controversial German Synodal Way, both Pope Francis and the German president addressed participants at a national Catholic event underway in Germany this week.

Speaking at the opening of the “Katholikentag” in the central German town of Erfurt on Wednesday, President Frank-Walter Steinmeier decried the Church’s diminishing role and standing in German society.

The German president called for a self-critical debate about countering indifference to religion and growing alienation from institutions: “Are the churches failing to inspire us? Is their message too quiet, too neutral, too nondescript?”

Steinmeier, a Protestant, noted that “committed Catholics [are] among the most sturdy pillars of our democratic society rooted in freedom.” Therefore, it was all the more regrettable “that the churches are seeing people’s support and trust fall away on such a scale.”

“The shift is certainly dramatic,” the German president said, pointing to “the horrendous reality of massive abuse and the long history of cover-ups” in the Church as one cause of the decline.

In the face of this development, Steinmeier challenged Christians to ask themselves if “those who are really searching receive convincing answers, do they receive spiritual guidance, are they received with empathy in our groups, congregations, and initiatives?”

Pope Francis calls for ‘genuine reorientation’

In his message to the “Katholikentag,” Pope Francis emphasized the event’s motto: “The future belongs to the man of peace,” a reference to Psalm 37.

The Holy Father called for a “genuine reorientation” toward God and highlighted the interconnectedness of various societal crises.

“The many moral, social, economic and political crises we are experiencing are all interconnected. Care for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, the protection of life and the family, the defense of the dignity of all human life as well as outer and inner peace all belong together,” the pope stated.

Synodal Way organizers take the stage 

The Katholikentag (“Catholics Day”) is a biannual event organized by a local diocese together with the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK), the lay organization supported by the German bishops’ conference.

Before the backdrop of the German exodus from Catholicism and lack of support for the German Synodal Way, concerns over dwindling public interest, relevance, and participant numbers were raised.

As reported by CNA Deutsch, CNA’s German-language news partner, Bishop Ulrich Neymeyr of Erfurt said before the event that the Katholikentag was an opportunity to showcase the Church.

According to organizers, some 6,000 people heard Steinmeier’s address on Wednesday. Overall, organizers hope to attract around 20,000 participants.

On Thursday, the German Synodal Way co-presidents addressed Erfurt participants. While Bishop George Bätzing assured the audience the controversial process was not guiding the Church in Germany toward a new schism, his co-president, Irme Stetter-Karp of the ZdK, called for “gender equality” as well as “a separation of power and authority and a different style of working together” in the Catholic Church.

This week’s topics include peace and reconciliation, climate and social justice, democracy and right-wing extremism, and polarization in the Church.

On Thursday, a podium discussion titled in the official program “The Body of Christ Is Queer — What Now?” saw one German theologian praising “increased visibility for queer people” thanks to campaigns such as “Out in Church,” though the theologian also demanded further “reforms.”

A speaker from the German Lesbian and Gay Association called on bishops to show “active repentance” for long-standing discrimination against “queer people,” for example, by supporting the addition of the term “sexual identity” to the German Basic Law.

Previously, the German event made headlines for different reasons. In 2022, a Muslim politician and at least one Protestant politician received Communion at Masses celebrated at the event.

The event in Erfurt concludes on June 2. Another “Catholics Day” is expected to take place in Würzburg in 2026.