WASHINGTON — A record number of Catholics formally left the Church in Germany in 2019, according to official figures released Friday. 

The statistics issued June 26 showed that 272,771 people formally left the Catholic Church last year, a significant increase on the 2018 figure of 216,078.

In a June 26 statement, Bishop Georg Bätzing, president of the German bishops’ conference, said he did not wish to “gloss over” the figures. 

He said: “Of course, the declines are also due to demographics, but they also show first of all the fact that, despite our concrete pastoral and social actions, we no longer motivate a large number of people for Church life.”

“I find the very high number of people leaving the Church particularly burdensome. We regret every departure from the Church and we invite everyone who has left or wants to leave to talk to us. The number of people leaving the Church shows that the alienation between Church members and a life of faith in the Church community has become even stronger.”

The Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD), a body representing 20 Protestant groups, also released its annual statistics June 26. It reported that its membership fell from 21.14 million in 2018 to 20.7 million in 2019, a drop of 440,000.

Catholics now account for 27.2% of Germany’s population of almost 84 million, down from 27.7% in 2018.

The proportion of Catholics attending church services has fallen to its lowest level, with 9.1% attending in 2019, compared to 9.3% in the previous year. 

Formal departures from the Catholic Church in Germany are sometimes motivated by a desire to avoid the country’s church tax. If an individual is registered as a Catholic then 8-9% of their income tax goes to the Church. The only way they can stop paying the tax is to make an official declaration renouncing their membership. They are no longer allowed to receive the sacraments or a Catholic burial. 

Meanwhile, the number of admissions to the Church fell from 2,442 in 2018 to 2,330 in 2019, while readmissions decreased from 6,303 to 5,339 in the same period.

In 2019, church marriages declined by 10%, Confirmations by 7% and First Communions by 3%, according to the website of the Catholic Church in Germany.

The number of baptisms also fell from 167,787 in 2018 to 159,043 in 2019. 

In Bishop Bätzing’s own diocese of Limburg, 9,439 people left the Catholic Church in 2019, 1,459 more than in 2018.

The bishop, who succeeded Cardinal Reinhard Marx as bishops’ conference chairman in March, said that the Church should respond not by “chasing after a spirit of the times,” but by recognizing the “signs of the times,” as called for by the Second Vatican Council.

He said: “This sometimes requires courageous changes in our own ranks. That is why last year we set out on the Synodal Way of the Church in Germany to ask what God wants from us today in this world.”

“We will take the figures published today seriously and bring them into the discussions of the Synodal Way.”

The “Synodal Way” is a two-year process that brings together lay people and bishops to discuss four major topics: the way power is exercised in the Church; sexual morality; the priesthood; and the role of women.

The German bishops initially said that the process would end with a series of “binding” votes -- raising concerns at the Vatican that the resolutions might challenge the Church’s teaching and discipline. 

In June 2018, Pope Francis sent a 28-page letter to German Catholics urging them to focus on evangelization in the face of a “growing erosion and deterioration of faith.”

“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,” he wrote.

Last September, the Vatican sent a letter to the German bishops declaring that plans for the synod were “not ecclesiologically valid.”

After a back and forth between the bishops’ conference and Vatican officials, the first synodal assembly took place in Frankfurt at the end of January. The second meeting is expected to go ahead, despite the coronavirus crisis, in September. 

In his letter to German Catholics, the pope said that participants in the “Synodal Way” faced a particular “temptation.”

“At the basis of this temptation, there is the belief that the best response to the many problems and shortcomings that exist, is to reorganize things, change them and ‘put them back together’ to bring order and make ecclesial life easier by adapting it to the current logic or that of a particular group,” he wrote.