Why Half a Million Germans Left the Catholic Church in 2022 — And What It Means
ANALYSIS: The record number of departures means a loss of hundreds of millions of euros in revenue, but much deeper implications for the future of Catholicism in Germany.
A record number of people left the Catholic Church in Germany last year, according to just released figures from the German Bishops’ Conference (DBK). In total, 522,821 people disaffiliated, a 44% increase from the nearly 360,000 who left the year before, which had been the previous high.
In other words, 2.4% of all German Catholics officially ended their Church membership in 2022, bringing the total number of Church members to 20.94 million people, a new modern low. The figure had peaked at 28.3 million in 1990 and has been dropping ever since.
In some sense, the 2022 figures are simply part of this larger trend. But with the number of annual departures crossing the half-million mark for the first time ever, the figure carries a sobering significance, underscoring the serious challenges facing German Catholicism in the coming years.
It also comes in the midst of the so-called Synodal Way reform efforts in Germany, a multiyear, multiphase attempt to conform Church teaching and practice to progressive societal standards. Proponents of the controversial process often cite the need to liberalize the Church in order to maintain membership numbers.
Here’s what you need to know about disaffiliation from the Catholic Church in Germany and what it means for the faith there going forward.
‘Leaving the Church’ Explained
The numbers shared by the DBK aren’t, strictly speaking, records of German Catholics who belong to the Church as a spiritual reality. Instead, they reflect the number of people in Germany who are officially registered with the state as Catholic — a civic status that nonetheless has very real sacramental and spiritual consequences.
Stemming from the post-World War I Weimar Constitution (and arguably with roots in ancient German practice), the German state mandates that religious organizations are funded by their members. Thus, German Catholics are required by law to pay a kirchensteur, or church tax, that amounts to an additional 8%-9% of what they already pay in income taxes, with the figure varying by region.
For example, a Catholic living in Berlin, making the average annual German salary of 43,722 euros, and paying the corresponding 5,981 euros in income tax, would have an additional 538.29 euros (or 9%) taken out of their pay by the government each year and forwarded on to the Archdiocese of Berlin.
The process is automatic. When a German is baptized in the Catholic Church, they’re not only added to the Church’s ledger, but they are registered as a Catholic with the local government. When they start paying taxes, the church tax is automatically withdrawn from their monthly income by the state and redistributed to their diocese — with a small “fee” taken by the state for facilitating the transaction.
Therefore, the only way to stop paying the church tax is to end one’s membership from the Catholic Church as a legally recognized entity in German society — accomplished by going before a local government magistrate and publicly declaring that one is no longer Catholic. The move doesn’t undo one’s baptism, but it does technically make anyone who does it ineligible to receive the Eucharist and other sacraments, and even a Christian burial, at least according to the current standards of the German bishops, reinforced with a 2012 decree. In fact, disaffiliating from the Church structure is widely described as a “de facto self-excommunication” among German Catholics.
The entire kirchensteur system is widely controversial — including among some German Catholics who are alarmed by Synodal Way reform efforts and don’t want to be forced to fund them through the obligatory church tax. As the Register previously reported, a number of entreaties have been made to the Vatican for alternative arrangements. But Rome’s answer has been consistent: While disaffiliating shouldn’t be considered “apostasy,” membership in the Catholic Church in Germany requires paying the tax.
Who’s Leaving and Why?
But while a small minority of German Catholics who don’t want to violate their consciences by contributing to the synodal process may be among the 522,821 who disaffiliated from the local Church organization last year, the vast majority likely left for different reasons.
Although the DBK didn’t disclose who disaffiliated and why they chose to do so, reporting and studies on leaving the Catholic Church in Germany in recent years paint a pretty consistent picture: Most of the people who disaffiliate don’t want to keep paying for a religious entity that either they no longer trust or that represents a faith that they no longer believe or practice.
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 sex-abuse crisis, which broke there in 2010, and younger people pointing to the obligation of paying the church tax, according to one earlier study.
But while the sex-abuse crisis may certainly be a contributing factor to disaffiliation, as are practical economic concerns, a deeper cause of disaffiliation is likely the rising tide of secularism in Germany, perhaps especially Eastern Germany, which is widely considered one of the most Godless places on earth. A 2021 estimate found that 42% of Germans are irreligious, up from 30% in 2010. By comparison, the percentage of people in Germany who weren’t Catholic or Protestant in 1950 was only 4%.
Nonbelief or at least non-practice has likely been rampant even among those registered as Catholic for decades, as Sunday Mass attendance numbers fell below 5% nationally even before COVID-19. But barriers to departure, such as the need to schedule a visit with the local magistrate and a pay a small fee, as well as family and communal incentives for remaining affiliated, have softened as more and more people opt out. As more people exit, disaffiliation snowballs, and the rate of departure itself increases. One study estimates that the number of kirchensteur-paying German Catholics will be cut in half by 2060.
What’s the Potential Impact?
In an immediate sense, 2022’s half a million disaffiliations means the loss of hundreds of millions of euros in church-tax revenue for the Catholic Church in Germany.
The German Church received 7.32 billion euros via the church tax last year, suggesting that the average German Catholic pays about 350 euro in kirchensteur a year. Based on that figure, the loss of 520,000 church-tax-paying members amounts to an estimated annual shortfall of nearly 183 million euros.
That’s not an insignificant figure — perhaps especially for the successor phase of the Synodal Way. Four German bishops recently blocked funds from the national church fund going toward the so-called Synodal Committee, a transitory body meant to implement the agreed upon resolutions from the Synodal Way assemblies.
This means that the remaining 23 episcopal ordinaries backing the Synodal Committee and their lay collaborators will need to come up with the money for the three-year process — with an estimated price tag in euros ranging from the high six figures to low millions — in the midst of revenue constraints due to disaffiliation. Criticism of the cost of the process, which is pushing for, among other heterodox proposals, the establishment of a permanent synodal council that the Vatican has explicitly forbidden, is likely to be more effective against the backdrop of these gloomy budgetary projections.
The impact of the latest round of departures will vary per diocese. For instance, Berlin, Hamburg and Munich experienced rates of disaffiliation significantly higher than the national average, 3.4, 3.7 and 3.2%, respectively, while the Diocese of Gorlitz lost only 1.4% of its members, the lowest figure of any German diocese.
Long term, 2022’s disaffiliation numbers and the trend they exemplify underscore already dire projections, such as one report that estimates 40,000 parishes, monasteries and other Catholic structures in Germany will need to be closed by 2060 due to lack of funding. Already feeling the pinch, many dioceses are in the midst of significant consolidations, closing parishes and schools. Continuing to employ the estimated 800,000 people currently working for the Catholic Church in Germany is clearly unsustainable.
The long-term outlook for the Catholic Church in Germany is one of a significant reduction in public standing, size and institutional influence. At the same time, the collapse of the current system may be just what is needed to free the Church from the outsized influence of church employment organizations, membership groups, and a theological establishment that don’t clearly share the basic commitments of the Catholic faith. Imploding membership numbers could prompt the German Catholic Church to opt out of the kirchensteur, relying less on compulsory member funding and more on the voluntary donations of those most committed to and involved in Catholic life in Germany.
Reform Needed — but Which Ones?
Proponents of the controversial and heterodox Synodal Way didn’t hesitate to interpret the recent disaffiliation numbers according to their agenda.
Irme Setter-Karp, the president of the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK), said that she was “sad, but not very surprised” by the results, claiming that Church leadership is “currently not determined enough to implement visions for a future of Christianity in the Church.”
“We urgently need reforms in the Church,” said Stetter-Karp, who has co-led the Synodal Way process with DBK president Bishop Georg Bätzing of the Diocese of Limburg, describing it as “shameful” that the synodal reforms currently lack financing. “A Church in a permanent low with staff in a permanent crisis is not very attractive for seekers.”
Bishop Bätzing shared a similar interpretation of the disaffiliation figures and their connection to the Synodal Way.
“We have asked ourselves important questions and developments on the Synodal Path,” he said. “Most of us have found answers and want to promote change.”
The change Stetter-Karp and Bishop Bätzing think is essential for a viable “future of Christianity” seems to include the reforms pushed for by the Synodal Way: lay governance, blessing of same-sex unions, incorporating gender theory into Church life and practice, attempting to ordain women, and getting rid of priestly celibacy.
But as critics of the Synodal Way have constantly pointed out, the sought-for reforms have already been in practice in the liberalized Lutheran church in Germany for years, but with no apparent effect on cratering membership numbers. The once-dominant body lost 390,000 members in 2017 alone, a decrease of 1.8%. Last year, it was reported that the Lutheran church in Northern Germany had lost 18.5% of its membership over the past 10 years.
In the end, what the seemingly inevitable collapse of membership in the Catholic Church might suggest is that attempting to “play the numbers game” by engineering reforms ostensibly meant to keep people from disaffiliating might not be the right approach at all. Instead, as Synodal Way critics argue, perhaps the best approach is to embrace a newfound fidelity to the Catholic faith, trusting that if any stabilization, let alone growth, of Catholic numbers in Germany is to come about, it will only be possible through the grace of God — not the machinations of men.