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Critic: German Catholicism is rich – but in the wrong ways

Banner xanten cathedral germany credit daniel mennerich via flickr cc by nc nd cna

Xanten Cathedral, Germany (Credit: Daniel Mennerich via Flickr)

The Catholic Church in Germany is “spiritually impoverished and in decline, yet rich in material means.” That is the diagnosis of Anian Christoph Wimmer, editor of Catholic News Agency's German edition. Writing in the U.K. Catholic Herald Aug 10, Wimmer said the Church in Germany at present suffers from an unhealthy combination of “dwindling spiritual influence and major financial clout.”

“On the one hand, the official figures paint a stark picture of continuing decline in terms of Church membership, Mass attendance and participation in the sacraments,” he said. “On the other hand, the German Church is enormously wealthy and continues to wield significant influence both at home and abroad, not least in the Vatican.”

According to the German Bishops' Conference, 160,000 Catholics left the Church in 2016, while only 2,574 converted. The number of priests fell by 200 to 13,856. The numbers of people receiving the sacraments of confirmation and marriage is also in decline. Although the bishops' conference does not count the number of confessions, Wimmer said the sacrament has “to all intents and purposes disappeared from many, if not most, parishes.”

While one might expect the Church to use its wealth to evangelize secular society, Wimmer commented, “this is the one thing that appears to elude the Church in Germany, so flush with money: its core business of spreading the Gospel and watching over the sheep, helping a growing flock better to know, love and serve God.”

The numbers of Germans at Sunday Mass in the 1950s and 1960s were stable at 11.5-11.7 million per year, attendance dropped to 2.5 million in 2015. The overall population of Catholics in Germany is 23.8 million. The Church is one of the largest employers in Germany and the churches can still be maintained is because of its financial wealth.

Germany’s tax system means that registered Catholics pay eight or nine percent of their income tax to the Church. This totaled almost $7.1 billion in 2016, a record. The tax helps fund the salaries of bishops, which often exceed $11,700 per month, as well as educational institutions and other activities, like hospitals, schools and meals on wheels activities. The tax also funds the Church’s large network of charities, which give hundreds of millions of dollars in aid and assistance each year, at home and abroad.

“Thanks to the booming German economy, the departure of many thousands of Catholics every year has not (yet) put a dent in the ecclesial coffers,” said Wimmer. Church attendance is lowest in historically Catholic regions along the Rhine, with the dioceses of Aachen and Speyer reporting only 7.8 percent of Catholics attending Sunday Mass. Mass attendance is high in diaspora communities in former East Germany, Saxony or Thuringia, where attendance is closer to 20 percent. Some parts of Bavaria, Pope Benedict XVI's home, also show “signs of life.”

“The faith has evaporated,” Cardinal Friedrich Wetter, Archbishop emeritus of Munich and Freising, told Wimmer. Would-be reformers have many proposals. “Some propose that the Church tax should be abolished. They seem to assume that if money will not solve the problem, then the absence of it will,” said Wimmer, who suggested that this idea has some merit but is rarely thought through.

Another proposed solution is “an appeal for more heterodoxy” and advocacy to abolish priestly celibacy, admit women to the priesthood, and other changes.

Instead, Wimmer endorsed the recommendation of Bishop Rudolf Voderholzer of Regensburg, who spoke about true renewal on the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation: “The first and foremost step on this path is the daily struggle for sanctity, listening to God’s Word and being prepared to start the reform of the Church with oneself. For that is what reformation means: renewal from within the faith, restoration of the Image of Christ, which is imprinted in us in baptism and confirmation,” the bishop said.

“Where that is granted to us, by the grace of God, where this succeeds, we will also make the people of our time once again curious about the faith that carries us. And then we will also be able to bear witness to the hope that fulfills us.”

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