About the church in Germany

Introduction to the state of the church in Germany

What is “Church”?

The Apostles' Creed states: “I believe in the Holy Catholic Church.” A sentence that many no longer understand today, many no longer even recite it; indeed, it is the only sentence of the Creed that Protestants have generally changed. In his interpretation of the Apostles' Creed, St. Thomas Aquinas then states: “The holy Church is the same as the society of all believers, and every Christian is of course a member of this same Church. [...] But this holy Church has four characteristics: it is one, it is holy, it is catholic, i.e., universal, and it is defensible and stable.” He briefly explains these characteristics: the Church is one because it is one in faith, as Paul says: “…that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought” (1 Corinthians 1:10) and “one God, one faith, one baptism” (Ephesians 4:5). So, unbelievers are not included. It is also one in hope and one in love; anyone who is not in the love of Christ for his church and the church for Christ (cf. Eph 5:23-27), according to Thomas, will not be saved, because “there is no church apart from this one in which people will be saved, just as no one was saved outside Noah's ark.” It is holy through the love of Christ and through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, who is the soul of the Church. It is Catholic, universal, firstly because it is in the whole world (the saints in heaven, the souls in purgatory and the faithful everywhere on earth are members of the Church), because any willing person can become a member of the Church (high lords and commoners, women and men, Europeans, Africans, Asians, whoever) and because it is timeless (beginning with the saints of the Old Testament and continuing throughout time, according to Christ's promise to be with us always). Finally, it is permanent because it was founded by Christ with the apostles as its stewards; hence we also find the New Jerusalem in the Revelation of John with the twelve foundation stones on which the names of the apostles are inscribed (Rev. 21:14).

The church is therefore, by its very nature, something spiritual; nothing hidden or merely thought up, but very much more than just a collection of people - who are, of course, more than capable of sin. We often use the word in this sense, but these are actually only points of view, offshoots of the church, so to speak. Its essence lies in its four characteristics and in its tasks, namely the sanctification of man through the sacraments and the proclamation of doctrine.

Let's start with a few facts:

In Germany, the Catholic Church is organized as a corporation under public law, of which every German becomes a member through baptism and then has to pay 9% of their income tax as church tax. But what happens if for some reason you do not want to pay this church tax to said corporation? A clear distinction must be made here between the church in the confession of faith and the corporation. If you leave the corporation, you no longer have to pay church tax, but you also have to reckon with sanctions. In secular terms, you will then no longer receive any “services” from the members of the body, i.e., no sacrament of marriage with a church wedding, normally no funeral, etc. The exclusion from these means of the Church, which are essential for a life with the blessing and support of God, is actually one of the most severe sanctions that the Church as a supernatural institution can take, and normally results from separation from the Church, when the believer is excommunicated, i.e., excluded from the community of believers in Christ. According to a statement by the Holy See, however, leaving the Church body is not tantamount to excommunication. Why?

Excommunication requires much more than personal dissatisfaction or even the desire to provide financial support only to targeted organizations in the church. For excommunication to occur, denial of the faith of the Church or conscious separation from the hierarchy of the Church is necessary. For example, if someone says: “Christ did not found a church, God is enough for me!” then he is consciously separating himself from the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, as explained in the first paragraph, and the sacraments must really be denied him (what grace would he receive from them if his heart remains completely distant from God's instructions?) However, if there are other, purely practical reasons - usually evident from the fact that these Catholics go to Mass every Sunday, lead a life in accordance with the faith of the Church and have a lively desire for confession, for example - a priest can normally be found who will administer the sacraments despite the withdrawal.

The fact that Catholics in Germany are forced to pay church tax is therefore highly controversial. In short, there are historical reasons for the existence of church tax in Germany.

In recent decades, the number of church members has declined significantly. In 2021, German Catholics numbered around 21.6 million, making up 26% of the population. In 2022, the Catholic Church in Germany lost around 763,000 members through resignation or death. With 522,821 resignations, a new record was set (almost 200,000 fewer people had left a year earlier). Around 160,000 people were baptized or (re)received. According to generous statistics, around 5.7% of the remaining 20.9 million attend church services.

Despite declining church membership figures, church tax income rose by 1.7% year-on-year to around 6.8 billion euros in 2022, without taking inflation into account. The reason for the increase despite resignations is the rise in wages.

So, what does real life look like for a Catholic in Germany? Let's go through a few examples.

Let's start with Anneliese. She is now a grandmother of five. She grew up with the Catholic faith from an early age. She still has vague memories of “back then, when you couldn't understand the mass.” Her parents before her always went to church, and their parents before them - so Anneliese does, too. Her own children still enjoy going to church, too. Unfortunately, the grandchildren don't think much of it, even though the pastor goes to such great lengths, using new spiritual hymns (the novelty of the 1960s) and always greeting the congregation effusively. His sermons are also appealing. Admittedly, Anneliese can't remember what the last Sunday sermon was about. It probably had something to do with charity and the soccer match the Sunday before. In any case, it was unpretentious. The grandchildren still find the church outdated. What a beautiful community they are depriving themselves of!

Anneliese's parish is an average German parish.

Let's continue with another, younger, believer, let's call him Max. Max, who is one of the few of his peers to have grown up in the faith, has not gone to his parish church for a long time because clowns perform at mass and blasphemous sermons are preached there. There are no opportunities for confession; when asked, he was only told: “That's pre-conciliar.” Max once complained to the bishop, according to his office the successor to the apostles and guardian of the faith - but he laughed at him. David in the neighboring diocese, who rediscovered his faith at the age of 16, was told that the priest should know for himself what’s right. Max now attends mass at a religious community in the same town, David drives half an hour to another parish run by a deeply religious (and incidentally young) priest. The religious communities in his neighborhood are heretical and the bishop has forbidden mass in the old rite.

The last time Max spoke to his priest was when he wanted to get married. The children Max and his wife now have are left to their own devices in their faith, as the diocesan youth organizations are spiritually disinterested but highly political. In some cases, their own flag was replaced by a rainbow flag.

David has decided to enter the seminary of his diocese. He is the first in three years. The diocesan seminaries are empty, and some have been closed. So, David struggles through his theology studies, where he sometimes almost wants to explode when one of the professors outright denies the faith. He keeps his mouth shut because he doesn't want any trouble. A fellow student, Lisa, failed an exam because she talked about the “sacrifice of the Mass”. David sometimes secretly goes to Mass in the old rite, but nobody in the seminary is allowed to find out. He is sure that he is called to the life of a diocesan priest, not to community life, otherwise he would have joined a traditional community long ago. After all, there are still good priests in the city and also in the seminary. A friend of his from another seminary reported “spiritual exercises” during retreats that were so explicitly sexual that it was actually offensive.

Lisa is a convert and active in church politics. She has followed the developments of the “Synodal Way” with great concern, which are now to be transferred to other bodies. The Synodal Way is a format not covered by church law, where the German bishops and some lay representatives (mostly members of church-political “progressive” associations, which are financed by the church tax mentioned at the beginning) brought “new” demands to the table (which are actually already 60 years old) under the pretext of dealing with sexual abuse: abolition of compulsory celibacy, ordination of women, blessing of homosexual relationships, democratization of the church. The faithful bishops, who might have been able to prevent some things, were largely intimidated and abstained when proposals were put to the vote. In addition to the bishops, the “Central Committee of German Catholics” (ZdK) played a key role in this process. This organization presents itself as the representative of the German laity, although – how democratic! - it was not elected by them. However, it is financed by the abundant church tax funds and has great influence in the “German church”. The ZdK even demands to be allowed to co-administer the church tax. Lisa would like to get involved to change things for the better. But she will never have a chance in the influential associations. So, she stands her ground at demonstrations and writes articles about the state of the church in Germany. A drop in the ocean? Lisa sometimes has little hope, even though she knows that Christ will preserve the church as a whole. In practical terms, she hopes for three things from her work: to encourage the laity and clergy (including bishops) who need it, to speak into the consciences of the bishops, and to draw the attention of those who are unaware of what is going on.

Lisa met one of Anneliese's granddaughters at university. Thanks to their friendship, Anneliese's granddaughter has also returned to her faith. Sometimes the two of them travel together to events organized by a really Catholic youth group such as Christ the King Youth or Youth 2000. Both young women have caused offence in their families through their faith. Grandma Anneliese also thinks her granddaughter is exaggerating. The friends don't care. They dream of a future where society is once again permeated by faith, even if they fear that things are moving in the opposite direction. They are glad to have witnessed the beginning of the difficulties in this case - so they can slowly grow to meet the challenges. The conversion of Anneliese's granddaughter has reminded Lisa that she is not working in vain. She now looks to the future with more hope. At the moment, all she sees for her homeland, which she loves with all her heart, is the hope of a miracle - but if single miracles are possible, why not this multiple miracle? Things look different in eternity and the Synodal Way could soon be as much an entry in the history books as other, larger church crises.

“I know. It’s all wrong. By rights we shouldn’t even be here. But we are. It’s like in the great stories, Mr. Frodo. The ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something. Even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back only they didn’t. Because they were holding on to something.”
Samwise Gamgee in the movie based on J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers