German Catholic Church faces record-breaking member decline


Central Europe


A woman attends a mass at the Cathedral in Cologne. Photo AFP, Ina Fassbender

Never before did so many people leave the German Roman Catholic Church. In 2021, 359,338 Germans turned their back on the Church. Members of the German clergy speak of a crisis.

The number was announced on Monday at the German Bishops' Conference (DBK). DBK chairman Georg Bätzing was "deeply shocked by the extremely high number of people leaving the church", reports the Catholic Austrian news site Religion. According to Bätzing, the number is evidence of a "profound crisis in which we as the Catholic Church in Germany are.

In 2020, with 221,390 people, significantly fewer Catholics left the Church; in 2019 - the year before Covid-19 - the number was 272,771, according to DBK information.

Last year, the abuse scandal in the Catholic Church in Germany, which had been going on for years, escalated further. In particular, the processing in the Archdiocese of Cologne and Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki's behaviour caused massive criticism. In the Archdiocese of Cologne, 40,772 people left the Church, more than double the 17,281 cases in the previous year.

Breakneck speed

The record-breaking decline also uncovers something else. For the first time, less than half of German citizens belong to one of the major churches.

From the point of view of the Bonn church historian Christoph Kösters, the process of de-churching is progressing at breakneck speed. However, according to him, the crisis began much earlier. There are long-term social forces of secularization, pluralization and individualization. Attendance at church services has been falling since the end of the First World War when more than 50 per cent of Catholics still regularly attended Sunday mass. Today, it is less than 4.3 per cent, states the Catholic German news site Kathpress.

According to Antonius Liedhegener, a historian from Luzern in Switzerland, the crisis is now "life-threatening". He speaks of a wintry, deeply paralyzed church: "All attempts to give a new religious spring in Germany a chance seem doomed to fruitlessness by the clerical rigidity towards reform," he explained at the end of May at the Catholic Day in Stuttgart.

The Viennese theologian Regina Polak sees a dramatic break in passing on faith to the younger generation. "The Catholic Church is in danger of losing an entire generation or has already lost a large majority," she says. And of those who still participated, many resigned or felt ashamed of their Church. Especially young women.


Although the numbers do not look good, DBK chairman Bätzing is encouraged by the reform processes of the German Church, such as the "Synodal Path": "The departure that we are taking with the Synodal Path has not yet arrived here in contact with believers." According to the German Catholic News Agency, he is "confident that we are taking important steps in the right direction with the synodal path as an impulse for internal reform and renewal".



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