Record of resignations for Austrian Catholic Church

19-01-2023

Central Europe

Lennart Nijenhuis, CNE.news

The bell tower of the former church of Altgraun, a village that was completely flooded by a dam project in 1950, rises from the Reschensee lake (Lago di Resia), near Graun in South Tyrol, Italy. Photo EPA, Christian Bruna

More parishioners than ever are leaving the Roman Catholic Church in Austria. “For many, she is much more a cultural conservative thing than a spiritual issue."

The membership list of the Evangelische Kirche, the largest Protestant denomination, is getting shorter. Yet there is also good news: the membership of small, independent, Bible-believing congregations is increasing.

The mass exodus from the Roman Catholic Church began in 2010 when as many as 87,393 people left the Church. That was the previous record, in the year the world started to learn of the full extent of abuse in the Church. Multiple abuse scandals came to light and plunged bishops, priests and laity into a deep crisis of confidence. 2022 was an even darker year for the Church, which then lost as many as 90,808 members.

Entertainment

One possible reason for this could be the quarterly church contribution, an additional cost factor for life already becoming more expensive. However, Rev Peter Drost, a Dutchman living in Austria for several years, notes a much bigger problem. "Western society as a whole is becoming increasingly superficial. Many people are only concerned with empty entertainment", Drost says to the Dutch Christian daily Reformatorisch Dagblad.

Catholic Church revenue increased between 2020 and 2021, reports the Humanistischer Pressedienst. The majority comes from the church contribution, which rose by 15 million euros to 499 million euros despite the high number of people leaving in 2021. That is a growth of 3.1 per cent. The reason is clear: young people with low incomes are leaving, while the contributions of older, well-earning people are still growing. This will only change when larger groups retire, and their contributions are reduced.

Statistics published last week by the Austrian dioceses show that the proportion of Roman Catholics in the Alpine country has fallen from 87.4 per cent in 1971 to 52.4 per cent in 2021. The number of Protestants is also hollowing out. Whereas the number of members of the national Protestant Church –called the "Evangelical" Church– still made up 6 per cent of the population in 1971 with 447,000 people, in 2021, they made up only 3.8 per cent (340,000 people).

Future

While the Catholic and Protestant Churches have long faced membership losses, the smaller, independent Bible-believing congregations have grown. These so-called "Freikirchen" or "Evangelikale Gemeinden" have only been an official faith community for about a decade.

According to an estimate by Johnny Fürst, missionary in Villach (Carinthia) and organiser of several national congregational days and conferences, the number of people who regularly attend these congregations is now around 45,000. Austrian newspaper Profil wrote that these congregations had 40,000 members in 2018.

Nobody knows exact numbers at the moment because membership records are rarely kept, said pastor Drost. How does he see the future of the church in Austria? "Spiritually speaking, a church only has a future if it stays with the Word of God and sees the main task in the proclamation of the Gospel. Humanly speaking, I think the Roman Catholic Church will not disappear from Austria in one, two, or three years. But for many here, she is much more a cultural conservative theme than a spiritual thing."

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