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Germany: Catholic Church loses half a million members

June 28, 2023

The flood of people leaving the German Catholic Church has accelerated, breaking another new record in 2022. Numerous sexual abuse scandals are believed to be in part to blame.

A German bishop holding a service in Stuttgart
For the second year running, a record number of Germans have left the Catholic ChurchImage: Arnulf Hettrich/IMAO

A record number of people left the German Catholic Church in 2022, the German Bishops' Conference (DBK) said on Wednesday.

A total of 522,821 people ended their official relationship with the church, surpassing the record broken in the previous year when 359,338 people left.

The departures follow a series of child abuse scandals that have rocked the church in Germany, and elsewhere.

Even though more and more people are leaving the church, there are still 20.94 million people — just under a quarter of Germany's population — who are registered members of the church.

A church mired in scandals

The DBK did not give any reasons for the record numbers of people leaving, but Irme Stetter-Karp, the head of the Central Committee of German Catholics, an influential lay organization, said she was "sad but not surprised."

"The church has squandered trust, particularly as a result of the abuse scandal. But it also is not showing enough determination at present to implement visions for a future of Christian life in the church," she added.

The Catholic Church in Crisis

A report commissioned by the church itself and published in 2018 said that at least 3,677 people, mostly children under the age of 13, had been abused by Catholic clergy between 1946 and 2014.

Another report, published in January 2022, laid out that the late Pope Benedict XVI had failed to prevent child abuse during his time as archbishop of Munich and Freising from 1977 to 1982.

Just this week, police raided locations connected to the archbishop of Cologne, Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki, over allegations of false statements he made in relation to his alleged knowledge of abuse by clergy members.

Germany's 'church tax'

Registered church members in Germany pay a "church tax" — between 8% and 9% of an individual's due income tax — that goes directly to their church, whether Catholic or Protestant, on top of the millions paid by the state with general taxpayer money.

Germany and the church

The loss of paying members also means a loss of funds for the church — funds that are used to keep communities in even the most rural regions of the country going.

"The Catholic Church is dying an agonizing death before the eyes of the public," Thomas Schüller, an expert in Catholic canonic law at the University of Münster and close observer of the German Catholic Church, told German news agency DPA.

It's not only the Catholic Church that is suffering. Mainstream protestant churches have also seen their registered number of followers fall. In 2022, some 380,000 left Germany's Evangelical Church.

ab/nm (dpa, AP)

Correction: A previous version of this article noted the church tax in Germany at between 8% and 9% of an individual's income. It is in fact 8-9% of the amount of income tax due. This has been corrected. 

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