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Why Germany's Catholics are turning their back on the church

July 1, 2023

Over half a million Roman Catholics left the church in Germany last year alone. Why are people breaking with the institution? DW's Christoph Strack caught up with one former "core member" of the church.

Cloudy sky and silhouette of Cologne Cathedral
Dark clouds over Cologne Cathedral: The Catholic Church is facing a multitude of challengesImage: IMAGO/Panama Pictures

Germany's Catholic Church is in shock following this week's report on the record number of people leaving the institution:  Altogether 522,821 Catholics left their church in 2022, according to the German Bishops' Conference. That's an increase of more than 45% over 2021 and a figure that fits with the mounting criticism of the church's sluggish reform process, over which many bishops don't see eye to eye. And there's no sign that the membership decline is going to slow, let alone reverse.

Michael Rind smiling
Michael Rind left the Catholic Church in early 2023Image: Michael Rind

Michael Rind is one of those who recently left the Catholic Church. The 56-year-old told DW that reaching this decision had been a long, painful process. The Cologne-based financial accountant spoke of "many moments of shock" and "painful realizations" to do with sexual violence in his archdiocese of Cologne.

Cologne has seen a long-simmering dispute over the actions of Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki, the city's archbishop, who drew widespread outrage and criticism for his way of dealing with abuse cases. The very day before the latest figures were published, there was a raid on various archdiocesan premises over suspected perjury.

Rind is critical of the role of the entire Bishops' Conference, not only in dealing with abuse but also in fundamental questions of pastoral care. "There are people whom the church should actually take by the hand in following Jesus and consciously integrate: remarried divorcees or homosexuals," said Rind, adding that he often sees a "contemptuous attitude" instead.

'Core members' are now also leaving the church

There is a growing divide between the faithful who are waiting for reforms and demanding, for example, a bigger role for women in the church, and the bishops who are putting on the brakes.

But even the bishops now seem at a loss for words. Twelve months ago, the chairman of the Bishops' Conference, Georg Bätzing, said he was "deeply shocked by the extremely high number of people leaving the church." This week, however, the Bishops' Conference initially delivered simply the bare numbers, without any comment.

For years, more Protestants than Catholics left the church. Now, that figure has flipped: About 380,000 Protestants left their churches in 2022.

Pastors deplore that "core members" are now also leaving the church, people like Rind. From early childhood, he regularly took part in the annual 100-kilometer (62-mile) pilgrimage from Cologne to the Lower Rhine pilgrimage site of Kevelaer and back with more than a thousand like-minded people. Rind is prefect of the traditional Cologne Kevelaer Brotherhood. His wife is also Catholic, and she has remained in the church. But Michael said he could not stand it any longer in view of a situation within the church that he describes as "mafia-like."

Yet he believes that in times of looming climate catastrophe and social strife, the church could be in a prime position to give people hope. "People should be beating down its doors," he said.

Sexual abuse in Germany – A cardinal under pressure

Since victims of the clergy's sexual abuse made the crimes public in 2010, and more reports of crimes and cover-ups and systemic failures followed, the number of people leaving the church has been rising constantly.

In the foreseeable future, all dioceses in Germany will have to deal not only with the pastoral fallout from the high number of people leaving the church, but also with imminent noticeable decreases in the organization's financial leeway.

In Germany, members of Christian churches pay church tax, which is handled by the Finance Ministry and amounts to 9% of the income tax for those who can afford it. The money helps keep parishes, church-run hospitals, day care centers and other properties afloat.

Did Rind get any reactions to his leaving the church? The 56-year-old made his departure public in February 2023, and said he has also received positive reactions to it, "including from people who are still connected to this church. Maybe it's just as hard to stay as it is to leave," he said.

This article was originally written in German.

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Deutsche Welle Strack Christoph Portrait
Christoph Strack Christoph Strack is a senior author writing about religious affairs.@Strack_C