The Austrian Church is facing a mass exodus, with almost 68,000 Catholics leaving in 2019, an almost 15% increase on 2018.

Driving the news

According to official Church statistics out January 15, 67,583 Austrians left the Catholic Church last year, compared to 58,807 in 2018.

The increase was largely due to continuing fallout from the Church’s pedophilia scandal, and from the scandal resulting from alleged financial and sexual wrongdoing on the part of former Bishop of Gurk-Klagenfurt Alois Schwarz, replaced in December on the personal intervention of Pope Francis.

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The number of desertions in the Austrian Church is a hike on the trend in previous years, except for 2010, when 85,960 people left the Church at the height of the clerical sexual abuse scandal.

Despite the increase in the number of Austrians turning away from the faith, 4,564 people asked to be taken back into the Church in 2019.

Again, that was a drop on 2018 numbers, to the tune of 13.3%.

All told, however, the total number of Catholics in Austria remained reasonably steady, according to the Bishops’ statistics: as of December 31 last year, there were 4.98 million Catholics in the country, against 5.05 million at the end of 2018.

Why it matters

Along with the drop in the number of faithful, another challenge the Austrian hierarchy will have to face in light of the statistics is the decline in the number of priests.

In 2019, there were 1,897 diocesan priests, 1,411 religious priests and 475 foreign priests working in the country for a total of 3,783, down from 3,857 in 2017.

Last year’s number does not include the 151 Austrian diocesan priests currently posted overseas.

Other sectors in the Austrian Church on the decline include seminarians (1,814 in 2018 versus 1,920 in 2017) and nuns (3,453 in 2018 versus 3,600 in 2017; in 2012, there were over 4,300 women religious).

On the plus side, though, the number of permanent deacons is on the increase – up from 712 in 2017 to 750 in 2018 – as is the number of laypeople employed in pastoral service – 883 women and 553 men for a total of 1,436.

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PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.