Is Cologne cardinal Woelki paying the price for his allergy to Church reform, and for his criticism of the German Church’s “synodal path”? That’s a conclusion that could be drawn from the fact that 120,000 people left the Churches of North Rhine-Westphalia just in 2019.

Driving the news

A total of 120,188 people left the Catholic and Protestant Churches last year in the state of North Rhine-Wesphalia, where Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki’s Cologne archdiocese is located, according to Justice Ministry figures released February 5.

The Church exits in the state in 2019 were a significant increase on numbers from 2018, when 88,510 people said goodbye to the Churches.

But the Justice Ministry breakdown of the people leaving the faith did not distinguish between the different denominations.

Go deeper

Domradio, the news service of the Cologne archdiocese, said that there was no immediately obvious reason as to why so many people abandoned the local Churches in 2019, apart from ongoing frustration and disillusionment of the clergy sex abuse crisis.

“Perplexity seems to prevail in the churches given the depressing development”, Domradio added, noting that Church leaders wanted to take time to analyse the Justice Ministry report thoroughly before making comments about the plunge in numbers.

“Basically, it is a permanent task to make it clear to people why it is good to belong to the Church”, spokesman for the Evangelical Church in the Rhineland, Jens Peter Iven, limited himself to saying.

The Cologne Archdiocese itself referred to a statement last summer by Vicar General Markus Hofmann: “We know that in many places the classic form of being Church no longer fits with the realities of life and we therefore no longer reach some people”.

Why it matters

And yet, that “classic form of being Church” is exactly what Cardinal Woelki is insisting on hanging on to, even though the Cologne archdiocese has been bleeding faithful since at least 2018.

First it was Woelki’s outspoken opposition to the proposal passed in February 2018 by a two-thirds majority of the German Bishops that the Catholic Church should provide communion for the Protestant spouses of Catholic faithful.

Woelki insisted on opposing the intercommunion plan despite his own June 2018 archdiocesan study that showed that Cologne Catholics are most attracted to a “caring”, “communal”, “pastoral”, “spiritual”, “redemptive” and “protective” Church, and most turned away by “pompous shows” in liturgy and doctrine “without a real connection to the faithful”.

For the record

But now, the slide in Christians in North Rhine-Westphalia – or at least the Catholic ones – can perhaps be explained by Woelki’s contempt for the synodal path, the two-year process by which German bishops, priests, laypeople and outside experts are examining possible reforms to Church power, sexual morality, celibacy and the marginalisation of women.

Woelki has been harping on the synodal path ever since it was decided upon by a majority of the German Bishops in March 2019, repeating over and over again of the danger “that the ‘synodal path’ leads us onto a German separate path; that we, at worst, even put at risk the communion with the universal Church and became a German national Church”.

Again, at the first synodal assembly last weekend in Frankfurt, Woelki complained that at the meet that “I basically saw all my fears confirmed. We witnessed the implementation of a de facto Protestant church parliament”.

“The essential prerequisites of an ecclesiological nature with regard to what the Catholic Church is were – in my opinion – ignored in many speeches” at the assembly, the cardinal continued.

“That was already the very clearly defined image when entering the [inaugural liturgical] service, when bishops and lay people all processed in together and thus it was expressed that everyone is equal. And that actually has nothing to do with what the Catholic Church is and means”, Woelki explained.

Statements like that earned Woelki the rebuke of chairman of the Diocesan Council of Catholics in the Archdiocese of Cologne, Tim Kurzbach, who accused the “traditionalist” cardinal of “destroying the authority of his episcopal office” by letting himself be “overwhelmed by the fact that suddenly everyone can speak with equal rights in the ‘synodal way'”.

To judge by the amount of people leaving the Churches of North Rhine-Westphalia, a lot of local Catholics think more like Kurzbach than like Woelki.

Next on Novena:

‘No’ to clericalism, ‘yes’ to co-responsibility: the keys to the first assembly on the German synodal path

Beyond the pale: Cardinal Müller compares synodal path to rise of Nazi Germany

“So far away from reality”: German Catholics blast Cardinal Müller for “synodal path”-Nazi comparison

Key German layman defends “synodal process” from Cardinal Woelki’s schism warnings

German Catholic youth blast Synod-phobic Cardinal Woelki for ‘noes’ on women priests, Church democracy


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