The German Bishops are pledging “courageous changes” in the Church to stem the hemorrhage of Catholics.

– 272,771 people left the Church in 2019: Bishops’ Conference

Official figures released June 26 by the German Bishops’ Conference (DBK) revealed that a total of 272,771 people left the Catholic Church in 2019, an increase on the 216,078 people who did so in 2018.

Those numbers out today mean that the total number of Catholics in Germany at the end of 2019 stood at 22.6 million, or 27.2% of the population, down from 23 million, or 27.7% of the population, in 2018.

The German Bishops’ statistics revealed bad news across the board for Church life. The number of Catholics regularly attending Masses has now fallen to its lowest level – 9.1% in 2019, compared to 9.3% in 2018 – and church marriages (-10%), confirmations (-7%) and first communions (-3%) were also all down last year.

Not only that, but the number of Catholic baptisms also plunged in 2019 to 159,043 in 2019 compared to 167,787 in 2018, as did admissions (2,330 in 2019 compared to 2,442 in 2018) and readmissions (5,339 in 2019 compared to 6,303 in 2018) to the Church.

The Catholic Church was not alone in experiencing a mass exodus of faithful, with the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD), a body representing 20 Protestant groups, also recording today a decline in membership from 21.14 million in 2018 to 20.7 million in 2019, a drop of 440,000 faithful.

– Bishops’ head: “We no longer motivate a large number of people for Church life”

In a statement accompanying the release of the DBK figures today, German Bishops’ chair Bishop Georg Bätzing of the Limburg diocese admitted that he could not simply “gloss over” the mass loss of Catholics reflected in the statistics, but was forced instead to take notice of the “decline in the reception of the sacraments” and the “process of erosion of personal Church ties”.

“Of course, the declines are also due to demographics, but they also show first of all the fact that, despite our concrete pastoral and social actions, we no longer motivate a large number of people for Church life”, Bätzing admitted.

“I find the very high number of people leaving the Church particularly burdensome”, the DBK chair also acknowledged.

“We regret every departure from the Church and we invite everyone who has left or wants to leave to talk to us”, Bätzing stressed, before underlining that “the number of people leaving the Church shows that the alienation between Church members and a life of faith in the Church community has become even stronger”.

– A need to respond better to the “signs of the times”

On the question of what is motivating the massive Church exodus and how to stem the tide of exits, Bätzing explained that although many in German society still appreciate the Church’s social work, there is a doubt that the Church is succeeding in communicating the Gospel “in a language that is still understood” by people today.

Adapting the Church’s proclamation of the Good News to the modern world “is not a question… of chasing after a spirit of the times, but of the honest question whether we recognise the ‘signs of the times’, as the Second Vatican Council says, and interpret them in the light of the Gospel”, the DBK president continued.

Recognising and adapting to those ‘signs of the times’ “sometimes requires courageous changes in our own ranks”, Bätzing affirmed.

“That is why last year we set out on the synodal path of the Church in Germany to ask what God wants from us today in this world”, the bishop continued, referring to the two-year reform process by which German laity, priests, bishops and outside experts are debating possible changes to Church doctrine and practice on priestly celibacy, women’s ministries, authority and power and sexual morality.

The new statistics out today will be brought into the synodal path discussions, Bätzing promised, with the aim of better understanding “how evangelisation can succeed under the concrete signs of the times” present in Germany today.

– “We need new forms of cooperation between priests and laity”

As a concrete example of the “courageous changes” that the German Church could experiment with in order to stem the hemorrhage of faithful, Bätzing noted that the “painful” downward trend in the number of priests “must… be an indication for us that in some areas of Church life we cannot continue as before”.

“We need new forms of cooperation between priests and laity”, the DBK president insisted.

But overall, Bätzing’s recipe for stopping the decline in the number of German Catholics was the one the German Bishops have been repeating for some time, and which indeed served as the justification for setting out on the synodal path in 2019, in the wake of painful and credibility-damaging clerical sex abuse allegations.

“After a significant loss of credibility, we should try to regain trust”, Bätzing stressed.

“Honesty and transparency, the Church’s helpful answers to the questions of our time and some processes of change should help us show what stands, and is, at the centre of our faith – the gift of God who gives meaning to our lives through faith”, the DBK chair promised.

More news on Novena on the German Church:

German diocese experiments with non-priest-centred parish models

German bishop warns ‘synodal path’ reform process must succeed or else Church “will become a sect”

German Bishops’ president insists ‘synodal path’ reform process “alive and kicking” despite cardinal’s objections

German bishop urges “spiritual revolution”: “We have to break out of the prison of a perfect Church”

German Bishops’ chair warns without more women’s leadership “the Church will soon be finished”

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