“Lack of reforms” and “rigid structures” are some of the factors being blamed for a wave of mass Church desertions in a German diocese.

– Nearly double the number of Catholics left the Church last year in Osnabrück compared to in 2018

German Catholic news agency KNA reported March 5 that Osnabrück diocesan newspaper Kirchenbote revealed a significantly higher number of Catholics left the Church in 2019 compared to 2018.

In the districts of Emsland and Osnabrück itself the number of believers saying goodbye to Catholicism almost doubled on yearly figures, the diocesan publication said.

Some of the concrete figures Kirchenbote released included 228 Church desertions in the town of Meppen – up from 111 in 2018 – and 254 withdrawals in the town of Lingen, an increase on the 159 recorded last year.

In Osnabrück there were 757 Church desertions in 2019, 290 more than in 2018, the diocesan paper said.

“It is striking that the numbers [of Church withdrawals] have not only increased massively overall, but are apparently even higher in predominantly Catholic regions”, Kirchenbote observed.

– Among the reasons, the abuse crisis, the Church tax and overly “strong hierarchies”

According to employees at the registry offices where German Catholics formalise their abandonment of the faith, the main reason behind the wave of Church withdrawals was the ongoing fallout from the clergy sex abuse scandal.

That’s at least among the older generation: among the young, Catholic deserters were more likely to cite the German Church tax on 9% of their income tax as the reason for their leaving.

Other reasons for Osnabrück Catholics leaving the Church include the Church’s “lack of reforms, rigid structures and hierarchies that are too strong”.

All of the reasons were self-declared on the part of the Catholics leaving the Church, since people who leave the faith aren’t obliged to give the reasons for their leaving and public officials aren’t permitted to ask.

– The “synodal path” reforms, the Church’s answer to the decline

According to KNA, the diocese of Osnabrück had around 3,600 resignations from Church members in 2018, 800 more than in 2017.

That 2018 figure was the highest number for more than 20 years.

Official Osnabrück Church statistics for 2019 are not expected until July, but if the Kirchenbote report is anything to go by, the number of Catholics in the diocese last year is likely to be significantly lower than the 552,990 Catholics who made up the local Church at the end of 2018.

The Osnabrück Church desertions are hardly unique in German Catholicism, with the Cologne archdiocese, for example, registering a similar decline in early February.

It’s all part of the wider downward trend in numbers in the German Church, which in 2018 reached the dramatic level of 216,078 people leaving the Church, according to official Bishops’ Conference statistics.

Despite the drop in the number of faithful, income from the German Church tax hit a record high last year, with the Catholic Church taking in over 6.6 billion euros from the levy.

But the hemorrhage of faithful is exactly what the German Bishops are trying to stem via the two-year “synodal path” reform process, in the context of which bishops, priests, laypeople and non-Catholic experts are discussing reforms to Church structures perceived to have played a role in exacerbating the abuse crisis and in Catholics’ alientation from the Church.

Those structures on the table in the synodal path discussions include the Church’s rigid sexual morality, compulsory clerical celibacy, clericalism and the authoritarian exercise of power and the marginalisation of women in the Church.

Next on Novena:

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

Cologne cardinal Woelki paying price for allergy to reform? 120,000 left local Churches just in 2019

German dioceses warn traditional priest-led parishes soon to be “exception”

German theologians warn lack of lay equality, democracy leading to “phantom Church”

‘Stay and pray’ programs, student housing… German monasteries try new strategies to halt decline

German ‘Church tax’ income hits record high despite dramatic drop in faithful

Archdiocese of Paderborn to lose two-thirds of its priests in fifteen years

German Churches bleeding faithful, membership to halve by 2060


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