A severe lack of lay theologians and a public perception of division are giving the German Church even more reasons to push on with its ‘synodal path’ reforms.

– Researcher: “Hardly anyone wants the Church as an employer anymore”

“There are many young people who want to deal with religion, theology and Church. The subject is still highly popular. But the Catholic Church as an employer – hardly anyone wants that anymore”, social ethicist Bernhard Emunds of the Jesuit Sankt Georgen Graduate School of Philosophy told German Church news agency KNA August 3.

Emunds was commenting on figures from the German Federal Statistical Office and the German Bishops’ Conference that reveal that 18,251 young men and women were studying Catholic theology in German universities in the 2018-19 academic year.

– Lay graduates in theology not enough to meet needs of dioceses, faculties

On the face of it, those numbers look good for the future of Catholic theology in the country, especially considering that the number of people studying the discipline has dropped off by only 7% in the last quarter of a century, compared to the fall over the same period of 20% in the overall number of Germans identifying as Catholics.

However, the statistics hide the real state of theology as an academic discipline, given that the vast majority of theology students are studying to become priests and teachers, not theologians in their own right.

In fact, the number of people studying in Germany to become lay Catholic theologians has halved in the last 25 years, from 4,881 in the 1993-94 academic year to a low of 2,030 in the 2008-09 winter semester to a slight rebound to 2,549 in 2017-18.

The number of those who end up completing full studies in academic Catholic theology, too, fell from 706 in 1993 to just 101 in 2018. That decrease of almost 86% is even more acute in the case of lay theologians, given that that figure of 101 graduates includes those who go on to be ordained priests.

KNA sounded the alarm with respect to those figures and pointed out two principal problems.

On the one hand, that the small number of lay theology graduates is hardly enough to cover the needs of Germany’s 27 dioceses and archdioceses, and on the other, that Germany’s 20 university theological faculties will face a serious crisis in coming years in terms of staff turnover, especially considering that in 2019 only eight students completed the theology habilitation necessary to teach the discipline at university, compared to nine in 2018.

– Theologians need help from bishops, Church

Emunds and Johanna Rahner, professor of dogmatics and ecumenical theology at the Eberhard Karls University in Tübingen and chairwoman of the German Conference of Catholic Theological Faculties (KThF) insisted to KNA on the importance of Catholic theology as an academic discipline, with both highlighting its relevance in a multicultural and multireligious world and its capacity to encourage interdisciplinary thinking.

But it seems unlikely that theologians in Germany – even considering the fame they enjoy worldwide for their academic rigour – will be able to ‘rebrand’ the discipline for themselves in a way necessary to attract more lay students without help from the country’s bishops – and the wider Church – with respect to bringing Catholicism up-to-date.

– Half of all Germans think Church “too divided internally”

That modernising of the Church is exactly what the German Bishops and their flock are attempting to do with the ‘synodal path’, the reform process in which – with the help of outside experts – they have set themselves the goal of re-evaluating, in the light of the clergy sex abuse crisis, Catholic doctrine and practice on power and authority, compulsory celibacy and the priestly way of life, sexual morality and the role of women in the Church.

But this week revealed another problem the synodal path will have to solve: the fact that one in every two Germans considers that “the Catholic Church in Germany seems to me to be too divided internally to give me support and orientation”, according to an INSA Consulere poll published August 6 for the newspaper Die Tagespost.

Never more than now, it seems, has creative thinking been necessary to guarantee the future of the Church… and perhaps not just in Germany.

More news on Novena on the German Church:

Democracy, equal rights, trustworthiness… German priest urges Church to learn “basics of modern society” and regain relevance

From ‘her’ parish without a priest, German abbess hopes for “radical changes” on gender equality in Church

German theologian: Church needs “radical change” to exit “dead end” on vital reforms

German Church at loggerheads over Bishops’ plans to reform seminaries


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