In 2014, the Catholic Church in Germany lost a greater number of faithful than in any previous year in its history for which there are records: 218,000 people–39,000 more than the previous year.
The figure is exceptionally high, exceeding even that of 2010, the year in which the German Church was shaken by the scandal of sexual abuse of minors.
In a recent article titled “The Bleeding German Church,” veteran Vatican journalist Marco Tosatti examined the German Catholic exodus, tying it to two principle causes, one financial and the other doctrinal.
From the fiscal side, church and state are much more closely allied in Germany than they are in the United States. Citizens declare their religious affiliation on their income tax returns, and depending on which box one checks, a special tax or “Kirchensteuer” goes to the appropriate religious body. The tax is calculated as an additional 8-9% of one’s total income tax payment, rather than as a percentage of income itself.
The Catholic Church in Germany is quite wealthy, in no small part due to the notorious “church tax.” In 2011, Tosatti notes, the German Church received somewhere in the neighborhood of $6.3 billion. Moreover, the Church in Germany is the second largest employer in the country, with only the state employing more people. Many of those employed are non-believers, and the Church’s considerable institutional presence influences people’s rapport with it, tending to create a more formal, and sometimes utilitarian, relationship.
The second proposed cause of German disaffection—and defection—from the Church is an ever more progressive trend away from traditional Catholic belief and practice toward a position often associated with mainline Protestantism.
During last year’s extraordinary Vatican synod on marriage and the family, the German bishops received considerable attention for their push for relaxing Catholic sacramental discipline, especially regarding Holy Communion for the divorced and civilly remarried. Heading up the drive was Cardinal Walter Kasper, who further muddied the waters by offending the African bishops, who, as a bloc, represented a more traditional force within the assembly.
Kasper has not been alone, however, in pushing for change. The head of the German Bishops’ Conference came out publicly, as well, saying that the majority of German bishops taking part in the Vatican synod on marriage supported the position of Cardinal Walter Kasper on allowing some divorced and remarried Catholics to receive the Eucharist.
Though Tosatti treats these two factors separately, in point of fact, they seem closely related, with some convinced that the progressive push for relaxed discipline is motivated by a desire to hold onto registered believers and, therefore, to their tax contributions, which make up 70% of total church revenue.
Many believe the German bishops are attempting to stem the flow of Catholics out of the Church by offering them wiggle room regarding traditional Catholic belief and practice, as thousands of Catholics in “irregular” situations have switched their affiliation on tax forms.
The situation has only gotten worse with a recent change in the German tax code.
A Wall Street Journal article last September suggested that Germany’s recently amended code, which closed a loophole concerning income from capital gains, means “church leaders have good reason to expect an exodus.”
As there is no sign of a change in policy at the Vatican, the Germans seem ready to go their own way, regardless of what Rome says.
According to Bishop Gebhard Fürst of Stuttgart, the German bishops will allow divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Communion, despite clear instructions to the contrary from the Vatican’s doctrinal chief, the German Cardinal Gerhard Ludwig Müller.
The Germans have been the most aggressive and most united group in the Church pushing for an easing of sacramental discipline, and seem determined to go it alone, if need be.
This has been a long time in the works. Back in 1993, three German bishops–Walter Kasper, Karl Lehmann, and Oskar Saier–issued a pastoral letter in which they stated that a dialogue was needed to determine whether the rule prohibiting the remarried from receiving the Eucharist “applies also in a given situation,” arguing that there ought to be “room for pastoral flexibility in complex, individual cases.”
This position was rejected at the time by then-prefect of the Vatican’s doctrinal office, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.
Follow Thomas D. Williams on Twitter @tdwilliamsrome.