A record 522,821 people formally left the Catholic Church in Germany in 2022, according to new statistics.
When deaths are factored in, the Church’s membership fell by 708,285 in 2022, with only 1,447 people joining the Church for the first time and 3,753 being readmitted.
The new figures were published June 28 by the German bishops’ conference and the country’s 27 dioceses.
The loss of more than half a million Catholics means that there are now 20,937,590 Church members in Germany, comprising 24.8% of the total population of 84 million, compared to 26% the year before.
But not all trends were downward. The bishops’ conference noted that there was a slight increase in the reception of most sacraments in 2022 as Germany emerged from the coronavirus crisis.
Mass attendance rose from 4.3% in 2021 to 5.7% in 2022. Baptisms increased from 141,992 in 2021 to 155,173 in 2022, while First Communions grew from 156,574 in 2021 to 162,506 in 2022.
The number of weddings rose significantly from 20,140 in 2021 to 35,467 in 2022. But confirmations decreased from 125,818 in 2021 to 110,942 in 2022.
The number of priests in Germany fell from 12,280 in 2021 to 11,987 in 2022. Priestly ordinations dropped from 62 in 2021 to 45 in 2022 (comprising 33 diocesan priests and 12 members of religious orders).
The number of permanent deacons declined from 3,253 in 2021 to 3,184 in 2022, while parishes were reduced from 9,790 in 2021 to 9,624 in 2022.
Bishop Georg Bätzing, chairman of the German bishops’ conference, said: “The figures are alarming. We cannot and will not close our eyes to this development. We must continue to act consistently and people must know that we stand by their side and are there for them.”
The number of people who formally left the Church in Bätzing’s Diocese of Limburg increased by 3,265 in 2022, from 11,686 in 2021 to 14,951 last year. There were a total of 21,642 fewer Catholics in the diocese at the end of 2022, compared to the close of 2021.
“Yes, the high numbers of resignations hurt and I know how much volunteers and full-time workers in parishes, institutions, associations, daycare centers, schools, and Caritas are committed to others and how important the Good News of the loving God is to them,” the bishop said.
“Do not be discouraged. Please continue your commitment and let the people you meet every day experience the sources of your commitment, your joy, and your hope. I believe that we have a good message that our society urgently needs and that is fit for the future.”
The figures for Church exits varied considerably by diocese. In the Cologne archdiocese — the country’s largest — 51,345 people left in 2022, compared to 40,772 in 2021.
The archdiocese is facing a prolonged crisis centered on its leader, Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki. Law enforcement officials searched archdiocesan properties this week in connection with perjury allegations against the cardinal, which he strongly denies.
In the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising, led by Cardinal Reinhard Marx, 49,029 people departed in 2022, a notable rise from 35,323 in 2021.
The Diocese of Görlitz in eastern Germany — the nation’s smallest Catholic diocese — registered only 422 departures in 2022, but that marked a rise from 254 in 2021.
The diocese with the highest percentage loss was Hamburg (3.74%), followed by Berlin (3.38%), Munich and Freising (3.14%), Cologne (2.84%), and Dresden-Meissen (2.76%).
“Over 520,000 people left the Church in 2022. This figure sends a clear message,” she said.
“The Church has squandered trust, particularly badly as a result of the abuse scandal. But it is also currently not showing enough determination to implement visions for a future of being a Christian in the Church.”
Stetter-Karp and Bätzing were co-presidents of Germany’s “synodal way,” a contentious project beginning in 2019 that brought together the country’s bishops and select lay people to discuss sweeping changes to Church teaching and practice.
The initiative is facing an uncertain future after four German diocesan bishops blocked the use of a common fund to finance a “synodal committee” that would oversee the implementation of the synodal way’s resolutions.
“Even three years on, the synodal way cannot reverse this trend if operational implementation is now lacking,” Stetter-Karp said. “The glaring crisis is pushing for change. We urgently need reforms in the Church. It is shameful that we now have to fight internally within the Church to ensure that things continue at all.”
The lay leader downplayed the year-on-year rise in church weddings.
“Here, people who have long been determined to marry in church are making up for what the coronavirus era denied them. This trend toward more weddings is not expected to continue in the long term,” she said.
While the German Catholic bishops’ conference did not suggest a reason for the record number of formal departures, most analysts believe that factors include the country’s devastating clerical abuse crisis, secularization, and the Kirchensteuer (church tax).
Every person in Germany who declares a Catholic identity on an official registration form is required to pay an 8-9% surcharge on top of their income tax liability, depending on the region in which they live.
The sum is collected directly from employees’ paychecks by the state on the Church’s behalf.
If a baptized Catholic wishes to opt out of the system, they must book an appointment at a local registry office or court, provide official documents, and pay a fee of around $35. In return, they receive a certificate confirming they are no longer registered and therefore not liable for the church tax.
The step triggers a letter from local Church officials, describing the implications of the move, which include a bar on receiving the sacraments, no holding of Church posts, and no role as a baptismal or confirmation sponsor.
The Vatican has long signaled its unease with the German approach to Church exits.
After the 1983 Code of Canon Law set out the conditions for a formal act of defection from the Catholic Church, Rome was worried by the prospect that “defection” might be equated automatically with a declaration of withdrawal from the German church tax system.
In a 2006 letter, the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts ruled that “the juridical-administrative act of abandoning the Church does not per se constitute a formal act of defection as understood in the Code, given that there could still be the will to remain in the communion of the faith.”
In the 2009 apostolic letter Omnium in mentem, Benedict XVI decreed that the term “formal act of defection” should be eliminated from the Code.
The German Church issued an updated approach to departing Catholics in a 2012 general decree.
The decree, which was recognized by the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops, said that declaring an intention to leave the Church to the civil authorities was “a grave transgression against the ecclesiastical community.”
Citing canon law, the decree said that “anyone who resigns before the competent civil authority, for whatever reason, violates the duty to maintain communion with the Church and the duty to contribute financially to enable the Church to fulfill its functions.”
But while the decree used clearer theological language to address deregistration than previous texts, the practical effects of deregistration did not change.
A German newspaper reported in 2020 that Rome had received several requests to review the German bishops’ 2012 decree on the basis that it contradicted the 2006 ruling by the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, but they were not being reviewed quickly.
Sharp declines in Church membership are not limited to Germany but also extend to other German-speaking countries.
A record 90,808 people left the Church in Austria in 2022.
Vienna’s Cardinal Christoph Schönborn said this week that the proportion of Catholics in Austria was likely to fall from the current 52% “to 40% or less.”
“We can’t lie to ourselves about that,” he commented.
The Catholic Church may be facing similar declines in affiliation in other European countries, but in many cases, membership figures are based on estimates rather than the detailed information generated by church tax systems.
In 2022, a record number of people also left the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD). The number of departures from the federation of 21 Protestant regional churches and denominations rose from around 280,000 in 2021 to 380,000 last year.
Evangelical and Catholic church exits in Germany have followed a similar pattern over the past 30 years. There are now 19.2 million EKD members, compared to 20.9 million Catholics.