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An in-depth study of Germany’s younger priests has found they have limited interest in the changes to the Catholic Church advocated by the country’s controversial “synodal way.”

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The study, published May 17, asked priests ordained between 2010 and 2021 to say how they believed the Catholic Church should be reformed. The majority did not select answers that were championed by synodal way participants.

The 308-page document “Who becomes a priest?” — presented jointly by the German bishops’ conference and Bochum’s Center for Applied Pastoral Research (zap:bochum) — found that 25.7% of priests thought women should be ordained priests.

A further 29.6% supported the abolition of priestly celibacy, 30.3% called for greater democratization of the Church, and 36.8% agreed with the statement that “the participation of lay people should be increased, lay people should be given more power.”

All four topics featured prominently in the synodal way, which brought together bishops and select lay people at five assemblies between 2020 and 2023. 

Participants endorsed 150 pages of resolutions calling for women deacons, a re-examination of priestly celibacy, lay preaching at Masses, a bigger lay role in selecting bishops, and a revision of the Catechism of the Catholic Church on homosexuality.

The new report said that 75.7% of priests believed that reform would be achieved by a stronger focus on communicating the content of the Catholic faith, and 80.3% through “more offerings with spiritual depth.” A small minority of priests (4.6%) said that no reforms were necessary. 

Speaking at an online press conference, zap:bochum’s director Matthias Sellmann said it was clear that younger priests did not endorse the synodal way’s priorities.

He suggested that the majority of priests surveyed “do not see themselves as creative leaders.” 

“In any case, the majority of them seem to be alienated from the settings and values of modern society,” he said. “They are also unfamiliar with the concerns of Church reform. Therefore, they will contribute little to creatively opening up the Church and contemporary society to each other.”

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Researchers contacted all 847 priests ordained in Germany between 2010 and 2021, as well as the 1,668 candidates who left seminary in the same period. They received responses from 153 priests and 18 former candidates. 

The priests’ average age was 37 and more than 97% were born and raised in Germany. Just more than half had two or more siblings.

Researchers classified the priests into 12 “lifestyle groups,” using a typology created by the sociologists Marius Stelzer and Marko Heyse. They placed roughly two-thirds of the priests on the “conservative” side of the spectrum and a third on the “modern” side.

The German study comes six months after researchers suggested that the share of new U.S. Catholic priests identifying as theologically “progressive” had fallen so low that the phenomenon has “all but vanished.”

In the early 21st century, Germany, a country of nearly 24 million Catholics, averaged more than 100 priestly ordinations a year, but dropped below the threshold in 2019, the year that the synodal way was launched.

According to the most recent figures, there were 45 priestly ordinations in Germany’s 27 dioceses in 2022 (33 secular and 12 religious).

That marked a decrease from 67 in 2020 (56 secular and 11 religious) and 62 (48 secular and 14 religious) in 2021.

New figures suggest the decline is continuing in 2024.

Just seven priests are due to be ordained in the five Catholic dioceses of North Rhine-Westphalia — Germany’s most populous state — this year, according to the Catholic news agency KNA.

The combined number of ordinations in the dioceses of Aachen, Cologne, Essen, Münster, and Paderborn is down from 10 in 2020, 13 in 2021, 12 in 2022, and 11 in 2023.

One candidate will be ordained a priest May 25 for the Diocese of Aachen, down from three in 2023.

Three men are due to be ordained June 7 in the Archdiocese of Cologne, down from six in 2023.

In the embattled Diocese of Essen, there were no priestly ordinations at Pentecost this year, down from one in 2023.

In the Diocese of Münster, there will be no priestly ordinations for a second year running. But a candidate for the priesthood will be ordained as a transitional deacon June 9 and is due to be ordained as a priest of the Münster diocese in 2025.

Three men were ordained May 18 in the Archdiocese of Paderborn, an increase from two in 2023. 

KNA also reported that, for the first time since the Second World War, there will be no priestly ordinations in 2024 in the Diocese of Würzburg and the Archdiocese of Bamberg, which are both located in the German Catholic Church’s traditional heartland of Bavaria.

In the Diocese of Eichstätt, also in Bavaria, two men were ordained priests in April.

Only two men will be ordained in the five Catholic dioceses in the territory of the former East Germany, down from seven in 2020 and three in 2023, according to KNA.

There will be no ordinations in the dioceses of GörlitzDresden-Meißen, and Magdeburg.

A 45-year-old man was ordained May 18 for the Diocese of Erfurt and a 49-year-old will be ordained for the Archdiocese of Berlin May 25.

German bishops’ conference chairman Bishop Georg Bätzing said in an interview published earlier this month that Germany was a “mission country,” following the formal departure of millions of Catholics from the Church.

 “We live in a missionary country when we realize that less than half of Germany’s citizens still belong to the Christian denominations,” he said.

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