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The debate over Germany’s departed faithful

A German bishop reignited the debate Sunday over whether the hundreds of thousands of Catholics who formally declare an exit from the Church each year should be told they can no longer receive the Eucharist.

Auxiliary Bishop Ansgar Puff at a Corpus Christi procession at Cologne Cathedral in Germany in 2020. Credit: Raimond Spekking /wikimedia. CC BY-SA 4.0

Preaching in Cologne’s cathedral April 23, auxiliary Bishop Ansgar Puff questioned whether the Church was doing enough to accompany baptized Catholics who leave, in many cases to avoid paying a mandatory church tax.

German Catholics who take the step are informed that they are no longer entitled to receive the sacraments.

“Is it right to no longer invite them to our table?” Puff asked. “Have they lost their faith? Mostly not. And if the Eucharist, as Pope Francis once said, is the medicine for the weary and weak, would Jesus then say: ‘Yes, but not you. You have gone, after all’? I ask myself these questions very seriously.”

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A taxing situation

The situation in Germany is often deeply perplexing to Catholics in countries which do not levy a church tax

Every person in Germany — foreigners included — 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, known as the Kirchensteuer (church tax), 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.

This step triggers a letter from local Church officials, describing the severe implications of the move: no sacraments, no holding of Church posts, no role as a baptismal or confirmation sponsor.

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Unease in Rome

The German approach to departing Catholics has long been a source of unease at the Vatican. 

After the 1983 Code of Canon Law set out the conditions for a formal act of defection from the Catholic Church, Rome was troubled by the idea that “defection” might be equated automatically with a declaration of withdrawal from the church tax system.

In a 2006 letter — issued not long after the German Pope Benedict XVI’s election — 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.”

The German bishops’ conference responded by issuing a declaration strongly defending its practice of considering withdrawal from the Church, “for whatever reason,” an action resulting in the loss of membership rights, “in particular to receive the sacraments and to participate in the Church.”

In the 2009 apostolic letter Omnium in mentem, Benedict XVI decreed that the term “formal act of defection” should be eliminated from the Code. 

In a commentary on the document, the then Archbishop Francesco Coccopalmerio said that the apostolic letter was partly a response to “a question which exclusively concerned certain central European countries,” including Germany, that operate a church tax system.

“This had to do with the issue of ecclesial effect of statements made to taxation authorities by Catholics who declared that they did not belong to the Catholic Church and consequently were not bound to pay the so-called ‘worship’ tax,” Coccopalmerio explained.

The German Church set out an updated approach to departing Catholics in a 2012 general decree

The decree, which was recognized by the Vatican’s Congregation for Bishops on Aug. 28, 2012, 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.

That text explained that as a consequence of their filing, baptized Catholics who are no longer officially registered:

  • May not receive the sacraments of penance, Eucharist, confirmation and anointing of the sick, except in danger of death;

  • Cannot hold any ecclesiastical office or perform any function in the Church;

  • Cannot be a baptismal or confirmation sponsor;

  • Cannot be a member of parish and diocesan councils;

  • Lose the right to vote and to stand for election in the Church;

  • Cannot be a member of public ecclesiastical associations.

Those who later wished to marry in church would require permission from the local bishop and need to promise to raise their children in the faith. 

“If the person who has left the Church has not shown any sign of repentance before death, ecclesiastical burial may be denied,” the decree added.

The decree urged local Church leaders to invite departing Catholics to engage in a conversation with a view to their full reintegration into the ecclesial community. It was accompanied by a standard letter to them that described the consequences of the step in stark language. 

In 2013, the German bishops’ conference issued an alternative form letter, which used more sympathetic vocabulary, while still listing the lost rights. 

Die Tagespost reported in 2020 that Rome had received several requests to review the bishops’ 2012 decree on the basis that it contradicted the 2006 ruling by the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts.

“However, the matter is not being dealt with swiftly,” the German newspaper noted. 

“Since interventions in the church tax system jealously guarded by the German bishops are always a matter for the bosses, one has to ask oneself in Rome whether there is at all the political will at the highest level to dare a conflict here with the German bishops’ conference, which always shows itself financially generous not only with the annual donations to the Holy See in the millions, but also with other needs in the universal Church.”

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Calls for reform

For years, critics within the German Church have contended that the current approach to departing Catholics is too impersonal. 

Catholic media reported in 2022 that the German bishops’ pastoral commission was working on a “new concept” for handling Church exits, offering more guidance for local clergy on how to reach out to former members.

In an interview published in January this year, Bishop Franz-Josef Bode said that the form letter approach had “backfired” and the Church’s pastoral commission now offered general advice to local officials about how to compose a more sensitive letter.

The deputy chairman of Germany’s bishops’ conference said the Church needed to find ways to keep in touch with the rapidly increasing number of Catholics who had left.

“There are many possibilities,” said Bode, who resigned as Bishop of Osnabrück last month. “In the case of baptisms or funerals, we have to look at ways of perhaps granting access. Of course, I cannot easily give a sacrament to someone who has left the Church. But perhaps to his children. That’s where we’d have to have a conversation. So we need a very differentiated pastoral ministry.”

In an April 2022 interview, Bode was asked if he would give Communion to a Catholic who had formally left the Church.

“First of all, the decision of the person who has left must be taken seriously. But those who come for Communion are not turned away,” he said, adding that the Church should also be “very generous” regarding funerals for former members.


Local innovations

The pastoral care of departing Catholics was not a major focus of the “synodal way,” the multi-year process bringing together Germany’s lay people and bishops to discuss sweeping changes to Church teachings and practice. 

Organizers made it clear that the initiative was not intended directly to address the vast number of annual “church exits.” When the synodal way ended last month, bishops’ conference chairman Bishop Georg Bätzing acknowledged that the process would have no significant impact on the number of departures.

But at a local level, Catholics are experimenting with new approaches. The Diocese of Regensburg has run an “exit hotline,” which departed Catholics could call to discuss their reasons for leaving, while a prominent church in Leipzig has displayed posters welcoming former members to attend services and even receive the sacraments.

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What’s next  

Bishop Puff’s Sunday intervention is notable partly because he comes from a different wing of the German Church to Bode, one of the synodal way’s leading champions.

In September 2022, Puff voted against a synodal way resolution calling for a change in the Church’s approach to sexual ethics. He also abstained from a series of controversial votes at the synodal way’s final plenary assembly in March.

Puff’s remarks about the Eucharist suggest that concern about the German Church’s current approach to its lost sheep stretches across the ecclesiastical spectrum. 

A record 359,338 people formally left the Catholic Church in Germany in 2021, the last year for which figures are available.

The number of Catholic departures has closely followed that of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD). The federation of 21 Protestant churches announced in March that a record 380,000 members left in 2022, compared with 280,000 in 2021. 

It would not be surprising, therefore, if 2022 was another record year for departures from the Catholic Church. If that is the case, the debate over the Church’s outreach to former members will only grow louder.

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