The news that a record number of people formally left the Catholic Church in Germany in 2021 will rekindle the debate about the country’s controversial “synodal way.”
The German bishops’ conference announced on June 27 that 359,338 people exited the Church last year, a huge increase from 2020, when 221,390 left. The previous high was 272,771, recorded in 2019.
The latest official figures suggest that departures from the German Catholic Church are accelerating. What does that mean for supporters of the synodal way and its opponents?
The supporters’ view
For the synodal way’s advocates, the grim figures are a confirmation that the Catholic Church in Germany requires a radical overhaul. The initiative’s organizers have always acknowledged that the local Church is in crisis, arguing that the synodal way is the necessary response.
The German bishops decided to launch the reform initiative in 2019, following a landmark abuse report known as the MHG study. The synodal way brings together the bishops and laypeople to discuss four main topics: power, priests, women’s role in the Church, and sexuality. Its defenders argue that these subjects were derived directly from the MHG study, though critics disagree and accuse the synodal way of “instrumentalizing” the abuse crisis.
Responding to the latest statistics, bishops’ conference chairman Bishop Georg Bätzing admitted that they were dismal.
“The figures for 2021 show the profound crisis in which we find ourselves as the Catholic Church in Germany,” he said. “There is nothing to sugarcoat, and I am … deeply shaken by the extremely high number of people leaving the Church.”
He noted that those departing were not just Catholics with little connection to their parishes. There was increasing evidence, he said, that people once highly engaged in parish life were also leaving. Indeed, there are even cases of senior priests abandoning the Catholic Church for Germany’s Old Catholic community.
Anticipating the criticism that the synodal way has had no impact on the outflow, Bätzing said that the “departure” that the initiative represents “has evidently not yet arrived here in contact with believers.” In other words, the changes that the synodal way’s champions hope to enact haven’t happened yet — and that is why the numbers remain bleak.
Bätzing added that the 2021 figures challenged him “to courageously continue on the path the Church has chosen,” as well as to raise awareness of German Catholics’ contribution to society and the global Church.
While the bishop did not make this argument, other synodal way advocates are likely to claim that many 2021 departures were related to upheaval in the Archdiocese of Cologne, which dominated the German Catholic news last year. Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki — a synodal way skeptic — has struggled to govern the country’s largest and reputedly richest diocese amid a major abuse report and an apostolic visitation ordered by Pope Francis. But the cardinal’s supporters would deny that Woelki’s troubles are the cause of the record departures.
It’s worth noting that there was some good news in the latest figures. The number of baptisms jumped from 104,610 in 2020 to 141,992 in 2021. There were almost twice as many church weddings compared to the year before (11,018 in 2020; 20,140 in 2021). First Communions also rose, from 139,752 to 156,574. This may, however, simply be the result of looser coronavirus restrictions.
The opponents’ view
The synodal way’s critics will also see the new statistics as a vindication. They are likely to argue that the initiative has been up and running for more than two years yet has failed to make the slightest impact on the figures.
They may also see the numbers as further proof that the synodal way is an elite venture, an exercise conducted by insular “professional Catholics” (the Catholic Church is Germany’s second-largest employer after the state.) In support of their argument, they might point out that a synodal way meeting last October was abruptly suspended as there weren’t enough participants to form a quorum.
Critics could also highlight that only 1,500 people joined the Church in 2021, while 4,116 people were formally readmitted — suggesting that German Catholicism is doing little to attract newcomers while pouring energy into internal debates.
Skeptics are also likely to argue that the radical positions adopted by synodal way members are accelerating the German Church’s decline. Participants have backed draft documents calling for women priests, same-sex blessings, and changes to the Catechism of the Catholic Church on homosexuality.
Members of a German Catholic initiative called “New Beginning” say that the synodal way’s trajectory is alienating a significant number of the country’s believers, as well as alarming Catholics around the world.
Worryingly, the number of Mass-goers dropped below the 1 million mark last year, to an average of 923,000, compared to 1.3 million in 2020.
Pope Francis’ intervention
Both supporters and opponents of the synodal way seek the pope’s backing. When discussing the initiative, Pope Francis has always referred to his 2019 letter to German Catholics. He recently underlined that he spent a month writing it himself, without involving the Roman Curia. He has said repeatedly that the letter sums up everything he wants to say about the matter.
There are, however, sharply divergent interpretations of the letter in Germany. Synodal way advocates see it as broadly supportive, while offering some points of fatherly guidance. Critics underline passages where the pope lamented the “decay of faith” in Germany and called for vigorous efforts at evangelization — a topic they say is notably absent from the initiative’s agenda.
A ‘very good Evangelical church’
Pope Francis’ most recent public comments about the synodal way contained a real zinger at the expense of Bishop Bätzing. The pope recalled that he had told the bishop that “In Germany, there is a very good Evangelical church. We don’t need two.”
The Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD), a federation of 20 Lutheran, Reformed, and United regional churches, ordains women as priests and permits same-sex blessings — changes likely to be endorsed by the synodal way when it concludes in spring 2023.
The EKD reported in March that 280,000 people formally left it in 2021. That is fewer than the 360,000 people who exited the Catholic Church in the same period and so could be seen as a point in favor of synodal way supporters. Yet there were fewer evangelicals to begin with: there were 21.6 million Catholics in Germany in 2021, compared to 19.7 million Protestants.
For opponents of the synodal way, meanwhile, the hemorrhaging of the Evangelical Church shows that women priests and same-sex blessings do nothing to stop disaffiliation.
A continental crisis
The new figures are therefore a kind of Rorschach test: both supporters and opponents see different patterns in them. But for both, they are a confirmation of their deeper convictions about the merits or dangers of the synodal way.
The Church is losing Catholics at an alarming rate not only in Germany, but also elsewhere in Europe. The numbers seem especially stark in Germany because it has the continent’s largest population (outside Russia) and Church officials meticulously track the figures.
But across Europe (including strongholds like Poland and Malta), the Church is being eroded by deep historical processes usually summed up by words such as “secularization” and “modernity.” The synodal way is the current flashpoint for debates about how the Church should respond to these long-term challenges. But it seems unlikely that the German initiative will offer any kind of resolution.
Brendan Hodge contributed to this report.