German Catholic church ‘dying painful death’ as 520,000 leave in a year

— Speed of departures has been driven by series of child abuse scandals and accusations of a cover-up

A man prays in Cologne Cathedral. The Catholic church in Germany has 21 million members.


The Catholic church in Germany has revealed it is losing followers like never before, with more than half a million people deciding to renounce their membership last year.

According to the Bonn-based German Bishops’ Conference, 522,821 people left the church in 2022, a number far surpassing predictions made by the institution itself and higher than most observers had expected. The previous record year for departures was in 2021, when just under 360,000 people left.

Thomas Schüller, a canon lawyer, said the church would struggle to recover from the fallout. “The Catholic church is dying a painful death in full view of the public,” he told German media.

The church has 21 million members, according to 2022 figures, amounting to 24.8% of the population.

The speed of the departures, driven by a series of child abuse scandals and accusations of a widespread cover-up, has shocked clerics.

According to evidence gathered by authorities, it appears to have accelerated further still since the publication of an expert report on abuse in the archdiocese of Munich and Freising, and discussion surrounding the perceived complicity in the scandal by Pope Benedict XVI, who has since died.

Last year there were legal battles over compensatory payments for victims of abuse in Cologne and Traunstein in upper Bavaria, as well as accusations that Cologne’s cardinal, Rainer Maria Woelki, lied about what he had known about abuse cases and when. Woelki, who was the focus of police raids this week on properties linked to the church, including his own residence, denies the claims.

The Protestant church, which has also been beset by abuse scandals, has similarly been losing members at an alarming rate, with 380,000 people leaving in 2022. According to last year’s figures, it has 19.5 million members in Germany.

Schüller said there were several reasons why people were choosing to leave the Catholic church, but he said the events in Cologne had acted like a “combustive agent”.

The departures mean a considerable loss of income for the church, which gathers billions of euros in tithes or taxes each year.

All Germans who declare an affiliation to the Protestant, Catholic and Jewish denominations are officially registered as such with their local authorities. They are liable to pay the Kirchensteuer or Kultursteuer (church tax or cultural tax), which amounts to between 8% and 9% of a person’s income tax and is drawn from their monthly income by the tax office, which passes it on to the appropriate denomination.

Those who wish to leave have to officially renounce their membership, a process known as a Kirchenaustritt, or church withdrawal, by actively visiting the local register office and paying a €30 administrative fee.

The church tax was first enshrined in German law in 1919 and reaffairmed in the Reichskoncordat between Nazi Germany and the Vatican in 1933. It was reaffirmed in law again in 1949.

Neighbouring Austria introduced a compulsory tax for Catholics in 1939 after the annexation of Austria into Nazi Germany the previous year, and has retained it since, in what is explained as an effort to keep churches independent of political influence.

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