by Björn Odendahl

V2 aula

If one looks at church attendance trends in past decades, there remains no doubt: after the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), things went downhill for the Catholic Church in Germany. In 1965 the proportion of Catholics who regularly attended Mass was still ca. 45%, but already by 1970 it was only 37%. In 1990 it was only one in five, and today only about one in ten of the faithful still goes to Sunday worship.

The Pius X Society and the Council

But is there really a causal connection? Those who have difficulties with the Council and the reforms connected to it consistently maintain that there is. This is their thesis: the pastoral, liturgical, and ecumenical renewal from the middle of the 1960s weakened the identity of the Catholic Church for the sake of an accommodation to the zeitgeist (which is mostly not defined further). But because a liberal church offers no program of contrast to the rest of society, it loses its purpose and its ability to convince others. The loss of faith is pre-programmed. Among the most well-known proponents of this thesis is the conservative Society of St. Pius X, which distanced itself from the decisions of the Council shortly after its close, and since 1975 is no longer part of the Roman Catholic Church. [PTB note: Whether the Society is part of the Catholic Church is disputed, with many affirming that it is.]

But even in the here and now there are Catholics – from high-ranking bishops to simple faithful – who long for a return to the preconciliar Church. Cardinals Raymond Burke and Robert Sarah, for example, in the presentation of Burke’s book Divine Love in the Fleshcriticized a “lack of reverence” for the Eucharist, for which they make the liturgical reform, among other things, responsible. Similar statements are made about sexual morality, teachings on marriage, or ecumenical and interreligious dialogue, which are readily joined to phrases like “loss of self.”

Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke, left, talks with Cardinal Robert Sarah, prefect of the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments, as he arrives for the presentation of his book Divine Love Made Flesh, in Rome, Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2015. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)

Cardinals Raymond Leo Burke and Robert Sarah are considered proponents of conservative Catholicism and frequently critique “accommodation to the zeitgeist.”

In order to substantiate their own position further, successful movements and institutions are cited in which the “spirit of the Council” has supposedly not come in. The relatively well-attended Tridentine Mass, which is celebrated ad orientem and in Latin, is cited as a marker of what people today allegedly long for: permanence and clear rules.

In a time of online social networks, self-selecting bubbles, and their claims that frequently go without contradiction, the number of “critics of the Council” even seems to be growing. But things are not quite so simple. Already in 2012, the 50th anniversary of the beginning of the Council, church historian Wilhelm Damberg of Bochum that church attendance numbers indeed have declined since the Council.

But it is also true that church attendance numbers going back to the 1920s reached their high point in 1935.

In the years after the war there was only a short, temporary high. Official statistics of the German bishops’ conference prove this. Already between 1950 and 1965 the proportion of church attendees among all Catholics sank from 50 percent to 45.

Historian: The Religious Springtime Did Not Last

Historian Thomas Großbölting of Munster has come to a similar evaluation. The religious springtime of the 1950s had little staying power, Großbölting said to In his book Der verlorene Himmel (“Heaven Lost”), he investigates the life of faith in Germany after 1945. He writes of the post-war era and the 1950s:

The perception of a comprehensive ‘rechristianization’ showed itself to be, in retrospect, a chimera.”

On the one hand, even in this era it had become ever more difficult to maintain a certain cohesion in the ecclesial milieu – among other things, because of

expansion of the individual horizon and worldview.

On the other hand, church leaders after 1945, with their recourse to traditional forms of pastoral practice and devotional life, set the stage for a further distancing from the faithful.

Behind the façade of a superficial religiosity, elements of its dissolution were already apparent,

according to Großbölting’s sober analysis.

In this connection, Großbölting makes reference to the manner in which, already shortly after World War II, the Church’s moral vision was handled: the family was still the Church in miniature and the basic cell of society, such that sex outside of marriage and non-heterosexual contact were frowned upon. But in day to day life, attachment to these moral demands had already weakened markedly.

Neither the Church’s moral vision, nor its assigned roles for adolescent boys and girls and for men and women, maintained its power to shape people,

Großbölting writes. The opposite was much more the case.

Vorstellung der Ergebnisse des Forschungsprojektes Ÿber die konfessionelle Heimerziehung in der frŸhen Bundesrepublik Deutschland (1949-1972) am 24. Mai 2011 an der Ruhr UniversitŠt Bochum (RUB). Bild: Wilhelm Damberg, Professor fŸr Katholische Theologie, RUB.

Wilhelm Damberg (b. 1954) is professor of church history of the Middle Ages and modern times at the University of Bochum.

A similar romantic nostalgia is found with respect to the preconciliar liturgy.

A survey of 9,000 youth in 1960 revealed that attending Mass had hardly any emotional impact,

church historian Damberg states. Thus it is a recollection contrary to the facts

if one thinks that people back then spent hours at Mass devoutly listening to Latin prayers and chants.

The reality of Sunday liturgy looked quite different than this in many places: the faithful came to Mass late or went outside the church during Mass – for example, to smoke. Others came just in time for the consecration, or left right after it, because according to their own conception they had thereby fulfilled their Sunday obligation. Parallel to the Mass “read” by the priest, the rosary or other pious devotions were prayed. The people were far removed from active particiation (Latin: participatio actuosa) in the liturgy, as called for by the Second Vatican Council in the liturgy constitution, Sacrosanctum Concilium. All this, even though Pope Pius X had deplored such a deplorable state of affairs already in 1903.

What Does Secularization Theory Say?

But even if we are able to demystify the preconciliar era in many respects, this still does not explain why the trend of nonparticipation at worship deepened further after the Council. Already in the beginning of the 1970s, the sociologist of religion Gerhard Schmidtchen, commissioned by the German bishops’ conference to study the causalities, came to this conclusion: the structures of Church and those of society are experienced to be discrepant. It is not the Church, but rather society that provides core values and models of self concept. The Church and the Christian heritage are thus perceived by many as no longer influential upon these values.

Today, so-called secularization theory is one of the main means of clarifying the “dechurching” of society. The thesis runs thus: between modernity and religion there exists a relationship of tension, which leads long-term to a loss of social importance for religion.

Secularization leads to state of affairs in which particular realms of society can no longer readily be religiously permeated,

he said in conversation with The plausibility of a comprehensive, religious worldview decreases continually. Thus, different rules apply in politics than in the econony or art or even the Church. The Church does not answer even moral questions alone anymore. Sociology calls this “functional differentiation.”


Detlef Pollack is sociologist of religion at the University of Munster.

Furthermore, the offering of leisure activies increases in modern societies, as does the possibility of self-actualization in one’s job, said Pollack.

Hence, the Church comes under the pressure of competition with its offerings.

For example, in the realms of education or pastoral care. And all this is reinforced through the trend toward individualization.

People value more and more being able to structure their own lives,

the sociologist said. When the Church is perceived as authoritarian and dogmatic, as sclerotic and archaic, and even as overbearing, this is a further reason for distancing. In view of these insights, the sociologist considers it very unlikely that a “liberalization” of the Church could have led to a decrease in church attendance.

Pollack: Only a Minority is Attracted

That conservative counter-movements can be successful, such as e.g.Heiligenkreuz Abbey, which is experiencing growth like never before in its history with ca. 100 monks, is a different matter.

“Social processes are oftentimes marked by a certain ambivalence,

Pollack said. This means that there are people who – perhaps especially in an individualized and globalized world – long for clear rules and authority.

This can bind a minority more closely to the Church. But the vast majority are scared off by a conservative course,

the sociologist is certain. Furthermore, conservative proposals seldom lead to growth in the church as a whole. And even the conservative followers come mostly from an ecclesially socialized milieu.

It leads only to intensification and transfer. While the one approach grows, the others die out,

Pollack concludes.

The experts assess completely differently what this means precisely for the future of the Catholic Church in Germany. Do we need big events and offerings, or small testimonies of faith in daily life? Do we need greater presence in the modern media, or rather places of quiet and reflection? Probably a little of all of this. But this is clear: the era of the church having a hold on most of society is over. And for this, the Second Vatican Council is not to blame.


© Internetportal Translated and reprinted with permission. Translation: awr.

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