Greater Church Involvement in a Smaller German Church?

This is interesting. While the numbers officially leaving the church in Germany are increasing, those remaining seem to be increasing their attendance and church participation, at least in some places.

It has been widely reported that the number of people officially leaving the German Catholic Church (and Protestant churches too, for that matter), increased markedly in 2014. The Catholic Church reported a 22% spike in losses compared to the previous year; in the diocese of Munster the increase was 17%.

And since for some people everything is about the upcoming synod, and for these people the synod is pretty much only about communion for the divorced and remarried, and either you’re for Cardinal Kasper or you’re against him – and he’s the guy who doesn’t really believe in Catholic marriage and wants to abandon the teachings of Christ, or something like that – it is politically expedient to discredit the German Catholic Church in any way possible. And for some folks, the bad news from Germany has been good news, because it helps discredit Pope Francis and show that the “Francis Effect” is non-existent or even a negative.

But note this: there is a report from Munster that church attendance is up in the diocese, and that participation in pilgrimages is up too, with noticeably more youth involved. As the article puts it,

It is a paradoxical development. More of the faithful left the church last year than most ever. At the same time, worship services are now better attended. Connection to the church is increasing, it is said.

Fr. Hendrik Wenning, associate priest at St. Mary’s in Kevelaer, notes that throughout the diocese of Munster the numbers attending Mass is increasing, as is the number of church weddings. “Here in Kevelaer too, more youth are among the pilgrimmage groups, and they clearly seek a closer connection to the church,” he said.

I gather that something like this might be happening, if I may express it hypothetically and in round numbers. Suppose you have 100 Catholics on the rolls, meaning that the government is collecting the church tax from them. Five of these 100 attend Mass every week, and another 10 attend perhaps 2 or 3 times a month. Another 35 more or less consider themselves Catholic and want the church for baptisms and weddings and funerals and the like, and for Christmas and Easter, but attend Mass rather rarely throughout the year. That leaves 50 of the 100 who were once baptized Catholic but have virtually no connection to the church. They perhaps couldn’t name the seven sacraments or recite the Our Father. It doesn’t really say that much about the vitality of the church when some of the latter 50 officially unregister and stop paying the tax – they’re already gone for all practical purposes, whether 3 or 5 or 12 of them unregister in a given year.

And in point of fact, many of these latter 50 had a pretext for signing off this past year: the government changed its manner of listing and collecting the church tax. Although this was not a change in the rate of taxation, many people wrongly thought it was a new tax. This gave them reason to leave.

Of course the human reality is much more complex than in my hypothetical example of 100 people above, and only God knows how many of the 5 or 50 truly belong to him. Those who live in Germany might want to massage my various figures up or down based on their impressions of the population. My only point is that it is possible for two things to happen at the same time – that more people are officially leaving the Church, but those remaining are increasing their engagement in the life of the Church.

If this is happening, it would be a confirmation of the insight of Pope Benedict XVI that the church of the future might be a smaller, purer church. He was oftentimes misunderstood for expressing this – some thought that it was his goal to shrink the church and drive out the impure. I’m pretty sure he meant, rather, that the institutional church will shrink because of the secularizing forces of our society, whether we like it or not, but this is a call for committed Christians to strengthen their commitment and engagement, whether the church is large or small. Benedict was offering us a prediction and an invitation.

Be that as it may, let us all hope and pray that Catholics in Germany and everywhere else are increasing their church commitment, whatever their numbers may be. Let’s pray also that we can ratchet down the divisiveness round the upcoming synod and respect all the voices seeking to discern the Lord’s will for his church. I think that would mean not discrediting people’s arguments on the basis of the alleged health of the church in their homeland.



  1. Given many of the arguments are precisely about and supported by suppositions about how they might impact Church attendance, and that we can know a good tree by its fruit, it does not seem reasonable to exclude these matters from consideration.

    Indeed if we are to start from reality rather than ideas, as many reformers propose, these matters must be considered.

  2. Fr. Ruff (from his editorial): I’m pretty sure he [Pope Benedict] meant, rather, that the institutional church will shrink because of the secularizing forces of our society, whether we like it or not, but this is a call for committed Christians to strengthen their commitment and engagement, whether the church is large or small. Benedict was offering us a prediction and an invitation. [my addition]

    It’s important to recognize the possible hazards of the “smaller, purer church”. I lived the Catholic fundamentalist lifestyle for a long time. I can say from experience that the implicit goal of many Tridentine adherents (for lack of a better phrase) is to wall themselves off metaphorically and even literally from post/modern society. This includes the adoption of a distinctive, almost uniform-like dress for worship and a tendency to socialize almost exclusively within the movement in-group. Personally I find these tendencies to be deleterious. My interaction with my EF movement peers suggests that if a person is open about his or her participation in greater society, he or she will be ignored to some degree by some people.

    Some devout Catholics mock minimally involved members of the faith (ie. C&E Catholics). Minimally involved Catholics are important members of communities. Their participation, although occasional, places parishes within contact of greater society. A pseudo-fundamentalism or outright fundamentalism is not only discriminatory. This fundamentalism also creates a plastic society which is maintained only by peer pressure, shaming, exclusion, and fears about life outside the fundamentalist community.

    1. @Jordan Zarembo:
      Jordan, you make excellent points.

      It quite frankly heartens me to have overflowing masses on Palm Sunday, Easter and Christmas. I especially notice that the children, who can only attend mass when their parents bring them, are very reverent and glad to be there.

      Who knows what effect this will have on them as they grow into adulthood?

  3. I once read somewhere that majority of people have never been truly religious, but have always been good at going-with-the-flow. Now that church attendance is longer part of the social flow, people not interested just check out. I think this is now a permanent part of living in a Post-Christian society where religion has faded from the social scenery.

    1. @Tony O’Brien:
      This, I think, is a fairly large facet of the phenomenon under discussion; as the social scene no longer automatically includes religion (Christianity in particular), there is something of a “siege mentality” among those to whom their faith and its public practice are important. Some of these folks may truly think there is a war on Christianity going on, while others may be re-awakening to its importance in their lives.
      In this 50th anniversary year of Gaudium et Spes, I think it’s important for us to reflect on the role/influence that the Church can have on the society as a whole. It’s a good thing that attendance/participation is up, but only if it effects some sort of change in the surrounding world. To have fuller pews for the sake of having fuller pews … not so much. Hopefully that smaller, purer Church is also more energized for mission.

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