The fact that more and more Catholics are leaving the church no longer surprises even the bishops. However, current figures are of an unprecedented magnitude – and the low point has probably not yet been reached.

The numbers are dramatic for the Catholic Church: More people left the church last year than ever before. 359,338 Catholics turned their backs on their church, as the German Bishops’ Conference (DBK) announced on Monday in Bonn.

That is almost 86,600 more than in the previous record year 2019.

The chairman of the bishops’ conference, Georg Bätzing, is “deeply shocked by the extremely high number of people leaving the church”. It is evidence of a “profound crisis in which we as the Catholic Church in Germany are,” he says. “The scandals that we have to complain about within the church and for which we are largely responsible are reflected in the number of people leaving.” It was “nothing nice to talk about”.

Bishop of Würzburg: “Shouldn’t surprise anyone”

The Bishop of Würzburg, Franz Jung, also finds clear words. According to a statement from his diocese, he was upset and disappointed about “the problematic image that we as a church give – in Germany, in the Vatican and in the world church”. “It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that many people are currently withdrawing their trust in the church and are also refusing to approve of our good deeds.”

The never-ending scandal of sexual abuse and its cover-up has not let go of the Catholic Church, even after more than a decade. Believers are shaken by new revelations and insights – and many are losing faith in reforms.

“The dramatic process of erosion in the Catholic Church is progressing unchecked,” says the Münster theologian and canon lawyer Thomas Schüller to the “Kölner Stadt-Anzeiger”. He also speaks of a “Woelki tsunami” with reference to the lengthy debate about the controversial Archbishop of Cologne. The “indisputable management actions of the Cologne Cardinal Rainer Woelki in dealing with sexualized violence and those affected in the church as well as his wasteful and largely legally questionable handling of church assets for dubious purposes” had “direct effects on all other 26 dioceses”.

26 percent of the total population is Catholic

At the end of 2021, the Catholic Church only had 21,645,875 members in Germany – that accounts for 26 percent of the total population. And only a tiny fraction of them go to church on Sunday: Only 4.3 percent of Catholics regularly attended a service in 2021. The year before it was 5.9 percent.

In the meantime, many people who actually felt connected to the church have left the church, says Bätzing. “There are no longer things we take for granted as the Catholic Church. We have to explain ourselves anew, explain what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.” From the point of view of the reform movement “We are Church”, the figures show “how bad the trust of the church people in the church leadership is”.

And a short-term trend reversal is more than unlikely. The figures from 2021 that have now been presented do not even reflect the shock that the Catholic Church in Germany experienced after the Munich abuse report in January of this year. The effects of the study will only be reflected in the church statistics, which will be published next year.

Another negative record is threatened for 2022

A look at traditionally Catholic Bavaria shows that another negative record is imminent for the current year: “We have had more church exits than ever before,” says the spokesman for the Munich district administration department, Johannes Mayer. Between January 1 and June 22 of this year, 14,035 people left the church in Munich alone – across all denominations. In the same period of 2021 there were 10,472 and in 2019 with 7556 significantly fewer.

The evangelical church had already announced its membership figures in March. At the end of 2021, it still had 19.725 million members – a decrease of 2.5 percent compared to the previous year. The main reason for this: 280,000 people who left the church.

The reasons for leaving the church

A representative study by the Social Science Institute of the EKD recently examined the reasons for leaving. Surprising result: The church tax hardly plays a role. “The real reason is the lack of attachment to the church and faith,” says study director Petra-Angela Ahrens. “For most people, it’s not about the money saved, it’s about the lack of plausibility of church membership.”

According to the study, the vast majority of the resigned members, whether Catholics or Protestants, gave no specific reason at all for their resignation. They have simply become estranged from the Church over the years and eventually call it quits.

A striking difference between Catholics and Protestants, however, is that Catholics are more likely to leave because they are genuinely upset about the state of their church, for example discrimination against women and homosexuals. “It’s much more affective with Catholics, you can say that. But even among Catholics, only 37 percent give specific reasons for leaving.”