A look at the crisis of the Church in Germany

Cologne Cathedral Germany Credit namportnawak via Flickr CC BY NC ND 20 CNA The Cologne Cathedral. | namportwawak via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

The plummeting number of priestly vocations in the Catholic Church in Germany is raising questions about the roots of the problem, and whether the situation has been manufactured to promote non-priestly ministry.

According to figures published by the German bishops' conference, never before have so few priests been ordained in the Church in Germany: a total of 58 men became priests in the country in 2015.

Within the last decade, the number of ordinations has dropped by half: In 2005, a total of 122 diocesan priests were ordained. And five decades ago, in 1965, the number was 500.

Whilst there were almost 20,000 Catholic priests in Germany in 1990, today their number has dropped to 14,000. And this drastic decline is set to continue, judging by the figures: last year also marked the first time in history that the number of new seminarians dropped to double digits. Only 96 new students were registered in 2015. At the same time, 309 priests passed away, and 19 left the priesthood.

One Catholic commentator, Alexander Kissler of Cicero magazine, claimed that "crocodile tears are being shed in the dioceses. There is talk about changed conditions, crises of public perception, cycles of religiosity, the loss of obligation. Some contritely beat their chests and pull out dated scandals."

A deliberate lack of priests?

However, this is just a smoke-screen, Kissler implies in an article published Aug. 18: "Indeed, the lack of priests is deliberate. Priests are in the way of the new Church of Participation". The author points to the fact that the German bishops have mostly responded to the crisis twofold: By inviting foreign priests to work for them, and by abandoning the traditional parish structure in favor of larger "pastoral areas", which take different names in different dioceses.

This "pastoral reform", Kissler claims – in a trenchant polemic drawing on the idiosyncratic rhetoric of diocesan documents and workshops – is ultimately aimed at creating a quasi-democratic, participatory type of Church. He points to the visits of German diocesan staff to the Pastoral Institute Bukal ng Tipan, and taking back their own particular interpretation of the Filipino institute's official motto of "journeying with people towards a participatory church in the world".

Irrespective of whether one agrees with Kissler's assertion that priests and their role are deliberately being de-emphasized, behind the alarming numbers a bigger story is at play, whose fault lines run all the way back to the Second Vatican Council and the ideas and interpretations of the generation of priests and theologians of that era.

It is the story of a Church undergoing radical change, and whether this change is simply a response to the new realities of a declining Catholicism, or in fact implemented systematically over the last few decades in order to change the reality of Catholicism.

As one foreign priest currently serving in a South German "pastoral unit" who wished to remain anonymous told CNA, contact with the parishioners is diminished and fragmented. He rotates between several parish churches in the unit to say Mass, whilst other "pastoral workers" teach, engage in youth activities, or perform other apostolates.

Furthermore, making contact is not always easy in the first place, he said. "People want to be private", he told CNA, and seem reluctant to interact with the priest outside of his "sacramental function". Unlike in his homeland, where parishioners ask him to mediate in family conflicts, seek his advice on personal matters, and invite him over for dinner, he notes that German people prefer not to have him take an interest in their private lives.

Looking at the bigger picture

For the foreign priest – and many other observers – the answer in dealing with the vocation catastrophe is in looking at the bigger picture of how the faith is faring in Germany, and in Western Europe in general.

Indeed, whilst Church tax income and overall number of employees of the Church in Germany is at a historically high level, it is not only the priesthood that is in dire straits.

Figures released July 15 by the German bishops' conference show a dramatic overall decline of all aspects of the faith except material wealth.

With more than 23.7 million members in Germany, Catholicism today is still the largest single religious group in the country, comprising 29 percent of the population. Yet people are leaving the Church in droves: in 2015, a total of 181,925 people departed. By comparison, 2,685 people became Catholic, and 6,474 reverted to Catholicism. What is more, average church attendance is down from 18.6 percent in 1995 to 10.4 percent in 2015.

More in Europe

For journalist Matthias Drobinski, who writes for the Munich liberal broadsheet Süddeutsche Zeitung, one key problem is celibacy – as well as the fact that only men can be priests.

"Prominent theologians" are "now demanding to allow women, mature married men [viri probati] to be ordained as priests, or to permit lay people to preside over the celebration of the eucharist," he wrote in an article for the Süddeutsche Aug. 17.

Drobinski also quotes the well-known Viennese professor of pastoral theology, Fr. Paul Michael Zulehner: "It would be possible to have people with community experience elected, educated and ordained", to ensure that the Church can provide the Eucharist to its people.  

At 76 years of age, Fr. Zulehner is not a young revolutionary. His – and similar – reflections and demands have heavily influenced people and policies in German dioceses, right down to the parish level – to the extent that already, in both urban and rural areas across Germany today, one rarely encounters the once-typical scenario of a parish priest looking after his parish.

A future of "pastoral teams and units"

Instead, one increasingly finds "pastoral teams" looking after "pastoral units". The nomenclature differs from diocese to diocese: whilst there are "pastoral units" in the Archdiocese of Freiburg im Brieisgau, they are called "parish associations" in Munich and Freising, and "cooperative units" are considered to be the future in the Diocese of Essen.

In all cases, the pastoral teams assigned to these "units" are not just priests, but consist of a mix of paid women and men, most of them theologically educated, who take on different roles. Several dioceses educate, train, and pay "community specialists" and/or "pastoral assistants", for instance, in addition to deacons and priests.

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In several German dioceses today, it is not uncommon to have a female pastoral specialist, dressed in a white alb, conducting a Catholic funeral, and even giving the homily during Mass in diocesan Churches, even if that may be frowned upon officially.

Given this reality on the ground in German dioceses, demands for women to be ordained as deacons are not just common-place, but considered reasonable among Catholics in the Church's employ; not to mention for theologians – with tacit or open support of many a German bishop – to demand further "reforms" along the lines that both Drobinski and Kissler describe, albeit from different points of view. Indeed, while Drobinski implicitly argues for the changes to continue, the latter polemically asks whether this is all an attempt "to re-catholicize Luther, or the lutherization of the Church?"  

All eyes on Rome

Rhetorical point-scoring aside, the debate over how to tackle the manifold crisis of Catholicism in Germany will not just take place in Germany proper: the "ordinary faithful", as much as theologians and bishops, are looking to Rome.

As Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich and Freising commented the July figures: "We need a 'sophisticated pastoral practice' that does justice to the diverse life-worlds of people and convincingly passes on the hope of the faith. The conclusion of last year's synod of bishops and the Apostolic Exhortation Amoris laetitia by Pope Francis are important signposts."

"Pope Francis gives us courage," the president of the German bishops' conference continued, "when he tells us that the way of the future Church is the way of a 'synodal church.'  That means: All faithful are called upon, laypeople and priests! Together we will continue to give convincingly witness to our Faith and the Gospel."

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