Even though the Catholic Church continues to grow worldwide, the latest annual report from the German bishops’ conference makes grim reading. The detailed figures it contains illustrate the Church’s continuing decline in one of its historic powerhouses, and the problems in Germany are replicated across most of Europe.

None of the indicators are encouraging. Although weekly Mass attendance has held steady over the past year, it remains at a mere 10.9 per cent – not much higher than supposedly more secular countries like France. This ranges from a high of 21 per cent in the tiny eastern diocese of Görlitz to below nine per cent in the large dioceses of Aachen, Essen and Hildesheim. The figures are a little higher in eastern Germany, where Catholics are a small minority and have a more recent history of persecution, but they are low everywhere. It must be assumed that only a small percentage of Germany’s 24 million Catholics are active.

The empty churches go hand in hand with a sharp decline in the number of vocations. While in 1995 there were 18,600 priests in Germany, by 2014 this had sunk to 14,400.

The decline would be even more obvious if it weren’t for the 2,400 foreign priests based in Germany, mostly from Poland and India. Meanwhile, ordinations fell from 98 in 2013 to a mere 75 in 2014, so it seems unlikely that things will improve soon. The bishops have been managing the situation by amalgamating parishes and ordaining more permanent deacons, but this cannot be sustained in the longer term.

Germany’s church tax system also means there are detailed statistics for those formally leaving the Church, rather than just becoming inactive. By paying a small fee, citizens can legally withdraw from their religious community and so avoid paying the church tax – though the policy of the German bishops’ conference is that those doing so lose access to the sacraments, and can even be denied Christian burial. The figure for those leaving first passed 100,000 a year in 1990, and in 2014 had reached 217,000 per annum. By comparison, in the same year fewer than 3,000 people were received into the Church and 6,300 Catholics rejoined after formally leaving.

Despite this evidence of decline, the German Church remains extremely influential. A large part of this is the wealth it has accumulated via the church tax – a net income of €5.7 billion in 2014. Many of the global Church’s charitable activities are very reliant on German money. The downside of this is that, for many years, the German Church’s guaranteed income has encouraged its bureaucratic and complacent side.

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