Why does the Catholic Church still exist?

Catholic Church is losing members - across Europe

Help from above - that's what the IT specialists at the Cologne district court would have wished for when they activated additional dates for leaving the church on Friday and the server promptly collapsed. Nothing worked anymore, everything was booked out. The court currently assigns 1,000 exit dates per month, and demand in the diocese has recently been significantly higher. From March the district court wants to offer 500 more appointments per month.

When making an appointment, nobody has to state which church he or she wants to leave - and certainly not the reasons why. Nevertheless, it is reasonable to assume that the sharp regional increase in Cologne is related to the scandal surrounding Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki. The head of the Archdiocese of Cologne is accused of trying to cover up incidents of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. The specific reason is an expert opinion that the clergyman withholds.

Church resignations in Germany at a record high

As conspicuous as the rise in Cologne is currently - the mass resignation from the church in the Rhineland is only continuing a trend that could not be denied in recent years, which affected all of Germany and both major Christian denominations: in 2019 more than a quarter declared Million Christians quit the Catholic or Protestant Church. It was the record year so far. Overall, only around half of the people living in Germany are still members of one of the two major Christian denominations.

The fact that the departure of parishioners can be quantified so precisely is a German peculiarity: because in Germany you can officially leave the country and you do not do this with the church but with a government agency.

Because at least the two major Christian denominations are corporations under public law and the state collects a church tax for them, at least eight percent or, in some federal states, even nine percent of income tax. Higher earners can quickly collect several thousand euros in church tax per year. A levy that does not apply when leaving and that may make it appear particularly "attractive" to many in Germany.

Italy's basilicas are becoming emptier

In other European countries, too, people's ties to "their" church - especially the Catholic one - are dwindling. This can be measured in terms of various factors. Italy, for example, the deeply Catholic country with the Vatican in the heart of its capital, does not levy any church tax. But there is certainly a "mandate tax" that everyone pays and with which the taxpayer can decide for himself who should benefit from it: a church, for example, or another social institution. Striking: the number of taxpayers who favor the Catholic Church is declining. It was most recently around 30 percent.

St. Peter's Basilica in Rome: people with little faith?

The Turin religious sociologist Francesco Garelli examined the departure of Italians from the Church in 2020 in a study. It bears the meaningful title: "People with little faith". One of the results: a third of the people in Italy describe themselves as atheists in Italy, only a fifth visit the fair regularly. Numbers that should not please the Bishop of Rome, commonly known as the Pope.

Spain: Church exit not possible

Spain is also strongly influenced by Catholicism, and here too you have to consider soft factors if you want to quantify how many sheep have now moved away from the herd. It is difficult to define who is a "member" and who is not. Because a "exit" from the church is not planned in Spain. Neither the church nor the state offer the citizen an administrative act that corresponds to leaving Germany.

Every now and then it happens that parishioners ask for their own name to be deleted from the church register for data protection reasons, which could best be seen as a "resignation". But not every congregation complies with this request, which is one of the reasons why it is difficult to read from this how high the acceptance of the church actually is.

Church tax is not mandatory in Spain anyway. Similar to the Italian model, there is a tax of 0.7 percent of annual income that can be passed on to a church of choice or other charitable cause.

Identity crisis in Poland

It is also very Catholic in Poland. Well over 90 percent of the people here are Roman Catholics. Church services are usually much more attended here than in many Western European countries, at least until the outbreak of the corona pandemic. And yet the church no longer has the role that it had in socialist times: at that time, the practice of faith was, as it were, an expression of opposition to the regime for many Poles. Experts today observe a rather creeping secularization.

Since in Poland, as in Spain, there is no legal act of leaving the church - at the beginning of the 2010s several courts were dealing with exactly this question - and there is also no church tax that one could refuse to pay, the dwindling importance of faith is difficult can be represented in absolute numbers. In any case, there is a threat of a "young talent problem":

A study by the Warsaw polling institute CBOS from the summer of 2019 among Polish schoolchildren showed that only 55 percent of those surveyed consider themselves to be believers. In the mid-1990s, three quarters of young people had said this about themselves.

Polish Pope John Paul II (2001): Loss of identification figure

There are many reasons for this: a society that is becoming more modern and that calls into question traditional values, most recently seen in the protests against a new abortion law. Or the loss of the Polish figure of identification John Paul II in 2005. Last but not least, there is great displeasure in Poland about unexplained cases of abuse. In addition, many young people are opposed to the strongly pronounced religious-national claim that prevails in the country and that the ruling party PiS ("Law and Justice") exemplifies.

A turning away from the church is equated by parts of society with turning away from Poland itself. "What exactly is the motivation for turning away from the Church is difficult for us to investigate," said study director Antoni GÅ‚owacki from the CBOS on the occasion of the publication. "But what we can say is: We are seeing a continuing trend."

Irish bishop broke celibacy

What remains is the view of the westernmost European stronghold of Catholicism: the Republic of Ireland. Formally, the church still has a strong position here; according to the 2016 census, 78 percent of Irish described themselves as Catholic. In 2010 it was 88 percent, and in 1971 even 93 percent. The negative trend is also clear here.

On the Emerald Isle, too, the Church has made itself untrustworthy in the eyes of many - not only through scandals such as the Bishop of Galway, Eamon Casey. In 1992 he had to admit to being the father of a son.

In Ireland, cases of abuse have also distanced Catholics from their church. For example, the systematic child abuse in the Diocese of Dublin, documented in the "Murphy Report" from 2009, caused outrage. And it was not until January 2021 that a study made public that child mortality in Catholic mother-child homes was disproportionately high in the middle of the 20th century was. According to reports, many girls and boys died there of respiratory or gastrointestinal diseases, and a mass grave with baby corpses was even found on the site of a home in the village of Tuam, buried between the 1920s and the 1960s.

Irish on public holiday for the national saint St. Patrick: wish to leave the country

Many Irish feel the desire to leave the Catholic Church, also formally and legally - the great success of the website "countmeout.ie", which has since gone offline, allows this assumption. Among other things, there was a PDF form for downloading that Catholics could use to withdraw.

Canon law knows no exit

The exit in Ireland - and also in other countries in which the state does not offer an exit - was made de facto impossible by the Church itself in 2009. At that time, the Catholic Church deleted all mention of the possibility of withdrawing from canon law.

However, there is one thing theologians and canon lawyers agree on across countries and denominations: Baptism cannot be reversed, not even in countries like Germany, where an exit is legally possible. From an ecclesiastical point of view, a baptized Christian always remains a Christian.