‘Historic break’: Church-goers now a minority in Germany

According to projections by experts, for the first time in centuries, more than 50 percent of the German population no longer belong to a church.

Inside the St. Joseph Catholic Church during the sending out service of the 2020 Peace Light.
Inside the St. Joseph Catholic Church during the sending out service of the 2020 Peace Light. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Zentralbild | Peter Gercke

For hundreds of years, the majority of people in Germany belonged to one of the two largest churches and were either Roman Catholic or Protestant.

But the latest forecasts from the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD) and the Research Group World Views in Germany (fowid), show that less than half of the German population is now a member of either of the two major churches.

READ ALSO: Six things to know about Catholicism in Germany

“It’s a historic break, since, taken as a whole, it’s the first time in centuries that it’s no longer ‘normal’ to be a church member in Germany,” says social scientist Carsten Frerk of the Fowid research group.

A downward trend

“The downward trend has been going on for quite some time,” Frerk said. “But it has accelerated more in the past six years than previously thought.”

Thirty years ago, around 70 percent of Germans were still members of either the Roman Catholic Church or the EKD (Evangelical Church in Germany), while 50 years ago, the number of church-goers was more than 90 percent in West Germany.

The churches have also predicted that by 2060 only around 30 percent of the population will still be Catholic or Protestant.

Though some of the decline can be accounted for by the aging population of church members, motives for leaving the church range from saving taxes to protesting against the church and its handling of historical abuse cases.

READ ALSO: Crossed wires: why church tax is causing extra stress for expat tax payers

Robert Stephanus, chairman of the interdenominational association REMID (Religious Studies Media and Information Service) said that there are also major regional differences in relation to church membership.

The situation is very different in Bavaria than in the former GDR, he said, where the membership of the Protestant church fell from almost 15 million to 4 million between 1950 and 1989, while the number of Catholics fell by half to around a million.

READ ALSO: IN NUMBERS: How life in Germany has changed since reunification

Other religions

Nevertheless, the majority of the population in Germany is still officially Christian because, in addition to members of the two large churches, there are still a few million other Christians, who are, for example, free church members and Orthodox Christians (such as Greek, Bulgarian, Russian, Ukrainian, Serbian, Romanian or Georgian Orthodox).

More than 40 percent of the population is now non-denominational, around four percent are counted as denominational Muslims, and the rest are distributed among other religions, including Jews.


church member = (das) Kirchenmitglied

church tax = (die) Kirchensteuer

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German cardinal urges lifting celibacy rule for priests

German Cardinal Reinhard Marx, whose archdiocese was the subject of a recent damning report into child sex abuses, said he was in favour of lifting the celibacy requirement for priests.

German Cardinal Reinhard Marx speaks at a press conference
German Cardinal Reinhard Marx speaks at a press conference following a report on sexual abuse against young people in the Catholic Archdiocese of Munich and Freising. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-Pool | Sven Hoppe

“For many priests, it would be better if they were married,” the influential archbishop of Munich and Freising told the Sueddeutsche Zeitung newspaper.

His comments came after a damning independent report last month found 497 victims of sexually abusive behaviour by 235 people – including 173 priests – in the Munich and Freising archdiocese between 1945 and 2019.

The report by law firm Westpfahl Spilker Wastl found that former Munich and Freising archbishop, ex-pope Benedict XVI, failed to take action to stop four priests accused of child sex abuse in Munich in the 1980s, before he became pontiff.

READ ALSO: German prosecutors examine 42 cases after church abuse probe

It also accused current archbishop Marx of failing to act in two cases of suspected abuse.

After the report was released, Marx said he was “shocked and ashamed” by the findings.

On Wednesday, Marx said he wondered if celibacy “should be a basic requirement for every priest”.

“I think that things as they are cannot continue like this,” he added.

“I always say this to young priests: living alone is not so easy.

“And if some say: without the obligation of celibacy, they will all get married! My answer is: so what! If they all marry, it would at least be a sign that things are not currently working.”

The unusually forthright comments on the subject came on the eve of a new assembly of the German synod, which is expected to move towards modernising the institution by 2023.

It is expected to look at several subjects viewed with suspicion by conservatives and the Vatican, such as allowing priests to marry and a greater role for women.

Last year Marx offered Pope Francis his resignation over the church’s “institutional and systemic failure” in its handling of child sex abuse scandals.

However Pope Francis rejected his offer, urging the cardinal known for his reforms to stay and help shape change in the church.

Four years ago a report found that at least 3,677 children had been sexually abused in the Catholic Church in Germany since 1946.

But its authors, who did not have access to the church’s files, estimated that the true number was far higher.