(Image: Cologne Cathedral)
Translator’s note: The following article has been translated from the German original as it had been originally published in December of 2014 by the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) (29 December 2014). We consider this article to be an excellent description, in the longer light of history, of the decline of Christianity in Germany. We believe it might also be of special interest to our readers in the current discussions concerning the role of German prelates in Rome.
The Church in Crisis
Diaspora in Germany
by Markus Günther
Is Germany a Christian country? It depends. On paper, the churches are still binding millions of people. But their influence is small in the lives of the individual person. From out of the late times of Christianity.
In the night from the 13th to the 14th of December  – nearly fifty years ago to the day – a student with the name of Franz was wandering through the streets of Münster. He was not able to sleep. Too much aroused was he by a homily he had just heard in the early evening at the Cathedral, presented by a young priest and professor only a few years older than himself and who had interpreted Advent and Christmas in a completely new, yes an even revolutionary way: the young theologian said that the old teaching, according to which human history separates itself into the time of darkness and into the time of light – that is to say, the time before and after Christ’s birth – really cannot be taken seriously anymore today. Whoever would – after the World Wars, after Auschwitz and Hiroshima – still want to talk of the period of salvation that had started 2,000 years ago in Bethlehem? No, the separation between darkness and light, between imprisonment and redemption, does not go straight through history, but straight through our individual soul. Advent does not take place on the calendar, but in our hearts – or it stops exactly there, and without effects. This was a bit much, and one can well imagine that the student could not find his sleep after this homily, but wanted to be alone in order to think through by himself everything that was said.
Today, both are old men – the student and the preacher of this memorable evening in Münster – Franz Kamphaus who experienced at the time a sleepless night; and Joseph Ratzinger, who as a 37-year-old academic young star, shook the student of theology. Astonishing, how the life paths of these two men crossed themselves there for the first time. In looking back, these two names – Ratzinger and Kamphaus – stand for two paths of the Church in Germany which one does not have to describe with the words “right” and “left” but which were, indeed, quite opposite to one another. Both tried freshly to proclaim Christianity under changed conditions and somehow to rescue it in its passage over into the modern world – and they fought bitterly about the right and the false compromises pertaining to the relation between Christ and the world. But now, at the end of their lives, both are united beyond all differences by a common record of failure: Christianity in Germany is spiritually bankrupt.
The Church in Germany Resembles the Late GDR [German Democratic Republic; in the Communist Eastern Part of Germany]
Neither the modest, winning way of Kamphaus, nor the clever theology of Ratzinger who ruled Germany out of Rome changed an iota of it. Not even a German pope – who would have, by the way, even considered such a thing to be possible in 1964, not even twenty years after the end of the War? – was able to revive Christianity in Germany. The German pontificate has left behind nothing but a little bit of national pride and some pretty pictures. Kamphaus and Ratzinger – modernists and traditionalists, zealous reformers and iron conservatives – they all now stand together in Germany in front of a heap of rubble.
Of course, one can deny all of this. One can say, for example, that Germany is still a Christian country because nearly two thirds of all Germans are members of one of the two major churches, because the children still receive in public schools religious instruction, because crosses are hanging at the walls of our law courts and schools and because the churches do valuable work in kindergartens and hospitals. Even in the preamble of the Constitution, there is still the reference to God, and the chancellor [Angela Merkel] called upon God’s help when taking her oath of office. Thus, is Germany not a Christian country?
Yes, the historical façade is still standing, that is true, and it is astonishingly well preserved. But, in many aspects, the Church in Germany resembles today the late GDR: it looks stable but it is right before its collapse. And just as it was with the late GDR, many functionaries deceive themselves now. Pastors and bishops, also many volunteers, see in the parishes blossoming landscapes, where there is a desert that has already been present for a long time. Love blinds, after all. And there, where it is about one’s own existence, practical optimism blinds one’s objective view on reality.
Failure as a Community of Faith
The glossy veneers and the robust structures are of help in the attempt to deceive oneself: in our country, there are 45,000 churches, and most of them – in their structures – are in a good condition. This year , the Catholic Church and the Evangelical Church in Germany will receive more money than ever before. The German Church music is the best in the world. There are still 44,000 Catholic weddings a year and 225,000 Protestant confirmations. Is this nothing? There is only lacking the argument that the churches are the second largest employer in Germany and they thus offer more than a million people a secure job.
Then the Church finally reached the level of legitimacy of the local waste incineration plant.
No, a church can be taken seriously, neither as an employer nor as a support of the welfare system, but only as a community of Faith. And exactly that – the common contents of Faith – has mostly dissolved into the air. The churches should be somewhat concerned about the fact that only a third of the Germans believe in the Incarnation, when at the same time, according to the statistics, two thirds of the Germans are Christians. But it is still even worse: even among the faithful, central contents of the Christian message are being rejected in droves. 60 percent do not believe in eternal life. In comparison, every fourth German believes that an encounter with a black cat brings bad luck. More people between Flensburg [up north] and Oberammergau [in the south] believe in UFOs than in the Last Judgment. Welcome to the German Diaspora.
Worship Services are being still celebrated – just without God
How little church membership has today to do with the Faith has been shown by a poll conducted by the Institut Allensbach upon request of the Catholic Church. It turned out to be so devastating that the results were never published. When asked why they are Catholic, 68 percent: “Because one can then celebrate in the Church important events in life, for example wedding, baptism.” When dealing with the second most given reason one can only admire its heart-freshening honesty: “For, me, it has to be part of life, it has tradition in our family.” It is obvious that these reasons cannot be counted as religious ones, but are, rather, cultural, social reasons. Most local pastors can confirm this finding: church works best where she promises a big feast. A wedding in white – often in a foreign, but imposing church – is still very much demanded, the same as the pictures of a First Communion child in white dress or of a Confirmation boy in a dark suit. But, nearly every third confirmed child does not believe at all in God. Here the comparison with the GDR again imposes itself: when Socialism had already been bankrupt, the youth-initiation ceremony [“Jugendweihe”] was still very popular. It [this ceremony] even survived the collapse of the GDR and continues still simply to be celebrated, though emptied of its meaning and now freed from its socialist contents. Also many worship services are exclusively cultural events (that is to say: weekly meeting point, yearly folklore, family feast), so that they can continue to be celebrated just the same after the [purported] final proof of the non-existence of God.
The late period of Christianity in Germany has started. The church tax will be abolished either due to political pressure or because it will anyway peter out after 2030; the last generation which was socialized in a Christian sense, and which is still active in the parishes, will soon leave the work life and will die in the next three decades. Then the veneer of the church will also crack and be soon crushed. Behind it will appear a minority which will not be much bigger than the community of Jehovah’s Witnesses.
It goes constantly down the hill
By contrast, every few years there is a religious renaissance proclaimed in the media, preferably at the time of Christmas. Journalists and sociologists then want to have discerned a trend: a return to the Christian roots, the new generation’s search for meaning, first a Benedict effect, and now – the newest – a Francis effect. In truth, there is no hint whatsoever for such a turn. The numbers move constantly into the same direction: downwards. Alone in 2013, the Catholic Church lost already again 10 percent of her churchgoers.
The return to religion does not exist. But interestingly, the number of atheists does not rise, either. One could think, after all, that the turning away from the churches would go along with a strong increase of atheism. But there can be no question of that. Obviously, even those who do not feel drawn to traditional religions are not content with the explanation that, at some point in history, there was nothing, and then, the world happened to emerge out of a Big Bang; that mankind emerged out of a sequence of evolutionary accidents – and each individual person, too; that the world consists only in what one can see, measure and understand; that with death, everything is simply over. The question of the Whence and Whereto, the quest for God is immanent in man. In decisive moments of life – that is to say, when it is about illness and death, about the abysses of one’s own life, about guilt and failure, hope and grief, and, not least: about the experience of love – that is where the quest for God also returns, again and again, into one’s consciousness. “If one day any sort of religion would disappear and even the word ‘God’ would be completely deleted,” said Karl Rahner once, “then one would, after all, re-invent this word for the nameless mystery of our existence.”
Religions have to formulate absolute truths
For the majority of mankind inside the church, and also outside, the quest for God will remain a topic for a lifetime, and with which quest one never really comes to an end. The changes of life are mirrored also in the biography of the Faith. A determined atheism is the exception; a vague, often diffuse faith is today the standard case and the norm. One also could say: they still exist in large numbers, those ones who are seeking and doubting, those who ask for God and, with interest, seek answers – but the churches reach them less and less.
But why do such seekers not find any more the guideposts? Why do supply and demand not fit together? The most popular answer to this question is the following: because the church is not any more up to date. It should adapt itself more and more to the life realities of today’s man. That sounds plausible at first hand, but is nonsense at a closer look. Because the Evangelical Church in Germany has accomplished more or less everything that is still demanded of the Catholic Church in order to be sufficiently up to date, finally: priesthood for women, abolition of celibacy, liberality with regard to moral questions, full acceptance of homosexuals, and of the remarried. If these were really the reasons for the malaise of Christianity, the Protestants should be doing much better than the Catholics. But this is not the case. A second fallacy is being added when we are using the popular magic word “up to date”: for, where the church does not refer to timeless, non-negotiable [“unverfügbare”] truths, it reveals itself to be a mere work of man. Political programs have to be up to date, offers of entertainment, too; a religion has to be able to claim for itself absolute truths – or it is not a religion.
Nothing but noisy tamtam and mumbo-jumbo
Instead, both churches in Germany – not always officially but de facto, that is to say, in the practical life – have for a long time given up the central contents of the Faith [the Incarnation, sin, Grace, Final Judgment, Eternal Life et al.]. In trying not to offend anybody and to make access to the Faith as easy as possible, much has been softened at least a little bit: Jesus “the Son of God” became Jesus, a model just like Buddha or Gandhi. The Resurrection became a legend which one should not take literally, but, rather, in the sense of “Whoever lives on in the heart of his own loved ones is not dead.” The smallest common denominator of this proclamation often only consists any more of a comforting prose [“Wohlfühlprosa”] which was intended to reach the largest possible amount of people, but which thereby appears to be only optional. Peace in the world, more justice for everybody, not to be any more always so egoistic – to this [set of abstractions], any assembly of more or less decent people can agree. An appeal coming from UNESCO or from Greenpeace does not sound any different. For such as this, God is not needed.
When, every year again, that is to say during Christmastide, the churches are once again filled, things are festive, but the sparkle of the Faith seldom jumps across to others. Many churchgoers are wondering – about the church and about themselves. What did they look for here? And why did they find nothing? [At this sacred time and sacred place,] Very little is felt of any sacred actions. If the spiritual nomad does happen to land in a traditionally inspired liturgy, the result is not better, either. Because here, the stranger remains a stranger even moreso and turns away again. Liturgy presupposes much knowledge, otherwise one sees nothing but tamtam and mumbo-jumbo.
Faith without images is ideology
Perhaps, the man of today with his enlightened wit is sometimes standing in his own way. Faith requires a shot of guilelessness and naiveté, a readiness to give up control and to enter into something mysterious and hard to grasp. Fumbling and hoping. No wonder that this is getting harder and harder for most people in a world which is just about to totally organize, and in an industrial way, the last untouched areas of life – sexuality, love, birth, and death. The total control of, and the complete dominance over, one’s own life, is now the order of the day; a soil less fertile for the Faith is not imaginable.
But the churches themselves have contributed much to the destroying of piety and faithful child-like innocence – or better: to destroying the mediating immediacy of religious images. The [iconoclastic] storm against the traditional concepts was started in the heads. Perhaps this was the most tragic development of modern theology: to want to detach the content from its images [and palpable sacred signs], to abstract the Faith and to rely on man’s [presumed] capacity today to deal better with an idea than with an image. An error. A Faith without images is ideology, and an ideology is to be judged by the individual reason and by the prevalent fashion of the time. An image remains an image, it challenges, it fascinates, irritates, and is accepted or rejected, but it asserts itself. Whoever destroys images, removes also everything from the ideas. Whoever does not want to imagine God as a person, but, rather, only as an abstract being, as a form of energy or as a power, will lose also his Faith because of this. For, it is so that each human relationship – and Faith is nothing other than that – needs, as a counterpart, a living person.
Translation by Robert and Maike Hickson
Dr. Maike Hickson, born and raised in Germany, studied History and French Literature at the University of Hannover and lived for several years in Switzerland where she wrote her doctoral dissertation. She is married to Dr. Robert Hickson, and they have been blessed with two beautiful children. She is a happy housewife who likes to write articles when time permits.
Her articles have appeared in American and European journals such as Catholicism.org, LifeSiteNews, The Wanderer, Culture Wars, Catholic Family News, Christian Order, Apropos, and Zeit-Fragen.
Yes. of course., armes Deutschland! But don’t you see that the similar – if not same – situation is in all developed economies of western Europe, perhaps also in US and it is indeed (with a different flavour, though) perceivable also in Australia. The article does not go deep enough. It has not posed THE question: how it is possible? And it has not attempted to answer it either. Why?
No doubt, they want to change Church teaching on Communion! And Francis bought into that heresy!
That would be a minor issue. Much more is at stake: human souls. That is if we “see” and know that souls indeed exist.
Is it minor? Or is it the last bastion of truth that presents the human Family as the Sign of God in the world? Three Sacraments, if not four, are taken down in one fell swoop – The Real Presence of God in the Eucharist, the Indissolubility of Marriage, Confession as a true sign of God’s infinite Mercy, and the relevance of the Priesthood.
This is saying there is no God. The Supernatural is just superstition.
We obviously speak of the same central issue, but from perhaps different perspectives. The central issue remains and it is this: how we can enter, after this earthly existence, into the Eternity of God’s Blissful Presence. Do you think believing the various dogmas will guarantee it? Practising Sacrament of Confession as often as possible is and in full – this is my humble opinion – is fully sufficient.
Agree Pavel. And the path chosen (as referenced in the article, is not that).
Yes. Have a nice weekend.
This excellent article poses a number of questions for us today. Was it ever reasonable to expect that the numbers of committed Catholics would continue to grow right through the modern era when Christ told Nicodemus that the world was on its way to perishing and He had come to save some from that perishing? So the idea of Progress has been limited and illusory. The Light did come into the world to show us the way to live without perishing. That didnt in itself mean that those who were perishing would necessarily embrace that way. If they crucified Jesus the innocent, the Truth, why did we ever think that Christianity would be held up and celebrated throughout history? We know that Mary will defeat all the heresies and her Immaculate Heart will triumph and that’s going to occur before the end of history.
“A Faith without images is ideology . . .” I remember this about contemporary German Catholic churches when I was stationed there for several years in the early 2000’s: the interiors were stark and industrial, stripped of anything for the eye. What images there were were highly abstract and grotesquely distorted. There was nothing in them to draw the senses to God. They were depressing places to worship.
Spot on, Cornelius. The most grotesque example I saw in Germany was the church of St George in Freising, north east of Munich. The magnificent cathedral up the hill was the seat of Pope Benedict when he was Archbishop of Munich and Freising. The historical outer shell of St George still stands, but the interior has been modernised at eye popping expense so it would be more appropriate to a stark new industrial church. To give you an idea of the contempt in which the modern clergy hold the faithful and their money, a new modernist sculpture of St George and the Dragon was erected on a side wall. The beautiful old sculpture was transferred to the splendid diocesan museum next to the hilltop cathedral.
Local architects and interior designers must love the clergy. The old museum has been modernised, no expense spared. Perhaps that is the only future for Catholicism in its traditional heartland – in a museum.
Protestantism has run its course and is dying. The attempt to make the Catholic Church acceptable to Protestants at Vatican II and the subsequent actions in support of a supposed spirit of Vatican II by introducing Protestant ideas has been a disaster. Gradually I hope people are beginning to realise this and there are some green shoots.
You need to define which sort of Protestantism is dying. The “mainline” denominations in the affluent West are indeed dying, but the evangelical churches are not. Globally, evangelicals — especially various shades of charismatics — are experiencing a time of explosive growth. In short, evangelical Protestantism is not dying: it’s doing extraordinarily well in the global South and is holding steady in the global North.
Quite right. I was thinking of the Church of England and the mainstream Protestant churches in Europe. Evangelicals are something different. In the UK I follow Christian Concern which is an evangelical organisation of lawyers which campaigns on legal issues affecting Christians. Paradoxically they seem more orthodox than most Catholics on such subjects as homosexuality, abortion, euthanasia etc and seem as happy to rely upon the writings of JPII as on scripture.
That’s right, Nicolas. Setting aside perversions like the “prosperity gospel,” most evangelicals are rather strong in their confidence in Christ as our only Savior from sin. They are enthusiastic about repentance and conversion. They are confident in the inspiration of Holy Scripture. They believe that doctrine is important for evangelism, including moral clarity. In all of these ways, they would be considered “rigorists” by Pope Francis. So the question is why Pope Francis and his friends (like Cardinal Kasper) are pursuing an obviously failed strategy.
Be VERY careful in your assessment of the positives of Evangelicalism. I confess, as a convert to the Catholic faith from conservative Protestantism it is can be a challenge, for there is much that looks good on the surface and their claims sound so heartfelt and sincere, but…
At its core, modern Evangelicalism is about re-forming the Christian faith in the image of what is generally felt to be a “good Person” and around the central theme of personal interpretation of the Bible and personal authority in matters of faith and morals. THAT is why it is popular. It CLAIMS to be fixed on God, but it patently is fixed on Man.
Thus while they SAY the Bible is inerrant and they set it up as the Only Authority on faith and morals, in reality they disregard the very words of Christ on marriage and divorce and have gone beyond that to monstrously tear out whole books of the Bible and toss them in the garbage. How in the world is THAT demonstrative of a high view of Sacred Scripture? Upon what or whose authority is THAT done? And then there’s use of artificial contraception, that bugbear that used to be a sin among Protestants but is now a moral virtue.
As for zeal for repentance and conversion, yes, they are, but repenting from WHAT and converting to WHAT?
In truth, the Devil is truly in the details of the Protestant and especially “conservative” Evangelical religion. Pastors take on near Godlike dimensions until they get caught with a parishioner’s wife. Of course, Protestantism being what it is, it is merely a few years until the dust settles and that fling becomes the cornerstone of a relationship between two “soulmates” who are “blessed” with having finally found each other. All it takes is wheels and miles to on…to a new congregation where they can now both bless others with “powerful ministry” and better yet…form a marriage counseling service on the side!
And as for the numbers, well, OF COURSE comfortable “Christianity” is going to sell! And even so, in the USA, we see more shifting around than we do true growth. Cuz let’s face it, when the pastor says something you don’t like you simply move to a different group down the street, to a ministry you “are comfortable with”, a new ministry that counts you as a growth statistic and points to the success of their budding outreach program…
Living in this wasteland I can confim the above. The Catholics in Germany are Catholic not because they believe it to be the One True Church outside of which there is no salvation. Rather it is because it gives them identity, or because the Church helps the poor and needy. Anyone who can understand German should look up the katholisches.de youtube channel and view the appalling videos they produce about what it means to be Catholic, what is ecumenism, what is the difference between Lutheran and Catholic etc etc. The hierarchy of the German Church has to a large extent completely lost the Faith. The certainly do not believe in hell, or at least that anyone goes there (well, maybe if you don’t pay up your church tax). The last head of the Bishops Conference in Germany, Robert +Zolitsch (yes, he who years ago proposed pastorally allowing sacrilegious Communions in Freiburg) openly denied the atonement of Christ on national television a couple of years back , when he said Christ’s death was an act of “solidarity” with the oppressed. Is it any surprise that his successor, the pro-pervert Marx is in favour of recognizing sodomite unions. And on and on it goes. But you know what, good riddance to these devils. There is an adoration chapel in the city near where I live, some of the regulars there were openly in favour of homo marriage, wymenpriests etc. Like they were sitting in Adoration telling Jesus He needs to get with the program.
Rotten to the core is the Church in Germany and the sooner it is brought to ruin the sooner it can be reborn.
“Like they were sitting in Adoration telling Jesus He needs to get with the program.”
This seems to sum up so much of what is going on in the Church today.