The number of parishioners in the nation has been dwindling. Will the church’s presence eventually be lost?
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Hearing the words “Germany” and “Christianity,” many think first of the Lutheran Church. After all, the denomination’s founder, Martin Luther—prime mover in Europe’s 16th-century Protestant Reformation, which ended centuries of Catholic domination there—hailed from what is now the German state of Saxony-Anhalt.
But recent polls show that the numbers of German Protestants and Catholics are about even, each at around a third of its population of about 82 million. A fifth of Germans claim no religious affiliation, and five percent are Muslim (many of these are Turkish immigrants).
Still, as is the case in many affluent Western nations, Catholic numbers have been declining there for years. And a subgroup that identifies itself as Catholic is better described as “nominal Catholics”—meaning they are generally not observant of the church’s traditions and teachings, and rarely, if ever, attend mass.
In this climate of shrinking dioceses, a new church ruling shocked many both inside and outside the church: Reuters reported, “Germany’s Roman Catholic bishops have decreed that people who opt out of a ‘church tax’ should not be given sacraments and religious burials, getting tougher on worshippers who choose not to pay.
“Alarmed by a wave of dissenting Catholics quitting the faith, the bishops issued a decree…declaring such defection ‘a serious lapse’ and listed a wide range of church activities from which they must be excluded.
“Germans officially registered as Catholics, Protestants or Jews pay a religious tax of 8 or 9 percent of their annual tax bill. They can avoid this by declaring to their local tax office that they are leaving their faith community.
“The annual total of church leavers, usually around 120,000, rocketed to 181,193 two years ago as revelations about decades of sexual abuse of children by priests shamed the hierarchy and prompted an apology from German-born Pope Benedict.
“‘This decree makes clear that one cannot partly leave the Church,’ a statement from the bishops conference said. ‘It is not possible to separate the spiritual community of the Church from the institutional Church.’”
In other words, nominal Catholics cannot expect to receive the benefits of church membership without a full commitment—and one cannot be an “independent Catholic” apart from the organized church hierarchy.
An NPR report added, “In increasingly secular Europe, Germany is one of the few countries where the state collects a special levy from tax-registered believers and hands it over to three organized faiths.
“In issuing the stringent new decree, Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, the president of the German bishops’ conference, said that not paying taxes for the church is a grave offense, and that sacraments will be banned for those who distance themselves from the church.
“‘In Germany, the church is a community of faith which coexists alongside the legal system,’ Zollitsch said. ‘The two cannot be separated.’”
Put another way, church leaders recognize no separation of church and state for officially recognized denominations.
Many Germans were angered by this move, viewing it as heavy-handed. On the surface, it seems that this will only accelerate the exodus from the Catholic fold.
What does the future hold for the German Catholic Church? Is it destined to collapse? Is this a matter of pure speculation—or can the answer be known with absolute certainty?
Since “past is prologue,” an overview of history helps to frame these questions.
According to church tradition, Catholicism was brought to the Germans in the eighth century by Wynfrid, a missionary from a noble family in England, whose name was changed to Boniface (“fortunate”) by Pope Gregory II.
A famous account from German history has a dynamic, strong-willed Boniface taking an ax to a tree dedicated to the god Thor, which stood in Geismar. When the pagan onlookers saw that their god of war did not immediately strike Boniface with death from above, he earned their reverence as a man with otherworldly powers. His status was also helped by a pledge of protection from Charles Martel, ruler of the Germanic kingdom of the Franks—a favor solicited by the pope.
For the next eight centuries, Christianity became the dominant religion in Germanic-controlled lands across the Continent, spread by missionaries as well as religious/military groups such as the Teutonic Order.
The line between church and state was blurred: “The authority of the various barbarian kings was seldom sufficient to keep their realms in order. There were always many powerful landholders scattered throughout the kingdom who did pretty much what they pleased and settled their grudges against their fellows by neighborhood wars. Fighting was the main business as well as the chief amusement of this class.
“Under these circumstances it naturally fell to the Church to keep order, when it could, by either threats or persuasion; to see that contracts were kept, the wills of the dead carried out, and marriage obligations observed…These conditions serve to explain why the Church…undertook duties which seem to us to belong to the State rather than a religious organization” (History of Europe, Ancient and Medieval).
A turning point for the Catholic church in Europe was the Roman Empire’s transformation into the Holy Roman Empire, accomplished through a Roman pope and a German emperor. According to The Catholic Encyclopedia, “Real German history begins with Charlemagne (768-814).”
This source describes how this emperor viewed himself and his reign: “The Frankish king desired like Solomon to be a great ecclesiastical and secular potentate, a royal priest…his conception of his position [was] as the head of the Kingdom of God…[he was] crowned emperor by the Pope on Christmas Day, 800. On this day the Germanic idea of the Kingdom of God, of which Charlemagne was the representative, bowed to the Roman idea, which regards Rome as its centre, Rome the seat of the old empire and the most sacred place of the Christian world. Charlemagne when emperor still regarded himself as the real leader of the Church…He even interfered in dogmatic [doctrinal] questions.
“Charlemagne…regarded his possession of the empire as resulting solely from his own power…Yet on the other hand he looked upon his empire only as a Christian one, whose most noble calling it was to train up the various races within its borders to the service of God and thus to unify them.”
By the time a later German king, Otto the Great, was crowned as Holy Roman Emperor in 962, the balance of power had been clarified: “…the German king recognized that it was the pope and only the pope who could confer the imperial title” (A History of the Church in the Middle Ages).
The church became the primary institution in Europe, transcending all of its local and regional monarchs, to the point that the continent took on an alternate name: “Christendom.” The Holy Roman Emperor became the world’s most powerful civil ruler, crowned by its most powerful religious figure.
When Martin Luther posted his 95 theses on a door of a church in Wittenberg, Germany, in 1517, it was an unprecedented challenge to the Roman church. While it was not the first step in the Protestant Reformation, it was the boldest.
The new church he established presented an alternative to many German nobles and landholders, many of whom agreed with Luther’s view that the established church had become a moneymaking enterprise rather than a spiritual body. The Lutheran movement allowed them to get out from under Rome’s thumb, while assuring them that they could still receive salvation. Further, Luther’s motto of sola scriptura—“scripture alone”—gave these new converts a sense of righteous justification in what Catholic loyalists considered rebellion.
Hostilities soon broke out between the kings of various German territories, Lutheran versus Catholic. In 1555, the Peace of Augsburg led to a lull in the fighting and established the Lutheran church as a legitimate, state-sanctioned church. This treaty’s terms stated that subjects within a king’s territory must conform to his church affiliation, or else relocate. This ruling effectively redrew the German map. Catholics became predominant in south and west Germany, Protestants in the north and east—a pattern that largely holds today.
In the realm of European religion, the floodgates had been opened, with effects spreading far beyond Germany. The survival and success of Martin Luther and his namesake church emboldened followers of other reformers such as John Calvin, John Knox, Ulrich Zwingli, and John Hus.
When Bohemian King Ferdinand II (later to become a Holy Roman Emperor) mandated Catholicism for all in his territory, it sparked a revolt that spread, becoming the Thirty Years War (1618-1648). This pitted Catholic strongholds such as France, Spain and Poland against Protestant-aligned nations including Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands. By its end, through treaties called the Peace of Westphalia, the borders and power balance across Europe had changed. As summarized by Encyclopaedia Britannica, “The ancient notion of a Roman Catholic empire of Europe, headed spiritually by a pope and temporally by an emperor, was permanently abandoned, and the essential structure of modern Europe as a community of sovereign states was established.”
A later crossing of paths for Rome and Berlin has been a source of controversy that continues in modern times.
As Adolf Hitler’s National Socialist party rose to power, tension rose between it and the Catholic church, in part due to the latter’s record of being outspoken on political issues, as well as church ties to organized labor. Nazi operatives were known for regularly harassing clergymen and Catholic politicians, sometimes to the point of violence.
Hitler wrote and spoke openly of his contempt for Christianity’s servant mindset and its historical connection to the Jewish people. However, he later made a pragmatic decision to formalize relations with the Vatican to promote German unity under his leadership: “When the Concordat [formal agreement] between the Holy See and the German Reich under Hitler was concluded on July 20, 1933, the event was acclaimed as marking the end of the long Church-State struggles in Germany…both parties to the Concordat had reason to believe that they had gained greatly by its conclusion. The Roman Catholic Church, on one hand, beheld its rights and influence in the Third Reich safeguarded by means of a solemn and formal convention…while the Nazi government, on the other, saw itself gaining an invaluable hold on the allegiance of 20,000,000 [German Catholics]” (The Catholic Historical Review).
In the ensuing world war, Rome and Berlin joined forces as the Axis powers through a “Pact of Steel.” Pope Pius XII assumed the papacy in March 1939, less than six months before the war began with Hitler’s invasion of Poland.
By January 1940, the site for the Auschwitz concentration camp had been chosen. That same month, an article in the Nazi newspaper Der Stürmer warned, “The time is near when a machine will go into motion which is going to prepare a grave for the world’s criminal—Judah—from which there will be no resurrection.”
Much of what allowed Nazis to wreak such terrible destruction was silence and appeasement. History has not been kind to Pius, who is seen as remaining nearly mute about the Final Solution that unfolded on his watch.
As could be expected, the vast majority of popes have been of Italian descent. But a number of Germans have held this office, starting with Gregory V (996-999). Another German, Adrian VI (1522-1523), was the last non-Italian pope before John Paul II (1978-2005), and the last German before the current pope, Benedict XVI.
A review of Benedict’s 2011 visit to his homeland gives context to the recent hard-line stance from German bishops. In contrast to the warm reception and mutual admiration that defined John Paul II’s visits to his native Poland, Benedict faced protests and brought an urgent message: “Addressing about 100,000 people during mass at a small airport near the southwestern city of Freiburg, [Benedict] said the sometimes fractious Church needed to unite around him and the German bishops.
“‘The Church in Germany will continue to be a blessing for the entire Catholic world if she remains faithfully united with the successor of St Peter,’ he said, referring to himself.
“His third trip as pope to his native country has been his toughest, met by protest over sex abuse scandals, reform calls from Catholics who view his conservative stand as outdated and hopes from Protestants for closer ecumenical cooperation.
“Benedict has closed the door on changes to the Church’s opposition to gay marriage, married clergy or women priests, and has indicated he will not ease restrictions on divorced Catholics who have remarried outside the Church.
“From highly secular Berlin to former communist Erfurt to Catholic Freiburg during this four-day trip, he has hammered home his view that the Church cannot change merely to suit the whims of the times.
“Polls say many German Catholics disagree” (Reuters).
A Time report added that at the pontiff’s welcome ceremony, “German President Christian Wulff praised the Church’s role in backing German reunification more than 20 years ago. But he stopped far short of praising the Pope’s notoriously conservative agenda—and even made reference to his own struggles in the Catholic Church as a remarried divorcé.” It also cited a poll which “found that 76% of Germans said it wasn’t important what the Pope would say during his trip. And the majority of Catholics, 58%, were equally unenthusiastic.”
The Vatican currently oversees a shrinking, dissenting group of congregants in a number of countries. In some respects, this is offset by growth in Latin America, Africa and elsewhere.
At a point, this church-nation-state will likely distance itself from some of the most wayward nations. Yet to do this with a country at the center of Christendom’s history and geography would be unthinkable.
A theme of Benedict’s papacy has been “re-evangelizing” Europe, including Germany—fighting the tide of indifference toward religion, challenging citizens to rediscover their common spiritual heritage.
But progress has been either slow or non-existent. Germany lacks a modern-day Boniface to hack apart the “gods” of secularism and materialism. Recall that Boniface himself was not German, yet was given great deference for his bold displays of power.
It is also missing a counterpart of Charlemagne—a central civil authority figure able to unify both Germany and the rest of the surrounding nations.
In the midst of an economic crisis, an ever-growing number of Europeans are calling for someone who fits that profile. Looking at Greece and Spain, they see their way of life in jeopardy—and want someone to do something about it! The slow-moving bureaucracy of the European Union offers little hope for a timely solution.
But remember the pattern of history. A sovereign over all of Europe—which was divided among very different peoples—needed the authority of its largest common religion as the glue to bind these nations together.
Many believe that Europe will never be a superpower again. In light of its role over the past seven decades, not to mention its current financial mess, this seems to be a reasonable conclusion.
But there is one unexpected source that has a perfect record of foretelling the rise and fall of great empires: the Bible. This Book makes clear that two powerful figures—one political and one religious—will arise in Europe, snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. The civil leader will harness the Continent’s massive population, as well as resources from other places around the globe, to build a stunning superpower, overshadowing all others. At the same time, there will be a resurgence in the universal church centered there. The German church will expand at its fastest-ever rate.