(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