Church: Revelation East: the unbelieving future for Germany?

Church: Revelation East: the unbelieving future for Germany?

The 2024 Catholic Day will take place in Erfurt, of all places. Christians in the predominantly non-believing East Germany see themselves as part of the diaspora. The same scenario could also happen in the West.

At the Catholic Day in Erfurt, Thuringia next week, Christians can take a look into their own future – as a dwindling minority in a society with almost no religious denomination. In East Germany, this has long been a reality. Years ago, a study by the University of Chicago identified the region as the least religious in the world. Very few people are church members, hardly any children are baptized, many bell towers and consecrated walls are crumbling. The church knows all this. And yet it refuses to be discouraged. The East seems to be something like its future laboratory in search of a new role.

“I am impressed by how our fellow believers there live their diaspora situation and look forward with great confidence,” says Georg Bätzing, the chairman of the German Bishops’ Conference. “They are small in number and strong in contributing to society with their own Christian profile.” This shows that a decreasing number of Christians “does not have to lead to sectarian or elitist isolation,” says Bätzing. Christians contribute their values ​​and thus give orientation to people outside the church. “For me, this shows an attractive picture of the future for the church as a whole.”

On the non-necessity of religion

Thuringia’s Prime Minister Bodo Ramelow knows the minority experience – even in several dimensions. “A West German in an Eastern party, a professed Christian in a party that stood for a tradition that is atheistic,” says the Left politician himself. “I am in the minority there too, and I am still a happy professed Christian.” Ramelow sees the loss of importance of the churches, the struggle with abuse of power and sexual assault. “Yes, there is a large wave of resignations in both churches, but there still seems to be a great longing for something spiritual.”

Spirituality, yes, perhaps, but do you need the church for that? The church historian Jörg Seiler from the Catholic Theological Faculty of the University of Erfurt speaks of the “non-necessity of religion for society”, which is also becoming the defining feeling in the West. “The non-denominational are by far the majority here in the East,” says Seiler.

In numbers, this means: At the end of 2022, according to the German Bishops’ Conference, around 800,000 of the almost 20.9 million Catholics nationwide lived in the eastern German federal states and Berlin. Their share of the population in the respective federal state ranged from 3.1 percent in Saxony-Anhalt to 7.5 percent in Berlin. The figures for the Evangelical Church (EKD) in the east are slightly higher. At the end of 2022, around 2.3 million of the approximately 19.2 million church members nationwide lived in Berlin, Brandenburg, Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, Saxony, Saxony-Anhalt and Thuringia. At 10.6 percent, their share of the population was lowest in Saxony-Anhalt and highest in Thuringia at 18.7 percent. But that still means: More than eight out of ten people are out.

Two dictatorships

The reasons for these figures also lie in the past. The two anti-religious dictatorships of the National Socialists and the SED left their mark in the 20th century. “The SED government tried to push the church back, and it was very easy to leave the church,” explains the religious and church sociologist Gert Pickel. As a result, many people in the GDR had little contact with the church. According to Pickel, the grandchildren of these generations have virtually no contact with religion anymore.

There are also general developments: in both the East and the West, people are moving more often than before, and they are less attached to their church community. “On Sunday mornings, people might prefer to spend time with their family, go to the zoo, the museum or play sports instead of going to church,” says Pickel. “The importance of religion is simply decreasing,” says church historian Seiler.

A study published in 2019 by the University of Freiburg predicts that the number of church members in Germany will shrink to 22.7 million by 2060, just over half as many as in 2022. In eastern Germany, the two major Christian churches will then only have 1.5 million members. Seiler expects that the churches could still survive. “If we continue to have a church tax model and churches co-financed with state benefits, then this church system will not collapse structurally,” says the professor.

“A solidarity-based, better world”

The historian sees a task for the church not only in pastoral care, but also in social cohesion. Therefore, the organizations should not continue to get bogged down in internal church issues. “If the church is no longer there for the people to create a better world based on solidarity, then it no longer needs to be publicly supported in the way we have,” says Seiler.

The big social questions are probably what draws many people to the Catholic Day: 20,000 people are expected, including many celebrities – from the Federal President to the Chancellor. “The fact that the Catholic Day focuses on peace in times of war reflects the longing and hope of many people,” said Federal Minister of Economics Robert Habeck (Greens) when asked why he was going to Erfurt. Many were looking for a perspective on peace. “I have this wish too. Peace means work, peace is a task that includes diplomacy and reconciliation, but excludes naivety.”

Source: Stern

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