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What kind of “believers”?

A little honesty would go a long way when it comes to the Catholic Church in Germany.

Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich and Freising speaks during the opening service of the plenary meeting of the German bishops' conference in Ingolstadt, Germany, Feb. 19, 2018. (CNS photo/Markus Now, KNA)

This past June I was in the Munich area for four days, giving a public lecture on Evangelical Catholicism and doing a lot of media interviews. My hosts were exceptionally gracious, but it was also obvious that the Catholic Church in what was once Germany’s most intensely Catholic region is in terrible shape. The numbers tell the tale.

The parish in whose rectory I stayed has some 10,000 parishioners — which is to say, the pastor knows that there are 10,000 people within the parish boundaries who, when paying their federal taxes, tick the box for the Kirchensteuer, the “Church tax.” Having seen years of statistics on Sunday Mass attendance from the German bishops’ conference, I was expecting the pastor to answer my question about his Sunday congregation with a figure somewhere between 700 and 1,000. No, he said; average Sunday Mass attendance among those 10,000 parishioners was 200. And when he asked people politely when he might see them at Mass, he frequently got the answer, “Look, I pay the Church tax; what else do you want?”

So it was with some interest that I read the recent explanation by Munich’s Cardinal Reinhard Marx as to why he and the majority of the German bishops were defying the Vatican and plowing ahead with their “binding Synodal process,” in order to re-examine “issues” such as the Church’s sexual ethic, its teaching on marriage, and its ancient pattern of ordaining only men to the ministerial priesthood. Cardinal Marx claimed that “Countless believers in Germany consider (these issues) in need of discussion.” The not-so-tacit suggestion was that questions once thought settled by the Church were in fact open.

In light of my recent experience in the cardinal’s archdiocese, some questions immediately occurred: Who are these “countless believers”? Do they participate in the Eucharistic community of the Church or do they just pay the Church tax (and get snarky when asked why worship is not on their Sunday agenda)?

And further: How many of these “countless believers,” who seem to think that what is settled is in fact unsettled, have ever had the truths they question explained to them? How many of German Catholicism’s legion of theologians and church workers devote themselves to such teaching? The archdiocese of Munich and Freising has, I was told, some 2,000 employees. Do any of them live the vocation to explain what is challenging in the Gospel and the Catholic Church’s application of it?

Moreover, in what time-warp do these “countless believers” live? The Catholic Church has spent an inordinate amount of time and energy over the past 50 years “discussing” the “issues” that Cardinal Marx suggests are at the top of German Catholics’ concerns. Isn’t the real problem here that, after a lot of discussion and deliberation, the teaching authority of the Church resolved those issues in a way that “countless believers” didn’t like and still don’t like — perhaps because the Church’s settled answers are in severe tension with the libertine public moral culture that prevails across western Europe?

A little honesty here would go a long way.

Much of the Catholic Church in Germany (and in other German-speaking lands) is in a de facto state of schism: many of its leaders and intellectuals do not believe what the Catholic Church believes. And because of that, they do not teach what the Catholic Church teaches. Nor does this de facto schism touch on neuralgic moral questions alone. It involves the bottom of the bottom line: Is Jesus Christ the unique redeemer of humanity, such that all who are saved are saved through him (in one fashion or another)? Are there divinely revealed truths that remain binding over time? Is the Catholic Church speaking the truth when it solemnly declares that it is doing so, irrespective of what the surrounding culture thinks?

Catholicism is dying in the German-speaking world, not because the Gospel has been proclaimed and found incredible or hard, but because it hasn’t been proclaimed with joy, confidence, and zeal. Friendship with the Lord Jesus Christ, and incorporation into the community of disciples in mission that is the Church, has not been offered. That is why there is 2 percent Mass attendance in that Munich parish. Recognizing that hard truth is the only path toward a German Catholicism that has something credible to say to the rest of the world Church.

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About George Weigel 500 Articles
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is the author of over twenty books, including Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (1999), The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010), and The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform. His most recent books are The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (2020), Not Forgotten: Elegies for, and Reminiscences of, a Diverse Cast of Characters, Most of Them Admirable (Ignatius, 2021), and To Sanctify the World: The Vital Legacy of Vatican II (Basic Books, 2022).


  1. Although I’m not certain the Church in Germany is a tax paying corpse because the Gospel hasn’t been taught with joy George Weigel is right that “The Church’s settled answers are in severe tension with the libertine public moral culture that prevails across western Europe”. German binding synods adhering to the voice of the laity will become an extension of that libertine culture. The only means thereafter of packing the pews will be with theatrical entertainment, perhaps good stage productions of the classics old and new [hopefully I’m not providing the Cardinal with ideas to insure income]. Otherwise rather than suppress reinstate the contemplative communities to invoke a torrent of grace. And replace Cardinal Marx with Bishop Stefan Oster of Passau.

    • Martin Luther, German founder of all Protestantism, admitted to finding Catholicism “too difficult”, in spite of him being surrounded everywhere by exemplary good Catholics, clergy and laity, who were not stressed but joyful to be Catholic. Luther’s invincible, willful mediocrity, spinelessness and love for worldly popularity infused all his “protests” and his theology, which today has created 35,000 different Protestant denominations with an average of 10 new ones every week (The Barna Group). Like Luther, Bishop Marx wants to elevate, institutionalize and even sacralize his personal willful compromise, mediocrity and failure. We aready have the Protestant denominations for that, why the need for a mediocre, compromising, Catholic-Protestant hybrid monster?

      It will not silence our screaming God-given consciences just like Protestantism, liberalism, homosexuality, etc. never have and never will. As far as Bishop Stefan Oster of Passau being a good replacement for Bishop Marx, Bishop Oster has stood strong against the ZdK, the ultra-liberal and top lay Catholic organization of Germany. Kudos for that. On the other side, Bishop Oster believes in opening the doors to married Priests and is part of the very dedicated “explainers-away” of Pope Francis. When in 2,000 years of Church history did we ever have a Pope who had to be “explained-away-and-explained-again” in almost every word he says? It is that ambiguous, headless leadership that has opened wide doors to Martin Luther’s mediocre, sinful dream born all over again.

      • Phil in a Catholic Hierarchy given to ‘deep state’ intrigue multi layered inscrutable [almost though not for all] deception that would be the envy of old Byzantium and prompt Machiavelli to study and revise The Prince it’s possible Bishop Stefan Oster is playing the more common deception for gaining upward mobility. Once in authority the mask is shed, much like the journey of a former Argentine prelate.

        • Yes, Father, and we must pray hard that Bishop Oster is using the “Argentinian-prelate-climber-strategy” for good and not for evil (and pray for all the other Clergy who may be doing the same thing). I believe it’s Shakespeare who said, “To do a great right do a little wrong”.

          In the toxic, political, kiss-my-posterior-or-else environment created by the ascended Argentinian prelate, that would be an appropiate strategy. Nothing better and for more glory to God than to turn Satan’s weapons upon himself!

  2. Why do those in authority have such a hard time recognizing abject failure when it’s so abundantly apparent? Cardinal Marx, love him or hate him, has abjectly failed his diocese. 2%!?! Perhaps there needs to be a recognition that he’s just not suited to the job. Yes it would be foolishly reductive to lay the troubles in Munich at his feet alone, but at what point do you have to accept the reality staring you in the face? He’s simply terrible at being a bishop.

  3. Thank you, Mr Weigel. As usual you have correctly identified the problem. It seems that these “countless believers” have not been properly taught the precepts of the Church to understand what is expected of them as believers. It sounds as though, and I have believed this for quite some time, that the problem lies with the faith of the teachers that if properly taught will develop the faith of the believers. Thank you for your article.

    • Because the Catholic Church in Germany is one of the largest employers and providers of social services. The people who voluntarily pay basically support the social service mission of the Church

  4. Weigel exposes a fading Church on life support. But far be it from the German Cardinal Marx to just pull the plug (institutional euthanasia!).

    Instead, go Islamic and impose automatic excommunication on anyone who won’t pay the Church tax: “Apostasy!” The progressive version of capital punishment for anyone who departs the tribe. (Silent on the tax itself, Benedict identified the penalty as “indefensible”.) No head count in the article on those now excommunicated who haven’t paid up. Not even eligible for a Catholic burial.

    And Luther quaintly thought that the sale of indulgences was a scandal!

    Marx claims support from “countless” German Catholics. From this word selection might we discern (a good word!) another descent into double-speak—surely (from the article) Marx actually means “uncounted” or maybe, in the lofty game of ecclesial politics, he just means that the betrayed or jettisoned sheep don’t “count” at all. “Countless.”

    What then of Marx’s majority following among his (get-along-go-along?) German bishops, plus the inflated nose counts in their dioceses, plus the allocation formula for local distribution of the national Church tax? Surely there’s no connection. But this, too, is unjust speculation on my part, and who am I to judge?

    So now, why not simply an infusion of credit by annexing, say, the Amazon basin? Reportedly, not a single conversion there in over fifty years—so a good proxy for the membership meltdown in Germania. The final votes in Amazonia can be the opening wedge for a devalued priesthood in Germania as well—a calculated solution of accompaniment!—and for the gangrenous and “binding” agenda for Germania’s synodal path in December.

    Ideological Colonization on both sides of the Atlantic all at once—what could be more universal than that?

  5. How many should show up when so few at the top actually believe in the Divinity of Christ vs. some qualified sense of “divinity” applied to Christ?

  6. As I read the article I’m baffled as to why Weigel demonstrates obliviousness to how this apostasy and de facto Schism is the state of the entire Church. Maybe he’s too pressed for time with ideas to get back to the word processor to write more articles about how great thing were under JPII and how Catholics who are sick and worried about Francis destroying the Church are crazy.

  7. Mr. Weigel’s right: in business, under-performers are fired — in the Catholic Church, under-performers think they should be promoted.

    Maybe we need to develop performance standards whereby bishops are evaluated — the bottom 5% being returned to the presbyteral state.

  8. The only thing always missed in these articles is the spiritual practice vacuum as direct cause of dissention and crisis.

    People who honor God only with ritual and words, rather than deep and disciplined interior life given over totally to love of the source of all Love, are only the pharisees and scribes of the modern age, and all the arguing over even what constitutes a proper Mass is nothing but hot air from hot heads, without that lifetime striving to live in loving union with God.

    That lack of God is what is ailing the Church…think about it…if the Church concentrated on teaching people to experience God, then who would be so foolish as to leave?

    The declining numbers and rising heresies are simply a sure sign that the people of God are muchly godless ritualists who are clueless in pointing the way to the answers for which all people yearn for that illusive happiness always beyond reach.

    Saints know what is proper, and the 10 commandments only describe them, and not order them, as they are in union with the maker of it all…likewise doctrine and proper worship.

    Meanwhile, our leaders could generally not point you to God in a sure way, where there was simply no doubt, even if you put a gun to their head and told them the trigger was being pulled if they failed to teach you how to positively know God…they cannot teach what they do not know…

    So, they teach only what they DO know…The World, and its ruler…

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