“Working on identity”

Why do Catholics leave the church? The Essen diocese has been dealing with this question for some time now. Now a book summarizes the results. The authors' recommendation: Work intensively on the image of the church.



Interviewer: You might think that people are leaving the church because they want to save church taxes. But it's not that simple, is it?

Thomas Runker (staff department for communication in the diocese of Essen and co-editor of the book "Leaving the Church – or not? How the Church must change"): No. Our church-leaving study has shown that the ie of church tax is not the main reason for leaving the church. While there is a correlation between leaving the church and church tax, we tend to see it as church tax is often the trigger. Many people who have left tell us they left because of the church tax. But when you dig deeper – which is what our scientists did – quite different causes and reasons emerge. There are mostly ies like alienation and lack of commitment.

Interviewer: What does alienation mean in this context?

Runker: That is, in the portrayal of the people who, for example, appear in our book as interview partners, that they simply had no contact with a church congregation or the church as a whole for years. You can imagine that, as in a human relationship, the partners become estranged at some point, they no longer want to know anything about each other, and then they leave each other.

Interviewer: In your book, you therefore recommend turning to Catholics who never go to Mass and do not use any other church services. How can you turn your attention back to these people??

Runker: We believe that this has to go very gently. It is indeed the case that these people, from their point of view, for good reasons, do not participate in our offers, rarely go to church or otherwise hardly take advantage of opportunities from us. Therefore, there is the paradoxical situation that we have many members in our church, but only very few of them use our core services. That is why we believe that one must approach these people, who finance our church with their church tax, very cautiously. In our diocese of Essen we have been doing this for some years now. We have a membership magazine, "Bene," that is sent to every Catholic household five times a year, where we as a diocese try to build a bridge and let people know that they are members of our diocese and we are thinking of them.

Interviewer: You have also examined the financial consequences of church departures for the church, and they are quite dramatic, or?

Runker: Indeed. I would like to emphasize that the financial view, which we present as one of many views in this book, is also just one view. Of course, it's just as relevant to look at the pastoral perspective. But the financial point of view is important in that we can represent how existentially relevant the ie of church departures is to our organizational form of church. If you consider – and this is at least the amption in our diocese of Essen – that every person who leaves the church, and these are mostly employees, saves about 500 euros on average in church tax, and that we as a church are missing this money accordingly. Then that's at 4.We had 300 church resignations here last year, around two million euros that the church lacks, for example, to build or run daycare centers, to organize church services and the like. And that only in one year.

Interviewer: In one chapter of your book you also say that the Church is considered too regressive even by many conservative Catholics. Church doesn't fit well into today's world, they say. What helps? Abolition of celibacy and women as priests? That's probably not going to happen anytime soon. What to do?

Runker: The major irritant topics of our church are – as our study has also shown – not the only motives for leaving. Hardly anyone really resigns because of celibacy or because no women are ordained as priests. But image is indeed a big ie. The study recommends very clearly that if the church wants to prevent resignations, then it must work on this image, but not only on the packaging, but also on its identity. It is really a question of how we as a church behave towards homosexuals or how we behave towards divorced people who have remarried.


The interview was conducted by Verena Troster.

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