More than 200,000 German Roman Catholics formally left the Church last year in a blow not just to its membership figures but to its income.
Germans who belong to a designated Church pay an additional proportion of their income tax – between eight and nine per cent – towards its support. However, they can opt out of this by notifying the tax authorities that they no longer wish to do so. Increasing numbers of Roman Catholics have been taking this step in recent years, with the 2014 figure representing a 22 per cent jump from the previous year, from 178,805 to 217,716.
According to the 2014 statistics, only 2,809 people entered the Church while 6,314 were "readmitted".
The formal withdrawals, however, do not tell the full story. Many are likely to be nominal believers looking to save money, while others are likely to have withdrawn as a protest over scandals – some of them while continuing to attend church. Only a third of German Catholics actually pay the church tax, but the Church is still very wealthy – the tax brought in a staggering £4.6 billion in 2013.
The figures also show that the number of people actually attending church has risen slightly, by 0.1 per cent, and while there has been a slight decline in the number of priests – to 12,219 – there has been a corresponding increase in the number of pastoral assistants and lay workers.
Commenting on the statistics, the chairman of the German Bishops' Conference, Cardinal Reinhard Marx, said: "Behind the numbers of church withdrawals are personal life decisions that in each case we profoundly regret but also respect freedom of choice."
He said that German Catholics live in "an open and pluralistic society" and that they would continue to proclaim the "joy of the gospel" in their communities.
He also said that the example of Pope Francis had been a great help to the Church, adding: "We want to be together with him a church on the move in Germany ."