Church Membership Cancellations in Decline

Austrian Independent
January 11, 2012

The number of people leaving the Catholic Church has decreased dramatically.

The number of people leaving the Catholic Church has decreased dramatically.

Official figures show that Austria's dioceses recorded a 32 per cent decline in membership cancellations from 2010 to 2011. The year 2010 was dominated by intense public discussions about education practices at boarding schools run by the Church as hundreds of people came forward to say they were abused in a physical or sexual manner. Most of the incidents occurred in the 1960s and 1970s too long ago to file charges against the offenders, according to Austria's controversial legal regulations.

Calls for financial compensation and a decrease of paying members caused immense financial pressure on the Roman Catholic Church of Austria which is, at 5.4 million members, still the country's strongest denomination. Overall, 58,603 left the Church last year. The number of annual membership cancellations climbed from 26,380 in 1981 to 44,304 in 1995 and 52,177 in 2004.

The strongest decline of membership cancellations was recorded by the Diocese of St. Pölten as 4,969 Lower Austrians left the Church in 2011, 36 per cent fewer than in the previous year. Tyrol's Innsbruck Diocese and the Vorarlberg Diocese of Feldkirch recorded a 35 per cent decline each. Gurk-Klagenfurt Diocese in Carinthia and Linz Diocese in Upper Austria followed with 34 per cent each. The number of Catholic Church membership annulations dropped in all nine provinces of the country. Salzburg Diocese recorded the smallest decrease (minus 14 per cent).

Experts said the Catholic Church would not manage a turnaround of the current development of steadily decreasing membership numbers and warned that some kind of crisis or scandal affecting the Church might lead to another explosion of figures.

High-raking representatives of the Church refused to comment on the figures for 2011 which were released yesterday (Tues). A spokesman for the Austrian Conference of Bishops said the Church managed to win back the trust of many people but also made clear that it would be "utterly inappropriate" to assume that everything was fine again at the institution due to the recent decline of membership cancellations.

The Austrian Catholic Church is in turmoil due to rising support for a group of preachers who called for "disobedience" towards the Vatican. The Preachers' Initiative, which is headed and organised by former Caritas Austria President Helmut Schüller, said the number of parish priests publicly backing their policies was soaring. Schüller claimed in November that the group had 370 members.

The initiative was established in June. It calls on the Vatican to allow priests to give Holy Communion to people who married a second time at registry offices after getting divorced following church weddings. The group of preachers opposes the Catholic Church's refusal to let women become priests. Schüller stressed he would not back down from calling for an end of the celibate despite harsh criticism by conservative Catholics.

Bishops' Conference officials said today Austrian Catholics were at odds about Schüller's movement. They explained that, while some members welcomed the group's appeals and the ongoing debate as an urgently needed fresh breeze, others felt "irritated" by rows within the denomination.

A spokesman for the Austrian Bishops' Conference dismissed speculations that the institution would launch a reform of the policies and contents it backed this year due to the high attention Schüller's group was receiving across the country and outside Austria. He identified the low mass attendance figures as a big problem of the domestic Church these days.


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