What caused the collapse of Christianity

Church in Germany

In early medieval Western and Central Europe, the Christian mission in connection with the development of the Frankish Empire as the dominant political power meant that Christianity was able to oust the older Celtic and Germanic religions and establish itself as a hegemonic religion.

Chancellor Angela Merkel with the Archbishops of Berlin (Georg Cardinal Sterzinsky), Cologne (Joachim Cardinal Meisner) and the Apostolic Nuncio in Germany (Archbishop Erwin Josef Ender, from left to right) at the festive service on the occasion of the 80th birthday of Pope Benedict XVI. in Berlin 2007 (& copy picture-alliance / AP)

Latin Church and Secular Power

The Christianization of Europe had far-reaching historical consequences that are still noticeable in Germany to this day. In the imagination of those who were under the influence of the Latin Church (Latin Church with Rome as its center - in contrast to the Eastern Roman, Greek Orthodox Church with Byzantium), Europe became almost congruent with the "Christian Occident". However, this view ignores the fact that not even the West in the sense of the European West, let alone Europe as a whole, was exclusively Christian. In Western Europe, too, Judaism has always existed in, with and alongside Christianity. In addition, the Iberian Peninsula was under Arab rule and influence for more than seven centuries, from 711 to 1492. Even more: when the last "Moorish Empire" fell in Spain in 1492, the likewise Islamic Turks had already advanced far into south-eastern Europe and ruled Greece and large parts of the Balkans. This had not only political and religious, but also cultural consequences: In the architecture of the Iberian Peninsula, the influences of the Islamic-Moorish culture are clearly visible to this day. And the Christian theology of the Middle Ages was also considerably fertilized by the Muslim Arabs in their reflection on God. At the same time, Christianity defined itself in opposition to Judaism and Islam right into modern times.

Up until the Reformation it was hardly disputed in the West that Latin Christianity was the only legitimate form of Christianity. Religious dissidents who appeared again and again (e.g. Cathars, Waldensians, John Wyclif, Jan Hus) did not succeed in establishing alternative forms of Christianity in the long term. They lacked the necessary structural support to offer effective resistance to the rigorous oppression on the part of the established church. Even the Orthodox churches only perceived the Latin church at the edge of their field of vision and only when this served their own hegemonic efforts in church politics.

The Latin Church was characterized by a hierarchical and territorial way of thinking: the believers were organized according to the parochial principle, that is, assigned to the respective local congregation. A number of parishes (parishes) formed a diocese under a bishop whose decisions were ultimately binding. The dioceses in turn were grouped into larger units (the church provinces = archdioceses), which were headed by archbishops (metropolitans). Bishops and archbishops alike had to rebalance their rule in the complex field of tension between territorial princes, central power (emperors) and pope. The tensions, which often ignited at the investiture (investiture) of bishops, escalated again and again, most spectacularly in the so-called investiture dispute (1074-1122), which took place in 1077 for the penance of the German King Henry IV in Canossa and his Submission to Pope Gregory VII.

Apart from these disputes, the established religious system in all of Western and Central Europe was astonishingly stable and accordingly also had a significant impact on cultural memory in the form of literature, music and visual arts. This also applied to Germany, which did not exist as an independent territory until the 19th century, but formed a vaguely defined part of a larger political unit, the Holy Roman Empire.

Changes due to the Reformation

It was not until the 16th century that the religious map of the West was to change completely as a result of the Reformation. A prerequisite for this was the territorial fragmentation of the empire. Since the Middle Ages, due to the strengthening of particular powers (imperial princes, free imperial cities) with a simultaneous weakening of the central government, it had in fact disintegrated into a large number of territories that were largely governed independently. This gave Germany the appearance of a patchwork quilt up to the occupation of its left bank areas by Napoleon in 1801 and the subsequent territorial reorganization in the Reichsdeputationshauptschluss 1803.

Territorial particularism intensified in the course of the 16th century due to a denominational split as a result of the continuing differences between Old Believers (Catholics, from Greek: catholicos = general, comprehensive) and Protestants (term derived from the protest of the Protestant estates at the Reichstag in Speyer 1529 against the re-Catholicization ordered by the empire in the countries that had introduced the Reformation). Now, in addition to the Old Believers, there were Lutherans and Calvinists (Reformed) as well as a number of smaller denominational groups and groups, and the princes oriented their policies, among other things, to the denomination to which they themselves belonged. This confessional division of Germany was cemented in the Augsburg Religious Peace of 1555 through the introduction of the sovereign church regiment: Since then, the princes' denomination has essentially been decisive for the denomination of their subjects (principle of the "cuius regio eius religio"). This system was enshrined in the Peace of Westphalia of 1648, which finally fixed the confessional boundaries in the empire.

Denomination distribution around 1555
In the Protestant territories, the prince was also the supreme bishop (summus episcopus) of the respective regional church, while in the Catholic areas the church continued to be governed by a complicated coexistence of prince, episcopate and pope.

Despite all the political upheavals, such as the French Revolution of 1789, Napoleonic rule with the end of the Holy Roman Empire (1806) and the establishment of the German Empire in 1871, little changed in this legal situation. It remained essentially in place until the collapse of the German Empire in World War I and the introduction of the Weimar Constitution in 1919.

However, the confessional situation in the 19th century was made even more complicated by the fact that in some German states - ultimately initiated by the Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm III. - Unions between Reformed and Lutherans were introduced, but they did not prevail throughout Germany and each had a different character. In the 19th century, several types of union developed: from the pure administrative union, in which Lutherans and Reformed people are led by a common administration, but otherwise retain their own forms of worship and confessions (example: Lippische Landeskirche), to consensus - or a confessional union based on a common confession (examples: Palatinate, Baden). Currently 13 of the 22 EKD churches (see p. 7) are united in one way or another. In fact, this gave rise to a third, in practice rather diffuse Protestant denomination.

Development since the Weimar Republic

In the Weimar Constitution of 1919, the sovereign church regiment came to an end. Art. 137 expressly stated: "There is no state church." The churches were now regarded as "religious societies" and were therefore subject in principle to the law of associations (Art. 124 [1]). Nevertheless, there were a number of special regulations that were recorded in Art. 135-141 in a separate section "Religion and Religious Societies". These included, among other things
  • the constitution of religious societies as corporations under public law (Art. 137 [5]);
  • the freedom of self-administration (Art. 137 [3]);
  • the promise of freedom of belief and conscience and the right to undisturbed practice of religion with the participation of religious communities, including in the army, in hospitals, prisons and other public institutions (Art. 135; 137; 140; 141);
  • the strict separation of religious affiliation and the enjoyment of civil and civic rights as well as admission to public office (Art. 136);
  • the right to collect church tax (Art. 137 [6]);
  • the right to property (Art. 138);
  • the protection of Sundays and nationally recognized public holidays (Art. 139).
Religious instruction was introduced in all schools - with the exception of the "non-denominational (secular)" schools - as a regular subject "in accordance with the principles of the religious society concerned" under the supervision of the state. The theological faculties at the universities were retained (Art. 149).

In addition, the religious societies continued to receive state benefits if they were entitled to them by law, contract or special legal title (Art. 138, 173).

The Catholic Church had at times been under considerable pressure during the Empire because the Prussian and thus Protestant-dominated state viewed the anti-liberal tendencies within the Curia, as manifested, among other things, in the infallibility dogma of the First Vatican Council (1869/70), with considerable suspicion and tried to extend control over the dioceses (so-called Kulturkampf, 1871-87). Thanks to the new legal regulations and a clever church policy, the Catholic Church succeeded after 1919 in maintaining and expanding its independence.

The efforts to legally secure relations between the Holy See and the German Reich were crowned by a series of country concordats (Bavaria 1924, Prussia 1929, Baden 1932), but above all by the Reich Concordat in the summer of 1933, which dates back to the time of National Socialism fell. The political changes that have now occurred have raised new problems. Eugenio Pacelli, who had negotiated the Concordats as papal nuncio and cardinal secretary of state, remained as Pope Pius XII. (from 1939) controversial in his outward attitude to the Nazi regime. But this should not be seen in isolation. Some bishops, first and foremost the "Lion of M√ľnster", Clemens August Graf von Galen, used the leeway they had achieved to expressly protest against measures taken by the Nazi regime. The Munich Cardinal Michael von Faulhaber drafted the encyclical "With burning concern" (1937), in which Pope Pius XI. raised his voice against those in power in Germany.

The Protestant regional churches in the Weimar Republic watched the church political developments helplessly at times or tried to make pacts with the state in the conventional way. It is true that there were a number of church treaties between several Protestant regional churches and the German states, which - like the Concordats - are still valid today (Bavaria 1924, Prussia 1931, Baden 1932, with today's federal states being the legal successors). But the Protestant churches became more or less dependent on the respective ruling political powers, which culminated on the institutional level in the extensive inability to offer effective resistance to the National Socialist state of violence. Under the conditions of the terrorist regime, the opposition so-called Confessing Church lacked the courage, organizational possibilities and broad support in the population to put a stop to the cooperation and adaptation strategy of the Nazi-loyal "German Christians" or the systematic murder of Jews To prevent Jews. Public protests (Paul Schneider) or even participation in plans for assassination and overturning (Dietrich Bonhoeffer) remained the exception.

Since the end of the 18th century, a process of de-churchification, even de-Christianization, had become more noticeable in the Protestant churches than in Catholicism. It can be seen not only in a hitherto unknown distance from the institution of the church, but also in the increasing popularity of atheist positions, which were often based on social philosophy or natural science. The situation was most drastic in Berlin: around 1850, only around five percent of the city's population attended church services here. When civil marriage was introduced in Prussia in 1874, the number of church weddings fell to 20 percent; also only half of the children were baptized.

The reasons for this increasing process of secularization, which is seen today by many historians and philosophers as a decisive feature of the Enlightenment, are complex and cannot be discussed in detail here. These include, among others
  • political factors such as the churches' proximity to restorative and anti-liberal tendencies within the authorities, which triggered anti-church reactions or intensified existing alienations in parts of the population, especially among the working class;
  • the impoverishment of the working class as a result of unbridled industrialization, to which the churches were unable to give adequate answers;
  • new knowledge of theology and philosophy, which shook the certainty in the historical reliability of the biblical writings and
  • new scientific discoveries - above all the emergence of Darwinism - which called into question the centuries-old Christian explanations for the origin of the world and man.
Thus the distance to church and Christianity, as it can be observed in certain German milieus, is not a new phenomenon. Rather, it has accompanied the history of the Church for over two centuries. The tremors of two world wars were only able to halt this trend temporarily.