As recently as 20 years ago, the German Church was the pride of Catholic Europe in terms of its institutions and financial clout.
Its wealth came from the "Church tax," which was collected by the state from every baptized Catholic who hoped to be married or buried in a Catholic church. The same was true of the Lutheran Church. In the 1980s, the number of baptized Catholics who chose to opt out of the tax was relatively small. Priests were paid a handsome salary by the state, and Church-administered funds like Adveniat and Misereor donated generously to poor countries around the world.
The seeds of Catholic Germany's decline were already present, however. Mass attendance was as low as 10 percent in major urban centers such as Cologne, and signs of division, dissent and disaffection were increasing. The number of Catholics opting out of the Church tax was also growing. The number of priests began to decline.
In 1996, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger told journalist Peter Seewald in the book "Salt of the Earth" that the German Church had turned inward and lost its evangelical fire: "We look only at ourselves. We are concerned only with ourselves; we lick our wounds; we want to construct a nice Church for ourselves and hardly see any longer that the Church doesn't exist for herself."
He described a Church that was torn by dissent and debate, so much so that even "the 'good Catholics,' if you want to call them that, find themselves on the whole less and less comfortable in the Church."
"And this inner division in the Church, which leads to general displeasure with the Church, to general grief over her, is indeed something that should alarm one."
Today, as Ferdinand Oertel reports on page 4A, the German Catholic Church is in a state of grievous decline.
Catholics are opting out of the Church tax in droves, unconcerned about maintaining even a tenuous connection with the Church. Parishes are closing at a record rate, and the treasury of Catholic Europe has been drained.
"Our world has changed," said the head of the German bishops' conference with notable understatement.
Indeed, the only positive observation is that the Catholic decline is not as bad as the mainline Protestant decline, but that is of little solace.
Germany is but one reason that Pope Benedict XVI has expressed such concern for the soul of Europe. The pace of de-Christianization is quickening in this tired continent. There are signs of hope -- increased religiosity among segments of the young and a restless spiritual hunger that gnaws even at those who have not darkened a church doorway in years. But this pope remains a realist. As he told Seewald, he thinks that "we are facing a longer period of further confusion."
This is why Pope Benedict finds elements of U.S. society to praise: He has seen how far the rest of the West has fallen. We, too, have seen our share of decline, yet he looks to us for clues. How is it that the richest, most powerful country in the world, only two centuries old, has a more dynamic Church than any country in Europe save Poland?
The Church in America faces massive challenges: a vocations shortage; declining attendance; mounting debt. But this is a good time to appreciate the blessings that we do have. We are more transparent, more self-supporting, more engaged in society and more energetic than the continent that brought the faith to our shores.
Perhaps someday soon we will have an opportunity to return the favor.