On the night of the December 14, 2012, a 25 year old woman was sedated with date rape drugs in Cologne, Germany, and subsequently raped. When the police and medical authorities took her for medical checkup and evidence collection, two hospitals refused to treat her and prescribe emergency contraception.  Both hospitals were run by the Catholic Church. The doctors told the woman that emergency contraception was not in line with the worldview of their employer. Media reported that the doctors feared to lose their jobs.

The incidence was only picked up a couple of months later by the press; however it provoked harsh public criticism against the Catholic Church. The negative publicity fell on fruitful ground. Earlier in the same year there had been an intense media discourse about alleged inappropriate behavior of Catholic welfare providers. A female manager of a Catholic day care facility had been fired after the woman had divorced and moved in with a new partner.  The church argued that “not keeping faith ’til death” was incompatible with the Catholic worldview and hence the woman had to go. The press dug out similar cases where Catholic welfare providers had decided not to employ or to fire people due to their homosexuality or because they had divorced.

The German public was puzzled: how could it be that in a society  in which regular churchgoers barely make up more than 10 percent of the West and 3 percent of the East German electorate, the Church maintains such a strong normative grip on society?

Growth in faith-based employment

Germans have every reason to be surprised. Modernization theory and most social sciences have prophesied since the 1960s that religion would die a silent death in western European societies. It would not only bring secularization to western European countries in terms of lower church attendance and membership, but ultimately also the demise of the Church as a socio-political institution. However, despite the linear and substantial demise of church goers and church members, empirically rather the opposite of the foreseen decline of the church in everyday life seems to happen. As Figure 1 shows, the number of Catholic Church employees has expanded drastically since the mid 1970s.


Figure 1: Employees of the Catholic Church in Germany (1950-2005)

Figure by the Author; data source H. Lührs, Kirchliche Arbeitsbeziehungen: Die Entwicklung der Beschäftigungsverhältnisse in den beiden großen Kirchen und ihren Wohlfahrtsverbänden, WiP Working Paper 33 (2006), p. 38.

The German Churches have become the second largest employer in Germany since the 1970s. The biggest chunk of this employment is in the welfare sector, carried out by the two large religious welfare providers Diakonie (Protestant Church) and Caritas (Catholic Church). Today the Catholic Church alone employs over 600,000 people (figure 2). At least one third of these welfare services are funded by the federal budget. However, the work contracts that the churches give out are not subject to federal labor law; religious employers are exempt. Hence, it is legally possible to fire divorced kindergarten caretakers on the basis of creed and value divergence, if you are a church.


Figure 2: Employees of Caritas Germany (1950-2005)

Figure by the Author; data source H. Lührs (2006) p. 38.

Three hundred years after the French revolution ignited a fundamental secularization process in continental Europe, it seems that the churches have started to recover territory in areas which are key particularly in aging societies. At least in the field of welfare provision, in Germany the church has successfully managed to escape federal jurisdiction and subsume an increasing number of people under the postulates of its world-views. These people (whether employees or beneficiaries) might not go to church anymore or adhere to what the pulpit preaches, but they are in their socio-economic situation directly subject to compliance with the world-view of the Catholic Church. The doctors who refused to treat the raped girl in Cologne did so not because they were strong believers (apparently), but because they feared that their Catholic employer might kick them out for aborting the fetus.

The paradox of secularization and increasing church influence

How can we account for the paradox that, against the trend of secularization, the churches have managed to regain influence in an increasingly important subfield of society?

Two broad explanations are possible: Social Capitalism and Substitution. The Social Capitalism thesis emphasizes that due to the circumstances out of which the continental European welfare models were born, the Churches and other third party actors never ceased to play an important role in welfare provision in continental Europe, in contrast to other parts of the world. The Substitution thesis argues that religion and welfare function as substitutes of one another, since both in their own ways insure against adverse life risks. In its spiritual version, it emphasizes that every human being strives for a feeling of security. Belief secures mentally against everyday life risks through the promise of a better life after death with the possibility of ascendance, afterlife, or reincarnation.

The material version of the substitution thesis posits that in countries where the state does not feature prominently as a provider of welfare, the churches with their auxiliary organizations will step in and substitute for the state. In contrast, in countries where the state is the central welfare provider, it will crowd the churches out of the field of welfare provision. From this follows that wherever the state rolls back welfare, the churches will (re-)surface prominently as welfare providers. While the Social Capitalism thesis emphasizes the idiosyncrasies of national responses to a transnational Polanyian double-movement, the Substitution thesis points to a single transnational phenomenon.

At first glance, the case of Germany seems to be a case for the substitution thesis as the massive expansion of church employment in welfare goes together with the end of the Golden Age and the roll-back of state driven welfare in Germany from the end of the 1970s. On the other hand, the German welfare state model has ever since been classified as a central case of Social Capitalism.  However, the fact that the federal government continues to fund most of the church-run welfare actually points to a far more complex interaction in the German case than either thesis would suggest.

The state retreats, the church returns?

Jiska’s previous post has shown that the the Catholic Church has of course always been a transnational actor par excellence. But it seems that its political and social impact is highly dependent on the numerous national settings in which it operates. However, the potential implications of the affirmation of the substitution thesis would be huge: were this thesis strictly true, the current trans-European age of permanent austerity would inevitably bring a trans-European comeback of religion via welfare provision.

Politically this would mean that the churches as transnational institutions will take back more of those prerogatives which they lost in the state-church conflicts of the late 19th century. The result could be the decline of the modern European state. In any case, further empirical explorations on the issue are needed. You will read them on this blog.

Dr. Josef Hien is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Societies, who studies the transformation of European Christian Democracy since the end of the Cold War to the present.

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