06 Oct

German Catholic Church Links Tax to the Sacraments


The McGlynn: I wonder if the German Catholics asked for their money back following the sexual abuse of minors by clerics.  If not, why not?   

BERLIN — It is a paradox of modern Germany that church and state remain so intimately tied. That bond persists more and more awkwardly, it seems, as the church’s relationship with followers continues to fray amid growing secularization.

Last week one of Germany’s highest courts rankled Catholic bishops by ruling that the state recognized the right of Catholics to leave the church — and therefore avoid paying a tax that is used to support religious institutions. The court ruled it was a matter of religious freedom, while religious leaders saw the decision as yet another threat to their influence on modern German society.

With its ruling the court also dodged the thorny issue of what happens when a parishioner formally quits the church, stops paying taxes, but then wants to attend services anyway. The court said that, too, was a matter of religious freedom, a decision that so rankled religious leaders fearful of losing a lucrative revenue stream that they made clear, right away, that taxes are the price for participation in the church’s most sacred rituals: no payments, no sacraments.

The Catholic Bishops’ Conference in Germany issued a crystal clear, uncompromising edict, endorsed by the Vatican. It detailed that a member who refuses to pay taxes will no longer be allowed to receive communion or make confession, to serve as godparents or to hold any office in the church. Those who leave can also be refused a Christian burial, unless they “give some sign of repentance,” it read.

“Whoever declares they are leaving the church before official authorities, for whatever reason, impinges on their responsibility to safeguard the community of the church, and against their responsibility to provide financial support to allow the church to fulfill its work” before their death, it read.

The tussle highlighted the long-established but increasingly troubled symbiosis between church and state in Europe that, repeated polls have shown, grows more secular-minded as each generation moves further away from the church. Like many European countries, Germany’s churches are independent but function in partnership with the state, which collects taxes from members of established religions and then funnels the revenues back to the religious institutions, for a fee, in keeping with a 19th-century agreement following abolishment of an official state church.

Income from church taxes in Germany amounted to about $6.3 billion for the Roman Catholic Church in 2011, and $5.5 billion for the Protestant, mostly Lutheran, churches in 2010, official statistics show. The money goes to support hospitals, schools, day care and myriad other social services, but a sizable amount of the Catholic money is also channeled to the Vatican.

The German church tax — which is 8 to 9 percent of the annual income tax — is so steep, however, that many people formally quit the church to avoid paying, while nevertheless remaining active in their faith. That is what is angering Catholic Church officials.

To many faithful, the court ruling validated that choice, and the edict from the Catholic Bishops’ Conference amounted to a sharp response by church leaders against the government’s increasingly aggressive secularism taking root in society. They see it threatening the future of the religious institutions upon which Germany’s modern democracy was founded.

Unlike the United States, where politicians attend prayer breakfasts, and service as an altar boy is cast as a solid political credential, discussion of faith plays little role in German public discourse. Although Chancellor Angela Merkel’s party is called the Christian Democrats, and her father was a minister, the outward emphasis is far more on democracy than on Christianity.

The contrast could be seen starkly at a recent gala in Berlin honoring 30 years since the former leader Helmut Kohl’s first term as chancellor. Of a dozen international speakers, only three sought God’s blessing for Germany. Two were the American speakers, the elder George Bush and Philip D. Murphy, the ambassador to Germany. The other was a Catholic priest.

Even so, it is the United States, where churches are tax exempt, that prides itself on a constitutional separation between church and state, while most European governments continue to support their churches through a variety of means.

In Belgium, Greece and Norway, churches are financed by the state. Churches in Austria, Switzerland and Sweden all use the state to collect taxes from members, but the contributions are either predetermined amounts or, compared with Germany, a more modest 1 to 2 percent of the annual assessed income tax. Spain and Italy allow congregants to decide whether they would like a percentage of their income to flow to religious organizations or be earmarked for civic projects.

In Germany, roughly a third of its 82 million people are Roman Catholics, and about the same number belong to the country’s Protestant churches. All of these members, as well as the estimated 120,000 Jews, pay taxes to the state. Muslim organizations rely on donations or support from outside sources, often based in countries abroad.

Critics charge that the German bishops’ decree denying sacraments to tax dodgers was driven more by greed than necessity, pointing out that belonging to a congregation in neighboring countries like the Netherlands or France is based on tithes, not a predetermined charge levied by the government.

Indeed, the tax in Germany is blamed in part for driving about three million members from the ranks of the Roman Catholic Church over the past two decades, as disgruntled parishioners decided the payments were better spent on something else.

Norbert Lüdecke, a professor of canon law at Bonn University, said that while every disobedient Catholic is to be punished based on the sin committed, the bishops’ decree effectively placed refusal to pay church taxes nearly on par with the most severe offenses in the church.

“Now refusing to pay taxes is considered an offense only slightly less bad than denial that Jesus Christ is the son of God,” Mr. Lüdecke said. “While at the same time, there is no specific punishment for other offenses, such as, for example, the sexual abuse of minors by clerics.”

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