BERLIN — Matters of faith have been much on German minds in recent times with debate raging among its Muslim and Jewish minorities over a court’s challenge to the practice of infant circumcision and, as I wrote in my latest Page Two column, over the country’s response to the contentious, American-made video denigrating the Prophet Muhammad that has stirred anger across the Muslim world.
But, in a development that has made fewer international headlines, many of Germany’s Roman Catholics are becoming increasingly incensed by an effort endorsed by the Vatican to ensure that churchgoers continue to pay a mandatory tax.
The decades-old church tax, as it is known, earns the country’s Protestant and Catholic churches a total of some €9 billion a year. Germans can avoid paying the levy – up to 9 percent of their assessed income tax — if they formally leave the church.
As of Monday, Germany’s Roman Catholic Bishops have decreed, those who leave the church may no longer qualify for religious ceremonies such as a Christian burial and may not partake in confession or communion; become a godfather at baptism or confirmation; or hold office within the church. But it will now be open to them to discuss a return to the fold with their priests.
Activist groups have protested loudly against the edict, saying it would deepen unease and anger within the ranks of Catholic churchgoers prompted by sexual abuse scandals and accusations of cover-ups.
The decree reflects growing concern within the Roman Catholic hierarchy at the steady exodus of the faithful affecting both major denominations. (In 2010, more than 181,000 German Catholics and roughly 150,000 Protestants chose to officially abandon their churches.) The two churches account for around 49 million people — just under 60 percent of the population — almost evenly divided between Protestants and Catholics. Their worshipers’ taxes make their churches some of Europe’s richest. When people leave the fold, the Roman Catholic Bishops said, their action “fills the church with concern.”
Liberal and conservative Roman Catholic activists in Germany criticised a decree that came into effect today to deny sacraments and religious burials to people who opt out of a “church tax”.
The German bishops issued the decree on Friday warning Catholics who stop paying the tax they would be excluded from all religious activities, also including working in a church job, becoming a godparent or taking part in parish activities.
“‘Pay and pray’ is a completely wrong signal at the wrong time,” the reformist movement We Are Church said today. The decree “shows the great fear of the German bishops and the Vatican about further serious losses in church tax revenue”.
A conservative group called the Union of Associations Loyal to the Pope asked why Catholics who stop paying the tax would be punished but those it called heretics could stay in its ranks.
“So sacraments are for sale – whoever pays the church tax can receive the sacraments,” it said in a statement, saying the link the decree created “goes beyond the sale of indulgences that [Martin] Luther denounced” at the start of the Reformation.
German tax offices collect a religious tax worth 8 or 9 per cent of the annual regular tax bill of registered Catholics, Protestants and Jews and channel it to those faiths. An official declaration that one is leaving the faith frees the citizen from this tax.
Defending the decree, bishops had earlier said they were spelling out the consequences of a worshipper choosing to leave the church to avoid paying. Some Catholics had tried to remain active in their parish despite officially quitting the church.
But “it’s rubbish to assume one could leave the institutional Church and remain a Catholic,” said the secretary of the German Bishops’ Conference.
“Whoever leaves the Church,” Rev Hans Langendoerfer told the Catholic radio station in Cologne, “leaves it completely.”
The annual total of Catholic church leavers, usually around 120,000, rose to 181,193 two years ago as revelations about decades of sexual abuse of children by priests shamed the hierarchy and prompted an apology from German-born Pope Benedict
Church taxes brought in about €5 billion for the Roman Catholic Church and €4.3 billion for the Protestant churches in 2010, according to official statistics.
With such full coffers, the German Church runs a large network of schools, hospitals and charity organisations at home and is one of the biggest contributors to the Vatican and to Catholic projects worldwide.
Some commentators suggested the bishops issued their decree last Friday to sidestep a looming legal case by a retired theology professor challenging the right of the Catholic Church to excommunicate those who opt out of the tax.
The German bishops had long told Catholics they would be excommunicated from the Church if they officially declared they were leaving it.
But the Vatican ruled in 2006 that a simple declaration to a tax office that one was leaving the Church was not enough to justify excommunication, Rome’s stiffest punishment. The church leaver must also declare this to a priest, it said.
That prompted retired canon law professor Hartmut Zapp to file a legal case against the German Church, saying it could not excommunicate him for leaving simply to avoid paying the tax if the Vatican did not agree he deserved that punishment.
After contradictory lower court rulings, Mr Zapp’s case will go on Wednesday before the Federal Administrative Court in Leipzig.
A ruling in his favour could throw into doubt Germany’s whole church tax system, which was introduced in the 19th century.
However, the bishops’ Friday decree, described as “excommunication lite” by the German media, could undercut Mr Zapp’s case because the exclusions it listed were not described as a formal excommunication.
The German bishops are due to open their autumn plenary meeting in Fulda tomorrow, and the issue is expected to play a part in the discussions over the following three days.
Catholics who decide to skip the tax will be unable to receive Communion, be confirmed or go to confession, Die Welt newspaper wrote on Thursday. The rule, which takes effect on September 24, also bars non-payers from becoming godparents or belonging to a Catholic congregation.
Critics have argued that believers can still count themselves as members of the Catholic community and practice their faith without paying the church tax – which amounts to 8 or 9 percent of a person’s income, depending on the state.
A “general decree” published on Thursday by the German Bishops Conference says church-leavers have violated their obligation to make a “financial contribution that allows the church to fulfill its role.”
Die Welt reported that Pope Benedict XVI personally approved the document, which puts an end to months of wrangling over the issue.
Couples can receive an exemption to be married in the church, as long as they pledge to maintain their faith and raise their children as Catholics. But the powers that be can deny church tax dodgers a Catholic burial “if the person who has left the church has not shown any sign of remorse before death.”
Though the bishops’ text avoids the word “excommunication,” the consequences of the all-or-nothing rule are essentially the same.
If a Catholic notifies the registry office that he has chosen to renounce his faith, thereby allowing him to stop paying church tax, he will receive a letter from a priest that includes a list detailing the consequences of his decision – and an offer to meet for “reconciliation” talks.
More than 100,000 people have left the Catholic Church in Germany since 1990 – with more than 126,000 deciding to part ways with the church last year.