Germany's "church tax" system of ecclesial financing, which has made its churches among the richest in the world, is now providing them with less and less income. As a result, churches are cutting back on program and staff. The main Protestant church in Berlin and the surrounding state of Brandenburg is eliminating two-thirds of an effective hospital chaplaincy program and thinning out local church staff to the point that in some parishes clergy are washing the floors.
Income for the state-supported churches is dropping for a number of reasons. The most important factors are high unemployment, the increasing number of retirees in the population (as well as in the church) and changes in tax laws. Broad social developments such as demographic shifts have lessened state revenues as a whole, and have led the government to shift its emphasis in revenue gathering from the income tax, on which the church tax is based, to other sources such as the sales tax and gasoline tax. Further, Protestant officials have estimated that tax laws now being planned by German legislators to take effect in january 1999 would cost the church one-eighth of its remaining church tax revenue.
Church financing for most German Protestants and Roman Catholics is so different from the practices of U.S. churches that it takes an effort for Americans to understand it. (There are tiny groups that don't participate in the German tax system, such as the Baptists and the Methodists.) The so-called Landeskirchen (regional churches) -- Lutheran and Reformed, or a union of the two -- raise almost all their income through the church tax. About 95 percent of German Protestants belong to these churches. The Roman Catholics are also supported by state taxes. The government in effect passes the plate for the church and is paid by the church for its services.
Roman Catholics and those who belong to the Landeskirchen have an additional tax -- the equivalent of 9 percent of the income tax -- taken out of their pay where they work. The money is then forwarded to the churches. Landeskirchen Protestants and Roman Catholics do not choose whether they will give to their church or how …