Church Tax Decree Bodes Ill for German Catholicism

Article excerpt

The German bishops' recent decree refusing sacraments to Catholics who stop paying a church membership tax (NCR, Oct. 12-25) has been greeted with incredulity and opprobrium around the world.

Global media coverage of the decree, which was authorized by Rome, has brought into sharp focus a situation of which most were unaware: Catholics and members of other denominations in Germany pay a "church tax" amounting to 8-9 percent of their income tax.

The state has collected the church tax since the secularization of Germany in the 19th century and channels the money to the churches for a small fee. It is widely assumed that the German Catholic church uses the income to fund a broad range of Catholic organizations and bodies--schools, hospitals, study centers, youth centers and kindergartens--whose indisputably excellent work would have to be taken over by the state lithe church tax ceased.

Carsten Frerk, an expert in church finance, disputes this assumption in Caritas und Diakonie in Deutschland. For example, he writes, estimates reveal that the state's contribution to denominational kindergartens amounts to approximately 75 percent of the operating costs.

Fifty years ago, Germans could not believe that other national Catholic churches ran their institutes of learning and organizations without a dime raised from a church tax. Since then, Germans have traveled the world and discovered the truth for themselves.

The gulf between German advocates of church tax and its critics in and outside Germany seems unbridgeable. Defending the tax, Markus Nolte, theologian and editor of the Catholic newspaper Kirche+Leben, points out that it is "a solidarity contribution," explaining that the tax enables the church to be of service within society across a broad base. "Practicing Catholics don't have a problem with it."

Nolte does not think a church with no church tax is more authentic. He sees the current debate as primarily between a few theologians and lawyers but not among the majority of practicing Catholics.

The scale of clerical sex abuse in Germany and Austria profoundly shocked Catholics in those countries. German Catholics had not expected that the abuse uncovered in America and Ireland had also been happening in Germany. Thousands of German Catholics reacted by formally defecting from the church, incurring a harsh penalty: excommunication.

The German bishops' recent decree provides no evidence they have taken into account the distress caused by clerical abuse revelations. A German Catholic resident in London remarked: "We were stunned by the clerical abuse scandal. Coming so hot on its tail, the timing of this decree feels like a slap in the face. Where is the repentance?"

Christian Weisner of the grass-roots Catholic group Wir sind Kirche (We Are Church) told the BBC that the decree "is really the wrong signal by the German bishops who know that the Catholic church is in a deep crisis."

The bishops' decree reiterates the stiff penalties for church defection: In exclusion from the sacraments, from all parish and diocesan committees and from official church organizations. It also bans defectors from being godparents. …