State and Church in Modern Germany: The Legacy of a Symbiotic Relationship

By Sebald, Hans | Free Inquiry, Winter 1993 | Go to article overview
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State and Church in Modern Germany: The Legacy of a Symbiotic Relationship


Sebald, Hans, Free Inquiry


Once upon a time, emperor and pope nursed a close alliance, at least most of the time, for it was advantageous to both. Most people think that this sanctimonious partnership was a temporary peculiarity in European history, an antiquated epiphany that faded away during the Enlightenment. Wrong--at least when it comes to modern Germany. This nation is an anomaly among modern nation states insofar as the government functions as the church's tax collector.

Each church member is taxed a certain percentage of his or her wages, salaries, or general income, and collection is carried out by the government's internal revenue service. Depending on the specific German Bundesland (confederate state), the percentage withheld is between 8 and 10 percent of an individual's federal income tax. The higher the rate of taxation, the higher the take of the church. (Perhaps this is one of the reasons why the church has never shown great interest in bringing about a reduction of taxes levied on workers.) When people assume employment they must declare church affiliation in order for deductions to be automatically carried out. The Finanzamt (Internal Revenue Service) will then commence to transfer the monies to the coffers of the church on a regular basis.(1)

The agreement of the government to handle the collection of annual billions of church-tax monies was part of the 1933 Concordat, the treaty between the Third Reich and the Vatican, personally signed by the pope and Hitler (the latter himself a Catholic who was never excommunicated) and in fact the first significant international treaty Hitler signed upon coming into power. (Spain and Italy, under Franco and Mussolini, respectively, had similar concordats with the Vatican, but their subsequent governments rescinded them.)

The German concordat served the interest of both parties. It favored major aims of the Vatican: (1) protection of the German clergy; (2) forestallment of the establishment of Protestantism as the state religion, which had been the goal of the Nazi-inspired "German Christian" movement; and (3) engagement of the German state as church tax collector. Likewise it met some of Hitler's interests: (1) muting the Vatican in the face of Nazi atrocities; and (2) encouraging the Vatican to have its clergy refrain from meddling in German politics.

Not surprisingly, the arrangement, so convenient and lucrative for the church, contributed to the minimal opposition shown by German Catholicism against the Nazi state--after all, who wants to have a falling out with an agent who so reliably fills one's treasury? Of course, there were additional reasons Catholicism so modestly resisted Nazism: anti-Semitism among Catholic clergy, plus sentiments of nationalism and the vision of Germany as a bulwark against godless communism. It must be said that this characterization may apply to the German Protestant churches to the same or even greater extent. But the focus of the discussion is the status of the Catholic church.

The Catholic church in Germany today is a financial giant, because post-Nazi Germany has continued to adhere to the Concordat. It is not only the automatic church tax that fills the church's coffers, but also the huge income derived from clever investments and from a variety of church-owned properties and institutions, ranging from hospitals, kindergartens, homes for the aged, schools, and publishing houses to the ubiquitous Sunday collection plate.(2) However, the church tax levied against wages and salaries accounts for the bulk and stability of the church's wealth. For example, the national internal revenue service collected for the Catholic and Lutheran churches a total of over 15 billion Deutsche Mark (roughly $10 billion) in taxes in 1991.(3)

I am especially familiar with the financial standing of the central German archdiocese of Bamberg, which is made up of mostly rural and low-income population. A publication of the diocese's treasury office discloses the financial status for 1992(4) and shows that 88 percent of the diocese's total income was amassed from taxing wages and incomes of church members.

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