Church Taxes in Germany: Not Taking the Pledge

By Downey, William E. | The Christian Century, August 13, 1997 | Go to article overview

Church Taxes in Germany: Not Taking the Pledge


Downey, William E., The Christian Century


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 much they will give. The only way church members can alter this arrangement is to leave the church. And to do this, ironically, they must contact not their local church, but the city court house where one can declare oneself no longer a church member. If this is done the church tax deductions are ended and the church in due time gets a letter from the state saying it has lost a member. Such an option has become increasingly popular in recent years.

Unemployment has hurt both income tax and church tax income, because those receiving unemployment compensation or social welfare don't pay taxes. And Germany's aging population hasn't helped either. Most retired Germans are able to five quite adequately on social security income. Maximum benefits are 70 percent of the last earnings, with a built-in cost-of-living provision. Current tax laws require very few retired persons to pay income tax. Again, no income tax, no church tax. Civil servants constitute an exception. After retirement they must pay income tax and, if they are church members, church tax. They are, of course, a minority of all retirees.

All of Germany's regional churches have been affected by these developments, but to different degrees according to location. The state of Baden-Wurttemberg -- an area of western Germany around Stuttgart and the upper Rhine valley -- enjoys the lowest unemployment rate in the country, as well as a largely unbroken pietistic tradition. Cutbacks by the churches there have been relatively modest. By contrast the situation in the Berlin region is catastrophic. In that area one person in six is unemployed -- twice the level in Baden-Wurttemberg -- and alienation from the church stemming in part from the Marxist era has left some neighborhoods 97 percent unchurched. …

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