Do German Bishops Deny Sacraments To Those Who Don’t Pay Church Tax?


In Germany, Kirchensteuer (Church Tax) is a federal tax that will go to your church. Image credit: 401(K) 2012.

Today, I read an interesting article about German Catholic Church. There apparently is an uproar because the German bishops have declared that those who left the Church in order to avoid ‘Kirchensteuer’ (Church Tax) have no longer access to the Sacraments. Caritas in Veritate blog wonders if that is even legal under canon law. Father John Boyle acknowledges that he doesn’t know much about the Kirchensteuer and why it exists in Germany. Let me explain what it is first.

Kirchensteuer (Church Tax)
Church Tax
or Kirchensteuer is 8% of the amount of income tax you pay which is taxed as an additional tax for the church you belong to. Basically it’s a tax paid to the state which in turn gives that money to the church you belong to. The Church has nothing to do with this, it is a federal tax. The tax originates from the Weimar Republic, Germany’s first try to get a democratic, secular, republic. Some of the “Länder” even had it before that as early as the 1800s in an effort to curb the Church’s influence in their area.
In Germany’s history there are a lot of examples of dioceses not only being a religious institution, but also secular territory. A bishop would be a spiritual shepherd and a secular ruler physically owning the territory at the same time. Such a bishop would be called a Prince-Bishop. It’s not hard to imagine there always has been a tension between church and state. In lots of countries, governments made efforts to separate these two in the era following the French Revolution. In France, for example church buildings will be maintained with state money and clergy will be paid by the state (Belgium is another example). The technical term for this is Laïcité. Church Tax is therefore Germany’s attempt of protecting the state from church influence, particularly the Catholic Church. Back in that day, the fact that everybody adhered to one faith or another was a given and Church Tax a way to distribute money in a fair way to churches.

There are two options how you register your faith as a German: you are either of faith or of no faith. If you are of faith, you are asked to register your faith and have to pay Church Tax. The only option not to get taxed is to make sure you are registered as being of no faith. This means that if you are Catholic for example, you have to go to the Church and ask to be removed from their register as a Catholic (in this case) and from that point forward you will not be considered a Catholic anymore by both church and state and therefore you won’t be taxed. A similar system also exists in countries like Spain and Italy, but as far as I understand you cannot be exempt from the tax if you renounce your faith. If you do, the proceedings will go to the state instead of to a church.
Note that this tax is part of an income tax, if you don’t have an income, because you don’t work either because you are too young, too old (retired) or unemployed, you don’t have to pay a Church Tax. Only the German work-force is being taxed. People trying to avoid the tax usually don’t do that because they ‘cannot afford’ the tax, but for other reasons.

No Sacraments for non-Catholics
Now the bishops said: if you go and ask the Church to remove you as a Catholic to avoid this Church Tax, this has as a consequence that you cannot receive the Sacraments anymore, or ask for a Catholic funeral. Many media outlets interpreted this as ‘those who don’t pay, don’t get access to the Sacraments’. But that’s not the point here.
If that were true, other people who don’t pay the tax would be excluded, like children, retired, unemployed Germans, which isn’t the case. The reason people get denied the Sacraments is not so much the fact that they don’t pay tax, but that they voluntarily renounced their faith. The reason why people renounce their faith is not relevant there: nobody is being forced into it. When someone doesn’t care about renouncing their faith, just to avoid paying a small 8% tax, that faith must have been very shallow to begin with. Why would someone still want to receive Sacraments, when their faith is that meaningless to them?

Getting rid of Church Tax
None of my German family members pay Church Tax because they are Atheists. They see the tax as an example of how greedy the churches are. They don’t realize that it’s a federal tax, a secular tax. A lot of other people are not happy with the tax either, the Vatican is not happy with it, but it exists and we have to deal with it as long as it is there.

I am not defending the bishops’ stance, I only try to explain it and give some background. I don’t want to defend the whole Church Tax thing either. I don’t really know what to think of it, maybe the fact I’m half German and kind of used to the system plays a role as well.
Personally I am not affected by the tax, because I got myself a Dutch passport and there is no such thing as a Church Tax in the Netherlands, but I rather see it go as well. It creates more antipathy for the Church: a lot of people don’t know the history of the tax. In The Netherlands many Catholics pay nothing to support their Church because they don’t have to, making it hard for the Church to make ends meet.

It’s not a bad idea if the Catholic Church would encourage the practice of tithing more. I give 10% of my net income to charity and the church. I did that even when I was on welfare, only earning 50% of minimum wages. It’s not that hard to tithe. Many Protestants think it’s normal as a Christian to do so and I also know a lot of American Catholics who tithe. Stress personal responsibility instead of relying on weird structures like Church Tax.

In the mean time, the Catholic Church in Germany got another dent in her image, because the message wasn’t communicated the right way by German bishops and not understood by a lot of international media outlets. If you do a Google search, lots and lots of results repeat the same: only people who pay taxes have access to the Sacraments, a statement which simply isn’t true. The reason why this mistake is being repeated is that the German bishops’ conference did a poor job explaining why people who defect from the Catholic Church exclude themselves from the Sacraments. Miscommunication again, something the Church seems to excel in.

There was some discussion between me and other people on Twitter about this. Some more context: several years ago a lawyer (I think he’s a lawyer) wanted to pay his church donation voluntarily, so he went and at the diocese said that he wanted to unregister himself as a Catholic for the state, but remain a Catholic in the sense of Canon Law. So, basically he wanted to remove himself from the tax register only. Then there came a law suit, which he won, an appeal which he lost until a verdict of the a high administrative court (Bundesverwaltungsgericht) made it final today: if you not want to pay a Church Tax, that’s only possible if you are of no religion. Basically they confirmed today that you have to defect from your Church if you don’t want to pay Church Tax. If you do that, you are no longer Catholic and under Canon Law you cannot receive Sacraments anymore. The question is whether this is a good thing or not. Like Fr. Anton says in the comments: the state basically forces you to defect from your church if you don’t want to pay the tax. It seems like it is not so much the bishops being that difficult, but German law.

How ironic, that a tax, that was instituted to separate Church and State now causes for a situation that’s exactly the opposite.

Link: Press Release Bundesverwaltungsricht, Sept. 26, 2012 (in German)

Another Update
Father John Boyle posted a follow up post at his blog entitled Further Comment On German Bishops.

What do you think about it? Combox is open!

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