An investigation by the German Handelsblatt newspaper has revealed the German Catholic Church collected a record €6 billion ($7.1 billion) last year, and that the country’s 27 dioceses are sitting on a fortune of at least €26 billion ($31.2 billion).
Although Church attendance is rapidly falling in the country — 2.2 million have de-registered since 2000 — the newspaper says revenues have been boosted by a “robust domestic economy.”
The report says the Church’s billions are tied up in fixed assets ($24 billion) and financial investments ($18.1 billion). The former are mostly made up of “equities or real estate, particularly in western Germany, donated by former nobility,” according to Handelsblatt.
The newspaper also says the German Church offers “a generous fund for pensions, reserved for higher-ranking ecclesiastical dignitaries, to the tune of €5 billion ($6 billion), but that number could also be higher as several of the bishoprics’ business reports didn’t provide exact information.”
Much of the Church’s wealth derives from the nation’s Church tax. Every baptized German working adult (roughly one third of the country’s Catholics) has to pay a levy of 8 to 9 percent, depending on the state, an arrangement dating back to the 1919 Weimar Constitution, which was transferred verbatim into the current constitution after World War II.
German citizens who formally wish to stop paying the tax cannot receive Holy Communion or other religious services, according to the German Bishops’ Conference. The Church has even been known to look into expats’ home records to determine if they’ve been honest on tax declarations about being baptized or not, Handelsblatt reports.
The Church also benefits from state subsidies, and both the Catholic and Protestant churches receive exclusive tax breaks not bestowed upon other religious groups in Germany.
Catholic Hospital Shortages
Despite its wealth, Handelsblatt reports on shortages in Church-run hospitals” which it says “is enraging to some.” It refers in particular to hospital staff in the state of Saarland who went on strike to protest their working conditions, most notably a shortage of staff.
Also mentioned in the article is the lavish spending by Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst, the former bishop of Trier, who spent €31 million ($43 million back in 2013) restoring the bishop’s residence (although much of the spending was signed off by his predecessor and the exact figures remain questionable). The current Bishop of Trier refuses to live there, and Bishop Tebartz-van Elst was sent to Rome to serve as an official at the Pontifical Council for the New Evangelization.
Many believe the German Church’s vast wealth has led to its own internal corruption, secularization, and the need for what Benedict XVI termed Entweltlichung (to be rid of worldly influence), although some place the blame on a crisis of faith rather than wealth per se.
In 2016, an academic study showed that 54% of German priests go to confession only "once a year or less" (among pastoral assistants, the figure is as high as 91%).
In 2015, the German bishops reformed the German Church’s labor laws to allow Church employees living in a homosexual relationship and the divorced and civilly remarried to work in ecclesiastical institutions.
Last summer, Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich said he was more concerned about the Church apologizing for its inaction against previous German law prohibiting homosexuality than the country’s decision to legalize homosexual “marriage.”
Not Up to the Individual
In an interview with the Register last year, Jesuit Father Hans Langendörfer, the influential general secretary of the German bishops’ conference, said not paying the Church tax is tantamount to withdrawing membership of the Church and excommunication.
When asked if a practicing Catholic could stop paying the tax because they believe the wealth is causing the Church harm, yet still wish to receive the Sacraments, he said it is “not up to the individual” to take such a course of action.
“A Catholic has to accept these rules of the German Church,” he said. “If you want to exclude yourself, you exclude yourself from a proper Church membership.”