Are the German Bishops Just Greedy?

Did the German bishops make the right decision?
Did the German bishops make the right decision? (photo: Register Files)

That's certainly the impression you would get from some discussing a recent decree issued by the German bishops' conference.

It's being characterized as a "pay to pray" policy, whereby the Church will deny you the sacraments if you don't give it money.

One news source headlined the story "German Bishops To Catholics: Pay Up Or Die Without Absolution."

That seems to be about as misleading a headline as you could want, because the decree in question expressly refers to the possibility of people receiving the final sacraments.

But let's look at the matter . . .


The Basic Facts

A member of the Secret Information Club writes:

Dear Jimmy,

What would your view be of the situation for Catholics in Germany for whom payment of the church tax (levied by the German IRS at approx 8% of your income tax bill, which in Germany can be 45% of your gross income) is now a necessary condition for access to the sacraments?

See for a reasonably accurate BBC report.

From what is being reported in the English-language press, it appears that the German bishops have issued a decree, which the Holy See has approved, that says German Catholics who tell the state that they are not Catholics are not to be given the sacraments (which is not the same thing as excommunication, by the way).

If a German Catholic tells the state that he is not a Catholic then his pastor should contact him and explain the consequences of this act and invite him to reconsider.

So far, so what? Sounds pastorally prudent.

The story certainly wouldn't receive the attention it has been getting except for a particular fact about the German civil law, and it goes to the reason that a German Catholic might want to tell the state that he is not a Catholic in the first place: To avoid paying taxes.

Apparently, in the 19th century, Germany decided that it wanted to nationalize (i.e., take over, claim for its own) a bunch of church property. To compensate the Church for this, the German state agreed to collect a "church tax" on behalf of the members of a given religious community.

Thus today German Protestants, Catholics, and Jews pay a tax that goes to support the religious institution with which they affiliate.

Given the high tax rates in Germany, people are looking for a way to lower their taxes, and telling the government that they are no longer Catholic would do that. So some have been.

What are we to make of this?


Canon Law Perspective

Fr. John Boyle takes a swing at the issue from a canonical perspective, and Dr. Edward Peters is apparently planning to do so as well.

I have not studied the issue closely from a canonical perspective--one reason being that I don't presently have access to the relevant documents.

So I look forward to seeing the documents and to analysis by Dr. Peters and others.

I'll leave the canonical perspective aside, then, and look at it instead from a practical and a theological perspective.


Practical Perspective

In politics they often refer to the "optics" of a thing--meaning how it looks, how it will be perceived.

By any standard, the optics of this thing are terrible.

It plays right into the "greedy Catholic Church" stereotype--the "pay, pray, and obey" narrative that has been used to frame the Catholic Church's attitude toward the laity in the popular press.

In other words, it looks like the German bishops are using the threat of eternal damnation to extract money from hapless laypeople, which is nigh on to simony.

The German bishops, therefore, need to offer a counter-narrative to the one that the media will inevitably use.

And they have . . .


The Counter-Narrative

As a Catholic News Service story suggests, the German bishops have tried to frame the issue without reference to money and instead frame it in terms of Catholic identity:

"There must be consequences for people who distance themselves from the church by a public act," said Archbishop Robert Zollitsch of Freiburg, conference president, in defending the Sept. 20 decree.

"Clearly, someone withdrawing from the church can no longer take advantage of the system like someone who remains a member," he said at a Sept. 24 news conference as the bishops began a four-day meeting in Fulda. "We are grateful Rome has given completely clear approval to our stance."

The archbishop said each departure was "painful for the church," adding that bishops feared many Catholics were unaware of the consequences and would be "open to other solutions."

"The Catholic church is committed to seeking out every lost person," said Archbishop Zollitsch, whose remarks were reported by Germany's Die Welt daily.

"At issue, however, is the credibility of the church's sacramental nature. One cannot be half a member or only partly a member. Either one belongs and commits, or one renounces this," Archbishop Zollitsch said.


Narrative vs. Narrative

Merely offering a counter-narrative, however, does not mean that it will win out over the narrative that the media is pushing. Just telling your side of the story does not mean that people will believe it.

One reason many will inevitably look at the bishops' stance with skepticism is that they have a financial interest in people paying the tax.

Because of the tax, the German bishops' conference receives more than 6 billion dollars a year, making it one of the richest bishops conferences in the world.

People are naturally suspicious of those they perceive as being different from themselves, and since most people are not rich, they naturally suspect those who they perceive as commanding vast sums of money, whether it is the government, corporations, or the Church.

"It's doesn't matter what you say, it's all about the money," is the way a suspicious person would look at the subject.

Added to this is the fact that critics of the Church can throw in its face the clerical abuse scandal and point to it as an example of bad faith and bad policy.


Doing the Numbers

That doesn't mean that this jaundiced perspective is correct, however. One could point out that the bishops' policy, at most, deals with a small slice of their income.

There are apparently around 25 million Catholics in Germany, and in recent years only about 150,000 per year have been telling the state that they are no longer Catholics. That amounts to 0.6% of the Catholic population per year. If the Church's policy were to stop that hemorrhaging completely, it would address only a tiny fraction (less than 1%) of the Church's funds.

And there's no guarantee at all that it would do that.

In fact, it might well make the problem worse, either because the press coverage of this issue would get more people thinking about telling the state that they are not Catholics--when otherwise they would have not thought about it or acted on it--or because they will be so alienated by the press coverage of the issue that they get mad and decide to leave the Church, tell the state about it, and decrease their tax bills.

These facts--which the German bishops might well contemplate spelling out (if they haven't already)--suggest that there is something else motivating their policy, that the "It's just about the money" narrative is false.


"If You Deny Me Before Men . . . "

The New Testament is extremely clear about the Christian's duty to profess his faith in Jesus. Consider these verses:

Jesus said: “Therefore everyone who confesses Me before men, I will also confess him before My Father who is in heaven. But whoever denies Me before men, I will also deny him before My Father who is in heaven" (Matt. 10:32-33).

Jesus said: “And I say to you, everyone who confesses Me before men, the Son of Man will confess him also before the angels of God; but he who denies Me before men will be denied before the angels of God" (Luke 12:8-9).

Jesus said: "For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will also be ashamed of him when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels" (Mark 8:38).
Jesus said: "For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when He comes in His glory, and the glory of the Father and of the holy angels" (Luke 9:26).
"If we endure, we will also reign with Him; If we deny Him, He also will deny us" (2 Tim. 2:12)


So, that's kind of clear, isn't it? Refusal to profess the faith before men means that we will be disowned on Judgment Day. It's a mortal sin.

This is the fact that drove the history of Christian martyrdom--and that continues to drive it today.

Telling the state that you're not a Catholic just so you can get out of paying some taxes is just another form of denying the faith before Caesar.

And it's a pretty lousy form since the threat of death isn't even hanging of you (you're denying the faith for far less), and the taxes you would pay will actually help the Church and help fulfill your duty of supporting the Church according to your means.


Manifest Grave Sin

Since denying your faith before the state is a mortal sin, it is thus potential matter for canon 915 of the Code of Canon Law, which provides

Those who have been excommunicated or interdicted after the imposition or declaration of the penalty and others obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to holy communion.

If someone has denied his faith before the state, it's a grave sin. Because he filed paperwork with the state, it's a manifest sin. And if his pastor has talked to him about it and he hasn't turned back then he is obstinately persevering in it.

So I see a possible basis for denying them holy Communion on such grounds.

I don't want to go further into canonical waters, however, until I've seen the actual documents involved and seen competent commentary from others.

My point is that the German bishops may have reasonable grounds for their decree, canonically, either because it merely applies existing provisions of the Church's universal law or because it further specifies that law as particular legislation for Germany.


Understanding the Bishops' Solution

It seems to me that the German bishops are faced with a real problem in terms of how to address the defections from the faith because of the tax issue.

You have people denying the faith before Caesar so that they can have more take-home pay. That's a problem.

Is their solution the best one? That strikes me as an open question, but it doesn't strike me as an on-its-face unreasonable one, and we most certainly should not leap to cynical readings of it. There are sound pastoral reasons for trying to make clear to people that they must not deny their faith to the state. The Church has known that since the beginning of the Christian age.

I thus have sympathy for them and think we should regard their solution as a legitimate pastoral effort to address a real problem.

I also find it interesting that they mention having the Holy See's approval for the decree. Given the explosive nature of the subject--and the fact that it occurs in the pope's homeland--it's hard for me to imagine that the approval was not run past the pope. (At a minimum, if it wasn't run by him, it should have been.) I thus suspect that the decree has Pope Benedict's personal approval.


A Broader Question

Of course, there is a broader question of whether the German church tax system is a good thing or not.

As an American, I'm used to the state not serving as an instrument of collecting funds for the Church and having all such donations be voluntary. I see the benefits of that system, including making room for the practice of virtue and not setting up perverse incentives for people to defect from the Church for tax reasons. And becoming dependent on the state to give you money is never a good thing in itself.

On the other hand, the German Church has certainly benefitted from having the state's efficiency at raising funds, and it is able to do things it otherwise would not be able to. It may, in particular, need those funds to help carry out the New Evangelization in Germany. But there are also costs, including the ones I've mentioned.

You can make your own decision about which system is better in the abstract.

I'd be curious to know what you think.

In particular, I'd be curious to know from those who think that it's a bad thing for the state to have "enforced charity" for the Church if they also think it's a bad thing for the state to conduct "enforced charity" for other causes--like healthcare, poverty relief, etc.

To what extent do the arguments against enforcing charity with regard to the Church apply to other charitable causes? Just what should the state's role be?


How This Came Up

Incidentally, I mentioned that this came up because of a question I got by email from a member of the Secret Information Club.

If you're not familiar with it, the Secret Information Club is a free service that I operate by email.

I send out information on a variety of fascinating topics connected with the Catholic faith.

The very first thing you’ll get if you sign up is an “interview” I did with Pope Benedict on the book of Revelation. What I did was compose questions about the book of Revelation and take the answers from his writings.

He has a lot of interesting things to say!

If you’d like to find out what they are, just sign up at or use this handy sign-up form:

Just email me at [email protected] if you have any difficulty.

In the meantime, what do you think?