‘Leaving the Church to Stay Catholic’? German Faithful Face Church Tax Dilemma

An increasing number of practicing German Catholics don’t want to fund the local Church’s controversial trajectory in the wake of the Synodal Way; but the only way to not pay the ‘church tax’ is to officially disaffiliate from the Catholic Church in Germany — and risk losing access to the sacraments.

German Catholics attend Mass at Cologne Cathedral.
German Catholics attend Mass at Cologne Cathedral. (photo: travelview / Shutterstock)

David Rodriguez, a dual German-Spanish citizen who has lived in Germany for the past 30 years, loves his Catholic faith. A parishioner of St. Herz Jesu in Berlin, he tells the Register that “the sacraments are like the water I need for spiritual life.”

But alarmed by the officially backed German Synodal Way — which earlier this year accepted an array of resolutions that deviate from settled Church teachings — and desperate to stop financially contributing to it, Rodriguez is considering a measure that, according to current church practice in Germany, would put his access to the sacraments in jeopardy: legally disaffiliating from the Catholic Church in Germany.

David Rodriguez and his wife, Nuria
David Rodriguez and his wife, Nuria(Photo: Courtesy photo)

It’s a dramatic step, one that involves publicly renouncing one’s membership to the Church before a government official. The move is widely regarded in Germany as a de facto “self-excommunication,” as those who go through with it are technically barred from the Eucharist, penance, other sacraments, and even a Christian burial. Ecclesial participation is also curtailed, as holding Church office or employment, participating on diocesan or parish councils, and even serving as a godparent are also prohibited.

But other than embracing voluntary poverty, disaffiliation is currently the only way possible for an adult officially registered as Catholic in Germany to stop paying the compulsory Kirchensteuer (“church tax”), which provides the majority of funding to Germany’s Catholic dioceses and, in turn, likely the Synodal Way. 

And with the Synodal Way voting to implement a host of heterodox resolutions at its final assembly this past March — including blessings for same-sex relationships, pushing for attempted women’s ordination, and taking preparatory steps to establish a permanent synodal council that’s been forbidden by the Vatican — continuing to contribute violates the consciences of many German Catholics who desire to be faithful to the Church universal.

Thus, while many of the record number of people disaffiliating from the Catholic Church in Germany are likely doing so out of a desire to no longer fund a faith they no longer believe or practice, Catholic faithful like Rodriguez are increasingly considering renouncing their membership for a different reason — and are asking the question, in light of the continued problematic trajectory of the Synodal Way in Germany, if they need to “leave the Church to stay Catholic” — or at least not continue to violate their consciences.


‘The Last Straw’

According to Birgit Kelle, spokeswoman for the German lay group New Beginning (Neuer Anfang), which has been critical of the Synodal Way, “not a day goes by” when the organization isn’t contacted by German Catholics appalled by the direction of the local Church and asking whether they should leave the German Church structure to avoid financing it.

Kelle told the Register that the Kirchensteuer has long been a source of frustration for the German faithful, but the Synodal Way’s actions have only intensified concern. 

The cost of the Synodal Way has never been officially released by the responsible parties, but Catholic News Agency estimated in May 2022 that the cost from the process’s start in 2019 up until that point totaled 5.7 million euros (around $6 million). But that figure doesn’t include the final two assemblies of the Synodal Way, nor expenses for the upcoming three-year Synodal Committee, which Kelle said ecclesial representatives have indicated has a 2.5 million-euro-per-year budget going forward.

“For many, it’s the last straw that breaks the camel’s back,” Kelle told the Register. “Many believers are really shaken and can no longer reconcile it with their conscience to give money to an institution that is loudly saying goodbye to the unity of the Church.”

Kelle describes a situation in which many Catholics are torn between maintaining their membership to the publicly recognized Church structure and working for its good, but also not contributing to a project they believe is pushing the German Church toward schism with Rome. The struggle is complicated by the fact that orthodox parishes and priests can still be found in many German dioceses, not to mention the harsh prohibitions for disaffiliating.

This tug-of-war is playing out in the hearts of German Catholics like Axel Müllers, who lives in the Diocese of Aachen. The Catholic businessman and father of three is a vocal opponent of the Synodal Way and finds the current arrangement unacceptable.

“They insult you and then make you pay for it,” he told the Register.

And yet, as much as Müllers opposes the Synodal Way and the fact that his church tax helps fund it, the prospect of formally renouncing his membership to the Catholic Church in Germany is almost too painful to consider.

“It would break my heart,” he told the Register.


A Problematic Arrangement

The dilemma faithful German Catholics face illustrates long-standing concerns with the Kirchensteuer — and the complicated entanglement of church membership and state law that undergirds it.

The arrangement dates back to the Weimar Constitution of 1919, when the government was unwilling to finance the Catholic Church, but was required by religious-freedom measures to treat religions equally. As a result, the Evangelical — or Lutheran — church in Germany lost its status as the official state church, with the government legally mandating that Catholic and Lutheran ecclesial bodies would both be funded on an equal per-capita basis by their members.

Under the law, the Catholic Church and other religious entities in Germany are recognized as corporations of public law. This means that one’s belonging to the Church is a legal as well as a spiritual matter — when a person is baptized or otherwise received into the Catholic faith, it’s noted not only in the Church’s records, but in the state’s as well. Likewise, to formally leave religious membership involves a peculiar entanglement of church and state, as one must make the request directly to the state, with the religious body being notified only after the fact. 

As corporations of public law, religious entities in Germany have the right to have the state collect funding from members on the body’s behalf — the church tax. The rate is 8% of what ones pays in income taxes in the states of Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg and 9% in the rest of the country. 

For example, a Catholic living in Berlin, making the average annual German salary of 43,722 euros, and paying the corresponding 5,981 euros in income tax would have an additional 538.29 euros taken out of their pay by the government and forwarded on to the Archdiocese of Berlin. In 2022 alone, the German Catholic Church received an estimated 6.8 billion euros in church-tax revenues from its 21 million members.

While other religious groups, like Christian “free churches” and the Jewish community in Berlin, have opted out of the government collecting their membership fees, the practice has been retained by both the Catholic and Evangelical church communities — but not without significant controversy in recent decades.

Pope Benedict XVI, a German native, was a noted critic of the Kirchensteuer. During his papacy, the Vatican issued a 2006 ruling widely interpreted as clarifying that German Catholics who opt out of membership to the legal Catholic entity over the church tax are not necessarily committing a “formal act” of defection. And in a 2016 book-length interview, the then pope emeritus said that he had “serious doubts about the correctness of the system as it is” and that “the automatic excommunication of those who do not pay it, in my view, is not sustainable.”

But the Germany episcopacy has resisted efforts to rein in the church tax, or at least offer an alternative. Most notably, a 2012 general decree from the German Bishops’ Conference reaffirmed that disaffiliating represents “a willful and knowing distancing from the Church” that “violates the duty to maintain communion with the Church and the duty to make a financial contribution to ensure that Church can fulfill its tasks.” The bishops’ decree also laid down the aforementioned sacramental and ecclesial consequences of disaffiliation.

The Vatican signed off on the arrangement, but with “a bad gut feeling,” a Curial canonist familiar with the proceedings told the Register on background.

Other canonists have critiqued the current church-membership situation in Germany. Father Gero Weishaupt has argued that legal resignation from the civilly recognized Catholic Church is not sufficient grounds for depriving Catholics of sacraments and exercises of office that they possess by right, barring a formal declaration of excommunication by the proper episcopal authorities.

Most recently, Auxiliary Bishop Ansgar Puff of Cologne suggested in his April 23 homily that those who have disaffiliated from the Catholic Church in Germany should still have access to the Eucharist if they’re believing Catholics.

“Is it right not to invite them to our table anymore? Have they lost their faith? Usually not,” he said.

Less supportive of the Synodal Way’s measures than most German bishops, Bishop Puff’s push back against strict restrictions for those who disaffiliate may be influenced by the increasing number of German Catholic considering — or perhaps even following through with — leaving the legally recognized Church entity out of a desire to not materially support the current path of the German Church.


Torn Consciences and Red Lines

But bad feelings and canonical critiques aside, the compulsory church tax is still the ecclesial law of the land in Germany — and Catholics who can’t abide with financially contributing to the Synodal Way will continue considering drastic measures to avoid paying it.

For Doro Ludwig from Augsburg, that means even looking for job opportunities abroad — though the employee of a Catholic ministry independent from the German Church acknowledges that “so far that is only a dream.”

Doro Ludwig Germany
Doro Ludwig(Photo: Courtesy of subject)

For Ilka Stöss, on the other hand, a mother of three from Chemnitz, disaffiliating from the Catholic Church in Germany is currently “out of the question,” despite her deep concerns with the Synodal Way. Part of her reasoning is that the Church in Germany has not officially separated from the universal Catholic Church at this point, and valid sacraments are still available — but her background as a convert to Catholicism from atheism plays a significant part, too.

“When you have made a conscious decision to join this Church, you [cannot] exit again,” she told the Register, sharing a sentiment expressed by other converts. “I came to be a part of the Lord’s Church. It would be absurd to resign from [it].”

Other Catholics, however, acknowledge that while they haven’t yet disaffiliated, there are red lines that, if crossed by the Church in Germany, might push them over the edge.

For Müllers, it would be the attempted ordination of women — not just in his Diocese of Aachen, whose ordinary, Bishop Helmut Dieser, is one of the most committed proponents of the Synodal Way’s resolutions, but anywhere in the German Church.

“Once we have this happening one place, others will follow gladly,” he said. “Fools rush in.”

Ludwig acknowledges that she has already laid down red lines — but each one has already been crossed, and she continues to not formally leave the Church. Although she says priests she knows have told her that they would still offer her the sacraments if she did disaffiliate, part of her reason for not leaving is that she “would feel like I would be lying” to other priests who were unaware of her situation.

New Beginning’s recommendation to Catholics concerned about the overall direction of the Church in Germany and frustrated that their euros are helping fund it is “not to make any hasty decisions and wait and see what actually happens,” Kelle told the Register.

“So far, there are only resolutions of the Synodal Way, but they are de facto not binding under Church law,” she explained. “As long as they are not implemented, they are nothing more than superfluous piece of paper.” 

Kelle also added that in the case of “isolated implementations” of Synodal Way resolutions, German Catholics should give the Vatican time to respond, “as there are indications that Rome is slowly becoming quite annoyed with the German go-it-alone attitude.”

“One should not grasp and leave the Church oneself; let’s also leave some work for the Holy Spirit.”


No Relief From Rome

Kelle and New Beginning also advise that German Catholics should express their discontent to their own local shepherds. But many have already done so at even higher level, sending direct appeals to Rome in recent years — but with little in the way of results.

According to a 2020 report from the German Catholic newspaper Tagepost, requests for reviews of an apparent contradiction between the 2012 German bishops’ decree and wider Church law have already been made by German Catholics to the Dicastery for Legal Texts in Rome. The article described the matter at the time as “not being dealt with quickly” by the Vatican; three years later, it hasn’t been resolved at all, at least not publicly.

Müllers has had a similar experience. He told the Register that, in February 2021, he wrote to Cardinal Pietro Parolin, secretary of state of the Holy See, expressing his concerns with paying the Kirchensteuer, given the state of the Church in Germany, and noting his willingness to direct his financial support to Catholic entities in line with Rome. 

In a reply dated April 27, 2021, that Müllers shared with the Register, Archbishop Luigi Roberto Cona, assessor for general affairs of the Secretariat of State, thanked him for his “solidarity with the universal Church,” noted that canon law does  “does not recognize leaving the Church, but only excommunication on the basis of apostasy, heresy, or schism,” but nonetheless affirmed the duty of German Catholics to financially support the local Church — “regardless of its shortcomings” — through the mode designated by the bishops.

A similar letter sent to Cardinal Mauro Piacenza, head of the Apostolic Penitentiary, on June 15, 2021, did not receive a reply, said Müllers.

More recently, Berlin’s Rodriguez has taken to asking for help from the papal nuncio to Germany, Archbishop Nikola Eterović. In a joint email with his wife, Nuria, sent on March 17, Rodriguez explained how they could not, in good conscience, continue to financially support the Catholic Church apparatus in Germany in the wake of the Synodal Way assembly. The Rodriguezes asked the nuncio, point-blank: “Would it still be possible to receive the sacraments if we resigned from the public German Catholic Church and donated the money to another church that is faithful?”

In the nuncio’s March 28 email response, obtained by the Register, he underscored that disaffiliating from the Church in Germany over concerns of funding its current trajectory “is considered to be leaving the system of church financing in Germany, but not to be understood as apostasy from the Catholic faith.”

However, Archbishop Eterović never addressed the Rodriguezes’ central concern about sacramental reception if they left the Church, only writing that “[a]s Apostolic Nuncio to Germany, I perceive these concerns and needs of believers and will deal with them according to my assignment and report to the Holy Father Francis and the appropriate offices of the Roman Curia,” before offering an extended reflection on the importance of the German Catholic Church and the need for evangelization.

Rodriguez told the Register that he is waiting for official confirmation that he can still receive the sacraments before disaffiliating — but that he’s reaching a breaking point.

“I can’t keep paying for all these heretical bishops,” he told the Register.

But until Rome responds with concrete solutions, Rodriguez and German Catholics like him will have to continue paying for a Church establishment that openly promotes what they see as deviations from the Catholic faith — or risk “going it alone” and potentially losing access to the sacramental life that sustains them.