Billions of euros pour into the German hierarchy’s coffers every year thanks to the church tax. Hardly anyone goes to Mass, but it means the bishops can bully Rome

On the face of it, German Catholicism is not in a very healthy state. A survey by the German bishops’ conference this summer found that weekly Mass attendance is now a mere 10.8 per cent, having halved from 22 per cent as recently as 1989. This is a lower participation rate than in England and Wales, and is not much higher than in anti-clerical France. The number of marriages celebrated in German Catholic churches, meanwhile, fell from 116,000 in 1990 to 44,000 in 2013.

Even these figures are flattered by immigration from more traditionally observant countries like Poland or Croatia. It is cold comfort for German Catholics that the Protestant churches are doing even worse. Yet the German Church remains a major player in international Catholicism, largely because Germany’s peculiar Kirchensteuer (church tax) system means it is very rich.

The amounts involved are staggering. In 2013, the Catholic Church in Germany received almost €5.5 billion (£4.6 billion) via the church tax. Many international Catholic charitable activities would simply be impossible without German money. So it is no surprise that Germany’s priorities carry a lot of weight with both Rome and the more cash-strapped European bishops’ conferences. Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst, the notorious “Bishop of Bling” sacked by Pope Francis for his lavish spending on vanity projects, is not typical of German bishops. But he is emblematic of the German Church’s wealth and arrogance.

The origins of the church tax date back to the 19th century, when many German states moved away from princes directly funding Catholic or
Protestant churches in their fiefdoms. The tax was designed to distribute money between Catholic, Protestant and Jewish communities based on the number of faithful. Under this system, tax authorities would collect a small percentage of your income and, in exchange for a commission, hand it over to the church of your choice.

In some ways, the church tax fits in well with German corporatist culture. There are other manifestations of this – for instance, when Cardinal Rainer Maria Woelki was recently appointed Archbishop of Cologne, his appointment had to be approved by the state government of North Rhine-Westphalia before being sent to Rome for ratification. But the church tax, because it directly affects money, has been by far the most important example. Bismarck failed to break the Catholic Church, but state-administered funding has effectively domesticated it.

Critics of the church tax have long pointed out that it has a corrupting effect, and there are many practical examples to prove it. One glaring anomaly is that only around a third of German Catholics actually pay it. As it is applied as a supplement to income tax, those without taxable income – children, pensioners, housewives, the unemployed – fall outside the system.

But Mass attendance has fallen so low that the number of nominal Catholics paying the tax now far outstrips the number actively involved with the Church. That means there is little incentive for bishops to think urgently about declining participation.

There are yet more undesirable consequences. The German Church’s bureaucratic tendencies were strong anyway, thanks to its enormous dioceses – only 27 compared to 22 for the much smaller Catholic population of England and Wales – and to the German fondness for regulations. But the diocesan bureaucracies are dwarfed by the money and headcount in lay institutions.

With 560,000 staff, Caritas is the country’s second largest employer after Volkswagen. This was the context for the debate which took place between Cardinals Kasper and Ratzinger from 1999 to 2002 about the nature of authority in the Church – whether it flowed downwards from Rome or upwards from local and national churches. Benedict XVI’s scepticism about national bishops’ conferences was very much conditioned by his knowledge of the German Church bureaucracy.

Despite its declining numbers the German Church played a significant role at the recent family synod in Rome. This was largely thanks to Pope Francis’s mystifying decision to let Cardinal Walter Kasper, the Vatican’s retired head of ecumenism, open proceedings back in February at the consistory of cardinals. It should have been obvious that Cardinal Kasper would use the opportunity to push for remarried Catholics to be readmitted to Communion, a subject he has been campaigning on for more than 20 years. Cardinal Kasper’s trademark garrulous style during the synod itself didn’t improve matters, and led him directly into an unedifying row with Cardinal Raymond Burke. It would be easy to dismiss this as unimportant, especially since on this issue Cardinal Kasper is very much out of step with the Catholic hierarchy internationally. But the rumpus at the synod did expose the powerful German Church throwing its weight around in an unusually public way.

Pastoral care for remarried divorcees is, of course, a big problem in many countries, stemming from the growing divergence between secular society’s understanding of marriage and the Church’s teaching. But in Germany this has been fought over openly for many years. In July 1993, a joint pastoral letter on the subject was issued by three bishops from south-west Germany – the late Archbishop Oskar Saier of Freiburg and Bishops Karl Lehmann of Mainz and Walter Kasper of Rottenburg-Stuttgart. These were not marginal figures. Archbishop Saier was one of the most prominent figures in the German bishops’ conference for decades, and both Kasper and Lehmann received red hats in 2001. Cardinal Lehmann remained in Mainz as one of the German Church’s major power brokers, while Cardinal Kasper moved to the Roman Curia.

At the heart of the three bishops’ letter was a proposed process to allow civilly remarried divorcees who either could not (or would not) apply to a Church tribunal for an annulment to nonetheless receive Communion. Those affected would seek spiritual guidance from a priest, and if they decided in conscience that their previous marriage was invalid, the priest would be expected to respect their decision.

The German initiative did not win Rome’s approval, and in September 1994 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) issued a response, signed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and approved by John Paul II. The reply recognised that there was a genuine pastoral problem in ministering to Catholics in irregular marriages, but argued that there was no way round Catholic teaching on the indissolubility of a valid marriage. And, since marriage was not simply a private but also a public matter, the Church could not simply leave it up to the individual parishioner’s conscience. This hasn’t deterred Cardinal Kasper, who has continued to return to his pet cause on a regular basis.

The reality is that there is very limited scope for big pastoral initiatives in this area without fundamentally revising the Church’s understanding of marriage. Even in the United States, where more than 80 per cent of annulment requests are granted – compared with under 40 per cent in Italy, the country with the second highest number of annulments – Church authorities have to contend with the reality that the vast majority of divorced Catholics simply do not apply for annulments. Rome may yet decide to streamline the annulment process, but most likely the dominant approach on the ground will be that of turning a blind eye.

The real scandal, though, is what happens to parishioners who opt out of paying the church tax, which you can do only by signing a formal declaration that you have left the Church. The German hierarchy treat this as apostasy and take the view that those doing so have excommunicated themselves. A set of detailed guidelines published by the German bishops’ conference in September 2012 determined that those who make the declaration are ineligible to receive the sacraments. Not only are they barred from receiving Communion, but they may also only get married in church with the consent of the local ordinary, and may even be denied a Christian burial if they have failed to show signs of repentance before death. This does not sit well, to put it mildly, with the current push to loosen up the rules for remarried Catholics. An uncharitable observer might conclude that money was more important than Church teaching.

All these problems with the church tax system are well known and have been controversial for years. But it seems that few people have an interest in changing things. Criticism within the German Church has mostly come from extreme liberals or extreme conservatives, with the hierarchy seemingly content with the status quo. Few German politicians have shown an interest in repealing the tax. And Rome has become used to Germany being its golden goose.

It would take an earthquake to shake the German Church out of its complacency.

This article first appeared in the Catholic Herald magazine (12/12/14)