Monday, October 8, 2012

Germany: The Peril in Mixing Religion, Government, and Money

A situation has arisen in Germany that is an absolute surprise to those of us in the US. An article in the New York Times by Melissa Eddy provides the details. The European countries are known to be drifting ever more in a secular direction with religion having little role to play in political affairs. Yet, these countries often had state religions in the past, and the remnants of those state ties persist to this day. Many nations continue to tax their citizens to collect funds that are transferred to the religious organizations to support their activities. 
"In Belgium, Greece and Norway, churches are financed by the state. Churches in Austria, Switzerland and Sweden all use the state to collect taxes from members, but the contributions are either predetermined amounts or, compared with Germany, a more modest 1 to 2 percent of the annual assessed income tax. Spain and Italy allow congregants to decide whether they would like a percentage of their income to flow to religious organizations or be earmarked for civic projects."

"In Germany, roughly a third of its 82 million people are Roman Catholics, and about the same number belong to the country’s Protestant churches. All of these members, as well as the estimated 120,000 Jews, pay taxes to the state. Muslim organizations rely on donations or support from outside sources, often based in countries abroad."

In Germany this tax is exceptionally large, and therein the problem has developed.

"Income from church taxes in Germany amounted to about $6.3 billion for the Roman Catholic Church in 2011, and $5.5 billion for the Protestant, mostly Lutheran, churches in 2010, official statistics show. The money goes to support hospitals, schools, day care and myriad other social services, but a sizable amount of the Catholic money is also channeled to the Vatican."

"The German church tax — which is 8 to 9 percent of the annual income tax — is so steep, however, that many people formally quit the church to avoid paying, while nevertheless remaining active in their faith. That is what is angering Catholic Church officials."

Recently a German court ruled that members of a church did, in fact, have the right to leave the Catholic Church and be relieved of the need to pay the church tax. It was a matter of religious freedom proclaimed the court. The court also allowed that as a matter of religious freedom a person could formally quit the church, but continue to attend services. This latter conclusion made the church leaders furious.

"....a decision that so rankled religious leaders fearful of losing a lucrative revenue stream that they made clear, right away, that taxes are the price for participation in the church’s most sacred rituals: no payments, no sacraments."

The Catholic Church formally initiated what might be called a "no pay, no pray" policy. If you want to get to heaven, you are expected to purchase a ticket.

"The Catholic Bishops’ Conference in Germany issued a crystal clear, uncompromising edict, endorsed by the Vatican. It detailed that a member who refuses to pay taxes will no longer be allowed to receive communion or make confession, to serve as godparents or to hold any office in the church. Those who leave can also be refused a Christian burial, unless they ‘give some sign of repentance,’ it read."

This seems vaguely reminiscent of the ancient habit of selling indulgences to those who wished speedy entry into heaven. Didn’t some guy named Martin Luther once get angry about that? Didn’t he used to live around there?

Perhaps the unkindest comment on this church policy is this:

"Norbert Lüdecke, a professor of canon law at Bonn University, said that while every disobedient Catholic is to be punished based on the sin committed, the bishops’ decree effectively placed refusal to pay church taxes nearly on par with the most severe offenses in the church."

"’Now refusing to pay taxes is considered an offense only slightly less bad than denial that Jesus Christ is the son of God,’ Mr. Lüdecke said. ‘While at the same time, there is no specific punishment for other offenses, such as, for example, the sexual abuse of minors by clerics’."

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