Ever since 1803, all Germans citizens registered with the government as Catholics, Protestants, or Jews have paid a “church tax.” 8-9% of the individual’s income tax bill goes to the government, which holds on to the money for a little while before passing it on to the church of which he is a member. To us Americans, it may seem an odd way of operating, but it has been the system in Germany for over two centuries.
In 2007 Hartmut Zapp, a retired professor of canon law, filed a lawsuit against the German church. He wanted to continue taking part in Church activities, including receiving the Sacraments, without having to pay the church tax. He argued “that under Catholic doctrine, Church membership was determined by a person’s beliefs and not by a financial relationship.”
The verdict did not come until yesterday after the German Bishops issued a decree on Friday, pre-approved by the Vatican, that those who officially denounced the faith to civil authorities, would no longer be permitted to receive holy Communion or other Sacraments, hold office in the Church, have a Catholic burial, or be able to serve as Godparents, and they would need special permission from a bishop to marry in the Catholic Church. The Court disagreed with Zapp and backed the Catholic Bishops, declaring that there could not be partial church membership.
According to Catholic News Service, the decree states:
Conscious dissociation from the church by public act is a grave offense against the church community . . . Whoever declares their withdrawal for whatever reason before the responsible civil authority always violates their duty to preserve a link with the church, as well as their duty to make a financial contribution so the church can fulfill its tasks.
Archbishop Robert Zollitsch of Freiburg, the conference president, said, ”There must be consequences for people who distance themselves from the church by a public act . . . At issue . . . 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.”
He also added (something most articles on the topic have left out) that “each departure was ‘painful for the church,’ [and] 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.”
Many are up in arms. The German media has termed the decree “excommunication lite” while others declare “Pay and pray!” with references to fifteenth-century sales of indulgences. More conservative denunciations of the decree deem it the “wrong signal” at the wrong time.
The decree seems, to me, not only completely reasonable but also quite just. On the one hand, why would a person who has truly renounced the faith want to receive holy Communion or have a Catholic burial anyway? On the other hand, the person who upholds Catholic doctrine should be encouraged to see the Church calling for deeper integrity of its faithful.
The tax system of the German government may not be the most ideal way to support churches; but, given the system, the truth of the matter is: to claim religious rights to the very church that one formally denounces makes very little sense indeed.