In the run-up to this fall’s Synod on the Family, we’ve been hearing a lot from the German bishops. They argue that church teaching and discipline must be informed by Lebenswirklichkeit, the reality of life. The Church should engage “the reality of human beings and of the world,” they say, formulating her doctrine and discipline in more relevant ways. This is the German bishops’ claim—and their hope.
It was Germany that gave us Luther’s sola scriptura, Scripture alone, as the ultimate norm for church teaching. When Tridentine Catholicism repudiated sola scriptura as an anti-ecclesial heresy, insisting instead on Scripture and tradition, Protestants charged that Catholic tradition was usurping the authority of God’s Word. The leaders of today’s German Catholic Church seem determined to do Trent one better, proposing that Scripture and tradition together are incomplete. We need a third element—the reality of life—in order to navigate theologically. Doubtless the few Protestants of strict observance left in Germany find their suspicions of Catholicism vindicated.
The appeal to “experience” is a predictable stratagem for established or culturally dominant churches. Such churches have a stake in the status quo. In good times, they affirm the Lebenswirklichkeit, staying on good terms with the powers that be. When times are turbulent, when the Lebenswirklichkeit is in flux, they fear expulsion from a volatile establishment. They work hard to defend or restore the reality of life with which they had made their peace.
The particular situation of the German Church exacerbates this dynamic. The German Catholic Church is heiress to the Reichskirche, the imperial Church that supported and was supported by the various states and principalities that comprised Germany before its 1871 unification under the Second Reich. Among the legacies of Germany’s imperial tradition are its church tax and the existence of theological faculties in its public universities. The government extends these forms of support to Protestants, Catholics, and Jews, and more recently to other religious groups that have become “corporations of public law.” There is nothing theologically inconsistent in the benefits the Church accepts from the German government. The Council of Trent stipulates that “the payment of tithes is due to God, and those who refuse to pay usurp the property of another.” It is every government’s job to protect property, so Tridentine Catholicism naturally expected secular governments to assist the Church, even finance it out of the public purse.
The church tax in Germany is substantial, amounting to 8 to 9 percent of income tax. Whereas in other nations Catholic parishes get by with what attendees happen to contribute, in Germany dioceses can rely on funds collected by the government from all registered members. The church tax generates huge sums for the German Church, as roughly a quarter of Germans are registered Catholics. Crucially, however, the tax is voluntary. By quitting membership in a religious corporation, or by never joining in the first place, a citizen may avoid the church tax.
In recent years, an increasing number of baptized Germans have been leaving the Church, and the response of the German bishops has been decidedly Tridentine. Trent declares that those who refuse “the payment of tithes” are subject to excommunication. Modern church law does not threaten formal excommunication, but a German who declares his or her Kirchenaustritt (exit from the Church) will no longer be able to receive the sacraments, short of imminent danger of death, or exercise other rights in the Church. Even Christian burial may be denied. A German ex-Catholic certainly cannot work for the Church—and given that the Church, with over 700,000 employees, is the second-largest employer in Germany after the state, this penalty should not be discounted. The bishops are finding it ever more difficult to staff Catholic institutions with employees who are truly Catholic.
German politicians still support the church tax, as do most citizens—but the cultural situation is changing. In the past, almost everyone, believer or unbeliever, was Protestant, Catholic, or Jewish, and thus a member of a religious corporation. Today, some Germans belong to religious groups that cannot or will not form corporations recognized by the government; many adhere to no religion at all. For the baptized, deregistering from the Church is easy. It no longer bears the symbolic weight it once did. In 2014, the Church in Germany lost 217,716 members—an all-time high.
Most German Catholics like the Church’s social ministries. They may be married in the Church; they are grateful to it for burying their loved ones. They think that the Catholic Church has a good influence on society. And yet the German Catholic Church would collect only a fraction of her current income if she had to rely on voluntary donations. That 2014 produced both the highest-ever church-tax revenue (5.6 billion euros) and the lowest-ever rate of weekly Mass attendance (10.9 percent of registered Catholics) is ironic, and due mostly to the economic policies of Chancellor Angela Merkel. In Germany today, it is likely only the inertia of the current system, and the way in which payment of the government-administered church tax still seems an element of good citizenship, that keep revenue flowing to the Church.
The system of the Church tax both presupposes and reinforces the establishment concept of the Church in society: The modern dogma that religion is a private matter is refuted by the existence of government taxation on behalf of religious bodies. So far, so good. But the Church’s reliance on the government to collect tithes may compromise her mission and her witness.
It gives the German bishops a financial stake in the status quo. The bishops want their Church to stay established—and that means suppressing, as much as possible, any elements of the faith that might alienate nominal Catholics or require too much from Church employees. It means being attuned to the current Lebenswirklichkeit.
Not just attuned to it, but solicitous of it. Extensive cooperation between a Church and a modern secular state, such as we see in Germany, cannot fail to have doctrinal consequences. The German bishops’ anxious concern for Lebenswirklichkeit, adapting doctrine and discipline to the contemporary cultural consensus, is meant to protect the Church’s favored and financially rewarding position. The status quo has been maintained so far, but at the cost of a radical revision of the doctrine of revelation formulated by Trent, Vatican I, and Vatican II. The German approach cannot distinguish the positive elements of Lebenswirklichkeit from those incompatible with the faith.
Lebenswirklichkeit has its proper role as part of the “living tradition” spoken of by Vatican II. This sense of tradition, as flowing from Scripture and in part preceding it, must be recovered. This ecclesial Lebenswirklichkeit is not a general experience of life, certainly not the secular world’s sense of life’s reality. It is rather the Church’s experience of life—of the new life made possible in Christ—and it helps us live our faith amid the realities of our world, which the divine revelation came to purify, heal, and sanctify. “Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:2).
Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also” (Luke 12:34). Where the money comes from and how it is spent tell us a great deal about the Church in a given age. Pope Benedict, during his final visit to Germany, emphasized that the Church in her concrete history “becomes self-satisfied, settles down in this world, becomes self-sufficient and adapts herself to the standards of the world”:
Not infrequently, she gives greater weight to organization and institutionalization than to her vocation to openness towards God, her vocation to opening up the world towards the other. In order to accomplish her true task adequately, the Church must constantly renew the effort to detach herself from her tendency towards worldliness and once again to become open towards God. In this she follows the words of Jesus: “They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world” (John 17:16), and in precisely this way he gives himself to the world.
This is a challenge for the whole Church, of course, but especially for the well-funded Church in Germany. (I leave it to American Catholics to discern how Benedict’s words apply to them.) It is clear that the German-led accommodation of those who do not live according to biblical and traditional precepts arises, at least in part, from an effort to shore up the position—entitled, but increasingly precarious—of the German Church. German theology defers to Lebenswirklichkeit because, if it ever gets on the wrong side of the realities of life in contemporary Germany, those realities will make good on their threats to the Church’s coffers and to her accustomed role in society.
It is regrettable, if hardly surprising, that the Church in Germany has not testified fearlessly to the hope that is in believing Christians. She seems, instead, more subject to public opinion than do other, less established churches. But the rights of the German Church stem from the strong and long-standing presence of the Church in German society—a presence for which Catholics had to work, and fight, and suffer. The effect of these rights should be to make Germany more Christian, not to make the Church more German.
Msgr. Hans Feichtinger is the pastor of St. George's Parish in Ottawa. He previously worked at the Vatican for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.