As controversy continues to swirl around proposals by the German bishops at the Synod on the Family, the German bishops themselves have faced heightened criticism in recent years.
Critics point out that while Cardinal Walter Kasper and most of his fellow German bishops have been leading the charge to allow those in “irregular" marital situations – those who are divorced and remarried – to receive Communion, they have simultaneously denied the sacraments, including even Confession, to those who opt out of paying Germany’s “church tax": a position seen by critics as hyprocritical.
In both cases, the German position is at odds with Church teaching: admitting to Communion those formally not allowed, and forbidding those whom the Vatican says can validly receive the sacraments.
The German definition of mercy, critics say, is a “pay to pray system” that has its “financial" limits.
The bishops in Germany “are notoriously the most merciful in wishing to grant Communion to the divorced and remarried, but at the same time are the most ruthless in de facto excommunicating those who refuse to pay the church tax, which in their country is obligatory by law," Sandro Magister wrote last October in his “Settimo Cielo" blog for L’Espresso.
The church tax earned the Church in Germany an income of more than $7 billion in both 2012 and 2013.
Critics charged that the German bishops are on one hand saying that mercy demands Communion be given to those living in what Christ called adultery, while simultaneously banning those who may be living according to Church teaching, but for whatever reason choose not pay their church tax, from all the sacraments.
“In Germany the church tax (kirchensteuer) is obligatory, such that to be able to not pay it, one must declare their departure from the church to which they belong, whether Catholic or Protestant, by a public act made before a competent civil authority," Magister explained.
When Germans register as Catholic, Protestant, or Jew on their tax forms, the government automatically collects an income tax from them which amounts to 8 or 9 percent of their total income tax, or 3-4 percent of their salary.
The “church tax" is given to the religious communities, rather than those communities collecting a tithe. The Church uses its funds to help run its parishes, schools, hospitals, and welfare projects.
Many Germans have de-registered in recent years, so as to avoid paying the additional tax. Magister noted that the number of persons declaring their departure from the Church has been substantial – in 2010, the figure was more than 180,000.
The number of de-registrations has been heightened this year, as the church tax is now being withheld from capital gains, as well as from salary.
Many of those who have de-registered from the Church on the German government’s forms continue to practice the faith, and have de-registered to avoid the tax altogether, or to support the Church with private tithes.
In response to the numbers de-registering, the German bishops issued a decree in September 2012 calling such departure “a serious lapse" and listing a number of ways they are barred from participating in the life of the Church.
The decree specified that those who do not pay the church tax cannot receive the sacraments of Confession, Communion, Confirmation, or Anointing of the Sick, except when in danger of death; cannot hold ecclesial office or perform functions within the Church; cannot be a godparent or sponsor; cannot be a member of diocesan or parish councils; and cannot be members of public associations of the Church.
If those who de-registered show no sign of repentance before their death, they can even be refused a religious burial.
While these penalties have been described as “de facto excommunication,” the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, wrote in a March 13, 2006 document that opting out of taxes in a civil situation was not the same as renouncing the faith, and thus excommunication did not apply to such persons.
The German group Union of Associations Loyal to the Pope has said it is ironic that one could reject Church teaching on any number of issues, including the indissolubility of marriage, and still be considered Catholic – as long as one paid the church tax.
The group charged that the “selling of sacraments” through the tax system was even worse than the abuses protested by Martin Luther at the start of the Protestant Reformation.
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*This story originally ran Nov. 6, 2014