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Seymour Gris: Germany’s greedy churches

Were you baptised? If so, beware... you might owe hundreds of euros in church tax without knowing it. Take heed from the strange case of Thomas Bores, says Gris.

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Photo by Beate-Helena

In January, Thomas Bores, a French engineer living and working in Berlin, logged into his online banking and found a nasty surprise: €550 was missing from his salary. He asked his employer what was going on and was told that they’d received notice from the Finanzamt that he owed Kirchensteuer (church tax) for the past 12 months –  the entire period since he’d arrived in Berlin. Bores was perplexed: he’d been baptised as a baby in France, but had had no connection to the church for most of his life. Upon arriving in Germany, Bores had registered at his local Bürgeramt. Like most foreigners he was baffled by the question about his religious affiliation on the registration form. Since he hadn’t had anything to do with the church since his christening, he had checked the konfessionslos box, and thought that was that.

Several months later, Bores received an official-looking questionnaire from Berlin’s Kirchensteuerstelle, the “church tax office” in charge of collecting the special tax paid (8-9 percent of their income) by members of the German Roman Catholic and Lutheran churches in Germany. Bores answered every question with no: “Catechism?” “No.” “Church wedding?” “No”, etc. 

So, when he found out that church tax had been deducted from his paycheck, he was sure it was a bureaucratic mistake. On his blog Bores describes his efforts to get to the bottom of this mystery as a Kafkaesque journey through various Berlin authorities:

  1. “Finanzamt Prenzlauer Berg, they have no clue and send me to the Kirchenstelle in Finanzamt Prenzlauer Berg.
  2. The Kirchenstelle Prenzlauer Berg informs me that I am registered as a member of the Catholic community and send me to the Kirchensteuerstelle Berlin.
  3. The woman at the Kirchensteuerstelle tells me I was baptised and have to pay the church tax. The very unpleasant woman tells me that it must be so.
  4. Back to the Finanzamt Prenzlauer Berg. They send me to the Federal Finance Ministry.
  5. The Finance Ministry tells me that I have to deal with it at the Bürgeramt where I registered. 
  6. ​The Bürgeramt informs me that the Archiepiscopal Ordinariate Berlin (Erzbischöflichen Ordinariat Berlin) were informed that I belong to the Catholic community.”

Bores finally calls the Archdiocese of Berlin, the local Catholic authority, only to find out that, despite the fact that he made clear that he was an atheist, they had (for whatever reason) nonetheless suspected he was baptised and written to the diocese in his hometown in France. French church officials complied with the German request for information and sent a copy of his certificate of baptism back to Berlin. For the Finanzamt, that was proof enough that Bores was a member of the “worldwide Roman Catholic community” and hence required to pay the German church tax.

Quite simply put, the German Catholic church is investigating foreigners to make sure they’re being honest about their declarations with the simple goal of increasing their tax income.  

I called the Archdiocese of Berlin. The press spokesman, Stefan Förner, was reluctant to discuss the specific case of Thomas Bores but emailed this rather difficult-to-translate legalistic statement:

“Whoever is Catholic and liable to taxation pays church tax in Germany. This also applies to foreigners living here. The tasks of the Kirchensteuerstellen in Berlin include support of the Finanzämter in the administration of the church tax, particularly the identification of subjective church tax liability, in other words, church membership.

“When it comes to collection of church tax, the church is subject to the principle of equality of taxation. It is therefore required to collect church tax from all persons who belong to the church community through baptism and have not left the church.

“In unclear circumstances, in the case of contradictory data regarding church membership, the Finanzämter involve the Kirchensteuerstellen. They consider it their job to ascertain church membership status. In the current case, there was no evidence – even informal – of succession from the church. No regulations regarding registration law or data protection have been broken.” 

Got that? In short: if you were baptised but don’t care to pay church tax, leave the church – or you’re “guilty” until proven innocent. This is called the Kirchenaustritt. You can do it at your local Amtsgericht (administrative court). Even this costs €30. Here’s some info in English on how to do it.

For foreigners from most countries – and especially France, which has had strict separation of church and state for 100 years – it is baffling that the State should be collecting taxes in the name of the Church.

Around €11 billion in church tax is collected yearly in Germany. The Catholics get €5.45 billion, the Lutherans €4.85 billion. Preaching in Germany isn’t a pauper’s gig: priests earn €4000 a month, bishops, €7000, archbishops a princely €10,000.

Many non-believing Germans continue to pay the church tax because they believe the churches are doing some good charitable things with the money. But after all the administrative costs, maintenance of church buildings, a mere five percent of the church tax proceeds goes to actual social charity projects. All those nice things the churches manage: schools, kindergartens, hospitals, old people’s homes are mostly funded by other state funds, fees or insurance contributions.

Germans are losing faith in the churches. In 2013, Kirchenaustritte spiked following the scandal surrounding the corrupt Bishop of Limburg Franz-Peter Tabarzt-van Elst, who built himself a €31 million house with church money. Revelations about sexual abuse at Catholic schools throughout Germany haven’t helped either. 

And what of the unsuspecting foreigner who moves to Germany to work and finds him- or herself being subjected to an intransparent investigative procedure? The foreigner who is confronted with questions about his or her religious beliefs when registering – with no inkling this will have an effect on their taxes? 

The church tax system is byzantine and bizarre. It should be made more transparent (if not reformed completely): foreigners and Germans should be free to choose whether or not they pay the tax, regardless of their baptism status. There must be more legal clarity on a European level about what constitutes church membership. The concept of Kirchenaustritt doesn’t even exist in countries like France, where the church simply keeps a record of your baptism for your entire life. And the laws governing the German Catholic church seem to be at odds with those of the Vatican: Leaving the church in Germany (by visiting a state court) – so that you don’t have to pay the tax – doesn’t actually mean you are excommunicated from the world Roman Catholic church. 

Finally, church officials must have better things to do than attempting to milk baptised atheists for every euro they can get. Such behaviour will only backfire in the end and leave the impression that the church is greedy and must go to extraordinary lengths to satisfy its appetite for money.