• Politics
  • Why we should abolish Germany’s church tax

Red flag

Why we should abolish Germany’s church tax

Germany's Catholics have announced reforms. Our politics blogger argues the reform we need is separation of church and state.

Do Germany’s church tax and other legal exemptions make sense today? Photo: IMAGO / Dirk Sattler

Last Saturday, the Catholic Church in Germany announced a series of historic reforms. They are finally ready to give their blessing to same-sex marriages, ordain women as priests, and drop the celibacy requirement. This might sound like the biggest shift since 1979, when the pontifex admitted possible mistakes in dealing with Galileo (it turns out the Earth might very well revolve around the Sun after all!). But don’t get too excited: German Catholics can decide nothing themselves. Their proposals will be forwarded to the Vatican, where they might disappear in a crypt.

Looking around in Germany, you could easily overlook the Catholic Church entirely. The number of people who believe in Mary’s immaculate conception has been declining for 30 years. No one wants to join the priesthood, so mass in rural areas is often led by immigrants. Just pop your head inside a mass on any Sunday — they would be lucky to fill the pews with crickets.

Last week, I wrote about the surprising influence of the Rudolf Steiner cult, also known as the Anthroposophists. A number of readers asked about the elephant in the room: the legions of Jorge Bergoglio, known better as Pope Francis, are incomparably more powerful and destructive.

As a religious community, Catholicism in Germany is withering on the vine. Yet as a realty fund, the papists still exercise tremendous influence in the Federal Republic. You might not believe in their fairy tales, but priests nonetheless control what we can see on public TV and what medical treatments our health insurance will pay for.

Last week, over 100 employees of Catholic institutions in Germany publicly came out as gay. According to German law, they could be fired immediately, as anti-discrimination laws do not apply to the church. Catholic hospitals regularly fire doctors who divorce and remarry, for example. Employees are also denied the right to unionize and go on strike. This is not limited to a handful of priests and nuns: the Catholic Caritas and the protestant Diakonie are among the biggest employers in Germany, with over half a million workers each.

The German constitution guarantees the separation of church and state — and the Federal Republic nonetheless provides billions of euros each year to the two official churches. This takes at least two forms. On the one hand, tax offices take a Kirchensteuer (church tax) directly from people’s wages. Last year, this added up to €4.9 billion for Catholics and €3.8 billion for their upstart competitors. Escaping this tax is not as simple as stating that you don’t believe in God — each German state requires an onerous bureaucratic procedure and a fee.

There have even been cases where immigrants to Germany have noticed their wages being garnished. Tax authorities have decided, without asking or even informing, that someone born in France must be Catholic.

But even if you are happily free of any kind of official religious affiliation, you are still supporting Catholicism. Each year, more than €600 million goes from public coffers to papal pockets. This goes back to the early 19th century, when Napoleon introduced republicanism to regions that later became Germany, which included the expropriation of church property. After absolutism had been restored, the church was compensated with yearly payments. Two centuries later, that amounts to millions of euros. The justification for these eye-poppingly unconstitutional payments is that the contracts predate the Basic Law.

We haven’t even gotten to the systematic sexual abuse of children. The Catholic hierarchy — going all the way up to former pope Joseph Ratzinger — protected abusers and allowed them to hurt more children. In Germany, the task of investigating these crimes has been placed on the church itself. I’m sure the mafia is wondering how they such a cosy arrangement. 

If you live in Germany, your tax money is financing cover ups, and preventing independent investigators and state prosecutors from getting access to the files.

The new government has some lukewarm proposals to reform church law. The states, we are told, could pay a lump sum to get out of their yearly payments to the church. But this is not enough. We need to apply basic democratic principles and get the churches to pay back the money they have been collecting illegally for decades. Churches should be private associations, subject to the same laws as everyone else. Their employees should have the same rights as other workers. If Greenpeace has to collect donations from its members, Protestants and Catholics can be expected to pull this off as well.

Berlin would see an immediate benefit. At the moment, churches can only keep their doors open with tax money. If they were required to pay their own bills, then monumental spaces would open up for things people are actually interested in: instead of empty religious services, churches could be used for art shows, dance parties, or perhaps even housing. Hospitals, day care centers, and other useful institutions could be put under the democratic control of their employees, rather than creepy priests.  

The recent reforms are too little, too late. We need a separation of church and state in Germany — it’s 200 years overdue!