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Konrad Werner: Stop letting the Church do what it likes

The German Churches get a hell of a lot more tax money than we think – and so it is our business how much the bishop spent on his bathroom.

Image for Konrad Werner: Stop letting the Church do what it likes
The Bishop of Lindburg. Photo by Medienmagazin Pro (Flickr CC)

At some point between medieval times and now, I thought we decided that religion is a private thing and that the law is a social contract to which everyone is bound. But that constitutional memo doesn’t seem to have arrived in Germany. Maybe they were dragging it on a wooden cart across the plague-ridden wastes of the Lüneburger Heide and it got stuck in the mud. Maybe there was a great morality play on and the driver got side-tracked. I don’t know what’s holding that fucking cart up, but the German media and government and basically everyone seem to believe that the Church can just get to decide things by itself whenever one of their priests breaks the law.

In 2010 there was the child abuse and embezzlement allegations against Bishop Walter Mixa, which didn’t end up in a court, but in a private huddle with old Ratzinger. And now we have the case of Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst, bishop of Limburg, whose maverick hyphen placement is matched by his zeal for bookkeeping. For the past week, the media has been selling this business to us as a routine lurid Church scandal – just another sexually repressed cleric finally brought low by profane temptations. But they haven’t said much about how we got into this mess in the first place, which is because though the German state funds the Church it does not hold it in any way accountable for what it does with the money, and doesn’t even oblige it to publish its books. And this special privilege is protected by a governing party that calls itself Christian.

The media has mainly decided that the “bishop’s fancy abode” saga hinges on whether or not Tebartz-van Elst will give up his holy orders, or is he going to force Francis to excommunicate him. Has he betrayed the trust of the average German Catholic? Because of this, some commentators have gone on to tell us that unless we’re believers, it’s none of our business what he does, since we don’t pay church tax and so didn’t pay for his €15,000 bath.

In fact, though, the two strains of western Christianity get a lot more from the German state than the voluntary church tax (worth about €4.4 billion a year). They also get close to €20 billion in allowances to run hospitals, schools and care homes, plus a “dotation” of around €460 million a year, a stipend that comes as ongoing compensation for – wait for it – the land the Churches lost to Napoleon 200 years ago. The Churches use this allowance to cover their personnel costs – including Tebartz-van Elst’s €8000-a-month salary and Mixa’s pension. But where else is the Church going to get money from, you might be asking. Isn’t it basically a charity? No, it isn’t. It’s effectively a public corporation, like a state TV channel. In fact, completing the cycle of Germany’s state capitalism, the Catholic Church has a stake in a TV company (Tellux) that sells shows to the state-subsidized ARD and ZDF. Not only that, the Catholic Church has a vigorous commercial branch worth an estimated €430 billion in real estate and shares. And not all of these business interests are particularly divine – there’s a mineral water company (Adelholzener), a brewery (Klosterbraueri), plus several banks and insurance companies. Meanwhile, the Finanzamt’s kind service of collecting the church tax also saves the Churches €1.8 billion in administrative costs every year.

I’m not saying that it’s wrong that we pay all this money to have a state-funded Church. No one gets to choose what their taxes get spent on. Probably there are plenty of Christians in Baden-Württemberg who mourn the cash that gets splashed on Berlin theatre productions where actors fornicate and roll around naked on a real dead pig. (Maß für Maß at the Schaubühne, brilliant show, by the way). BUT, unlike ARD and the Schaubühne, the Church has no obligation to publish its annual budget, so we don’t get to find out until it’s too late that some deranged cleric decides he needs a €350,000 wardrobe to hang up his cassock and pimp his holy crib. So, frankly, it fucking well is our business.