Catholic Bishops To German Flock: Pay Church Tax Or Risk De Facto Excommunication

Catholic priest, Koln, Germany
Catholic priest, Koln, Germany
Lucas Wiegelmann

BERLIN - The issue is as old as Christianity: who belongs to a church? Some Catholic scholars in Germany defend the position that it is possible to be Catholic without paying church tax – but the country’s bishops don’t agree, and after months of negotiations they have voted a law that makes further discussion moot for all practical purposes.

The "General Decree," which was published by the German Bishops’ Conference earlier this month and upheld by a court on Wednesday, clearly states that anybody who wants to be Catholic has to commit 100% or not at all – and that means paying church tax.

The document -- which has been approved personally by the Pope and entered into force on September 24, 2012 -- states that any Catholic who circumvents paying church tax by declaring to civil fiscal authorities that they are not a member of the Church is publicly embarking on a course of "deliberate and conscious distancing from the Church that is in severe breach of church community regulations."

And there are consequences: church tax dodgers are no longer entitled to have their confession heard, take communion, or be confirmed. They cannot be godparents to a Catholic child (or at least take part in the baptismal ceremony as such), and are no longer welcome in church associations.

A special dispensation is possible for weddings, under the condition that the couple promises to uphold the religion and raise their children as Catholics. Finally, the decree states: "In the event that an individual who has left the Church shows no signs of remorse before death, a church burial may be refused to them."

This is virtually tantamount to excommunication.

The decree also mentions that parish heads must actively try to bring “lost sheep” back into the fold. When a Catholic declares he or she is not a Catholic to fiscal authorities, priests must send him or her a “pastoral letter” asking them to come in for a little talk, the aim of which is “reconciliation with the Church.” Along with the invitation, the letter will also list the sanctions that accompany the declaration.

Money-grabbing, sanctions-happy bishops?

The bishops’ decree only pertains to Germany. The German church tax system is different from that of most other countries. It was introduced in the 19th century as compensation for the nationalization (secularization) of property owned by the Church.

The stance outlined in the decree was an attempt on the part of Germany’s bishops to emerge from a defensive stance on the issue that they found themselves in, thanks to a theologian, Professor Hartmut Zapp, who set a precedent in 2009.

Zapp officially declared that he had left the Church, but stated that he continued to see himself as a member of the Catholic community. He based his stance on some specific Vatican legal texts that says leaving the Church is not a state matter but depends only on a person’s personal convictions.

Until now, Rome has also taken the position that – regardless of what a German citizen has declared to fiscal authorities – as long as he or she does not mention it to the Church they are to be treated as a member. From a purely theological point of view, leaving the Church is in any case impossible: whoever has been baptized in the Catholic Church belongs irrevocably to the Catholic community.

The Bishops’ Conference faces a bit of a dilemma as regards the issue: it needs to move against those who declare they have left the Church, but whatever they do opens them up to the suspicion that their main concern is getting hold of their church tax money. Critics have also accused the bishops of ignoring Vatican wishes in this regard.

The decree as issued represents a compromise with Rome. On the one hand, the German bishops have made their position clear that participating in Catholic life after declaring that one has left the Church is a de facto impossibility. Importantly, however, the word “excommunication” is never once mentioned even though the consequences for anyone declaring they’ve left amount to the same thing. The wording was carefully worked out before the document went through all the different levels and hierarchies inherent to the Catholic legislative process.

The bishops must certainly be aware of the risks attached to the decree – of coming across as ruthless and lacking in generosity, as sanctions-happy and money-grabbing. They also increase the risk of losing some Church members definitively.

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Preparing a COVID-19 vaccine booster in Huzhou, China.

Hannah Steinkopf-Frank, Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Ciao!*

Welcome to Wednesday, where Brazil's senate backs "crimes against humanity" charges against Jair Bolsonaro, the UN has a grim new climate report and Dune gets a sequel. Meanwhile, German daily Die Welt explores "Xi Jinping Thought," which is now being made part of Chinese schools' curriculum.



• Senators back Bolsonaro criminal charges: A Brazilian Senate panel has backed a report that supports charging President Jair Bolsonaro with crimes against humanity, for his alleged responsibility in the country's 600,000-plus COVID-19 deaths.

• Gas crisis in Moldova following Russian retaliation: Moldova, one of Europe's poorest countries, has for the first time challenged Russia's Gazprom following a price increase and failed contract negotiations, purchasing instead from Poland. In response, Russia has threatened to halt sales to the Eastern European country, which has previously acquired all of its gas from Gazprom.

• New UN climate report finds planned emission cuts fall short: The Emissions Gap Report 2021 concludes that country pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions aren't large enough to keep the global temperature rise below 1.5 °C degrees this century. The UN Environment Program predicts a 2.7 °C increase, with significant environmental impacts, but there is still hope that longer term net-zero goals will curtail some temperature rise.

• COVID update: As part of its long-awaited reopening, Australia will officially allow its citizens to travel abroad without a government waiver for the first time in more than 18 months. Bulgaria, meanwhile, hits record daily high COVID-19 cases as the Eastern European's hotel and restaurant association is planning protests over the implementation of the vaccination "green pass." In the U.S., a panel of government medical advisors backed the use of Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for five to 11-year-olds.

• U.S. appeals decision to block Julian Assange extradition: The United States said it was "extremely disappointed" in a UK judge's ruling that Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, would be a suicide risk of he traveled across the Atlantic. In the U.S., he faces 18 charges related to the 2010 release of 500,000 secret files related to U.S. military activity.

• Deposed Sudan prime minister released: Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok has been released from custody, though remains under heavy guard after Sudan's military coup. Protests against the coup have continued in the capital Khartoum, as Hamdok has called for the release of other detained governmental officials.

Dune Part 2 confirmed: The world will get to see Timothée Chalamet ride a sandworm: The second installment of the sci-fi epic and global box office hit has officially been greenlit, set to hit the screens in 2023.


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Canadian daily National Post reports on the nomination of Steven Guilbeault, a former Greenpeace activist, as the country's new Environment minister. He had been arrested in 2001 for scaling Toronto's CN Tower to unfurl a banner for Greenpeace, which he left in 2008.


Chinese students now required to learn to think like Xi Jinping

"Xi Jinping Thought" ideas on socialism have been spreading across the country since 2017. But now, Beijing is going one step further by making them part of the curriculum, from the elementary level all the way up to university, reports Maximilian Kalkhof in German daily Die Welt.

🇨🇳 It's important to strengthen the "determination to listen to and follow the party." Also, teaching materials should "cultivate patriotic feelings." So say the new guidelines issued by the Chinese Ministry of Education. The goal is to help Chinese students develop more "Marxist beliefs," and for that, the government wants its national curriculum to include "Xi Jinping Thought," the ideas, namely, of China's current leader. Behind this word jam is a plan to consolidate the power of the nation, the party and Xi himself.

📚 Starting in September, the country's 300 million students have had to study the doctrine, from elementary school into university. And in some cities, even that doesn't seem to be enough. Shanghai announced that its students from third to fifth grade would only take final exams in mathematics and Chinese, de facto deleting English as an examination subject. Beijing, in the meantime, announced that it would ban the use of unauthorized foreign textbooks in elementary and middle schools.

⚠️ But how does a country that enchants its youth with socialist ideology and personality cults rise to become a world power? Isn't giving up English as a global language the quickest way into isolation? The educational reform comes at a time when Beijing is brutally disciplining many areas of public life, from tech giants to the entertainment industry. It has made it difficult for Chinese technology companies to go public abroad, and some media have reported that a blanket ban on IPOs in the United States is on the cards in the next few years.

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Why this Sudan coup d'état is different

Three days since the military coup was set in motion in Sudan, the situation on the ground continues to be fluid. Reuters reports this morning that workers at the state petroleum company Sudapet are joining a nationwide civil disobedience movement called by trade unions in response to the generals' overthrow of the government. Doctors have also announced a strike.

Generals in suits At the same time, the military appears firmly in control, with deposed Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok allowed to return home today after being held by the coup leaders. How did we get here? That's the question that David E. Kiwuwa, a professor of international relations at the University of Nottingham, takes on in The Conversation:

"Since the revolution that deposed Omar el-Bashir in 2019, the military have fancied themselves as generals in suits. They have continued to wield enough power to almost run a parallel government in tension with the prime minister. This was evident when the military continued to have the say on security and foreign affairs.

Economy as alibi For their part, civilian officials concentrated on rejuvenating the economy and mobilizing international support for the transitional council. This didn't stop the military from accusing the civilian leadership of failing to resuscitate the country's ailing economy.

True, the economy has continued to struggle from high inflation, low industrial output and dwindling foreign direct investment. As in all economies, conditions have been exacerbated by the effects of COVID-19. Sudan's weakened economy is, however, not sufficient reason for the military intervention. Clearly this is merely an excuse."

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471 million euros

Rome's Casino di Villa Boncompagni Ludovisi, better known as Villa Aurora, will be put up for auction in January for 471 million euros ($547 million). The over-the-top price tag is thanks to the villa having the only known ceiling painting by Renaissance master Caravaggio.

✍️ Newsletter by Hannah Steinkopf-Frank, Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Who wants to start the bidding on the Caravaggio villa? Otherwise, let us know what the news looks like from your corner of the world!!

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