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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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