Money And Faith, A Match Made In Heaven?

A German exodus from the church may be chalked up to a small bookkeeping change to federal tax rules. It begs some big questions.

Money And Faith, A Match Made In Heaven?
Matthias Kamann

BERLIN â€" Money and faith are two sides of the same coin. If you don't believe it, have a look at the newest figures of people leaving the Catholic Church. The real reason as to why 218,000 German Catholics left the Church in 2014, and probably nearly as many Protestants, can only be explained by the changed direct debiting of church tax, as part of the capital gains taxing procedure. Quickly after having been informed by their bank of this new process, people realized that they would have to hand over part of their profits from their financial investments.

Although this is not a new policy per se, and the amounts due are relatively low, the automatic changes in reporting seem to have prompted many to leave the Church â€" their religiosity being apparently decided by their bank statement. It isn't much different than 2013, when the spending sprees of Catholic Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst came to light, and a wave of faithful left the Church.

But it is not in itself unseemly to think of money when thinking of God. The Bible is an economics text after all: Abraham’s rich cattle herds, Joseph’s stock supply economy in Egypt, asking for our "daily bread," Jesus’ attacks on the moneylenders’ practice or separation of property as practiced by the earliest Christians. Tales of credit, material loss, savings, earnings and sharing of profit.

The Reformation was born from the indignation caused by the Church selling indulgences. Nowadays, Pentecostal churches in emerging nations are attracting people with their promise of well-being and affluence.

If religiosity really is so closely connected to material thinking â€" not to be confused with materialism â€" one has to concede that the crisis in Christianity is steeped in material aspects, when thousands leave the Church due to a few tax-related euros.

We should think harder about this, instead of simply lamenting Germany's loss of faith and lack of spiritual awakening. How exactly is this rebirth supposed to happen when all these tricks have been played before?

Pope Benedict XVI tried to apply dogmatic conservatism and failed. Pope Francis is banking on philanthropic openness, but more Catholics than ever are breaking away from the Church. The softer and more liberal Protestant Church is likewise unable to prevent people from leaving, while the gospel-preaching Evangelists are also beginning to admit to the limits of their success.

It thus becomes clear that one has to investigate more tangible, material causes rather than questioning people’s devotion. Even here, financial aspects have a role to play. The still remarkably high number of people entering the Protestant Church, circa 50,000 people a year as opposed to only 10,000 in the Catholic Church, is due to the fact that many new entrants are welcoming the socio-economic commitment that the Protestant Church displays â€" and they are therefore willing to support this by paying taxes.

Yes, people think of money when they think of faith. And the diligent mass-goers of Berlin's affluent bourgeoisie, who only recently started to give their children such exquisitely Christian names such as "Theodor" or "Leonore Anna Maria," are most likely not opposed to material thinking. They do not only consider Christian "values" in a vacuum, but alongside other social factors.

Berlin Cathedral â€" Photo: Ralf Roletschek

And yet, their sense of religious economics seems to be flawed. On the one hand, they pay ever closer attention to their running costs, asking themselves "why should I give money to the Church when my taxes already pay for most of the welfare, social and charitable expenses?" Never mind the 500,000 million euros of subsidies for the Church provided by the State. But it truly becomes unbearable when investment income of savings are targeted, especially because these investment incomes are already causing more than enough trouble.

Fighting for survival

Many of our ancestors were not devout, but churches had a social relevance for them â€" even though that relevance may not always have been of a pleasant nature. This religious relevance still comes into play today, at momentous life events such as the birth of a child, a wedding, funeral or illness. In everyday life, however, it has lost its significance.

It is difficult for the Church to reclaim its place in the world in times when other large and powerful entities are also fighting for survival. In light of this, why aren't more parishes utilizing the potential of their premises and see themselves as "neighborhood-agencies?"

Parishes grow when they pay attention to what their people need and what everyone can do, may it be picking up children from school, growing vegetables in a community garden or providing assistance on care for the elderly. More often than not, the Church lets the State or other non-profit associations take care of their supposed Christian social work.

Nationwide, only the Church choir is available as an activity network. But why not supply homework support or carpools? Why not provide information on religiously important questions? There are myriads of intelligent theologians, but when people want to learn how Christianity developed from Judaism, they turn towards TV documentaries or the Internet for the answers.

It may be that people think these topics are not likely to be openly discussed in church settings. But more to the point, few people would associate their church with truly useful or enjoyable social gatherings â€" and this is exactly how the Church can again become important in our lives.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
Feed The Future

COP26 Should Mark A Turning Point In Solving The Climate Crisis

Slow Food calls for an action plan to significantly reduce and improve the production and consumption of meat, dairy, and eggs by 2050.

A new dawn?

If, as the saying goes, we are what we eat, the same also goes for the animals that end up on our plate. How we feed our own food can have knock-on effects, not just for our own health but also for the planet. We are now aware of the meat and dairy industry's significant carbon footprint, responsible for more than a third of global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.

Large-scale cattle productions that favor pure profit over more sustainable practices also add to environmental woes through biodiversity loss, deforestation and pesticide use — with some of the world's richest countries contributing disproportionately: The five biggest meat and milk producers emit the same amount of greenhouse gases as the oil giant Exxon.

The good news is that we could meet — if we would — some of these challenges with an array of innovative solutions, as the fields of farming, breeding and nutrition look at ways to shift from centralized intensive agro industry toward a more localized, smaller-scale and more organic approach to production.

Cows fed corn and grain-based diets may grow larger and are ready to be processed at a younger age — but this requires significant energy, as well as land and water resources; in contrast, grass and hay-fed cows support a regenerative farming model in which grazing can contribute to restoring the health of soil through increased microbial diversity. Compared to highly processed GM crops, natural-grass diets with minimal cereals also lead to more nutrient-rich livestock, producing better quality meat, milk and cheese. Farmers have started focusing on breeding native animal species that are best adapted to local environmental contexts.

This new approach to agricultural practices is closely linked to the concept of agroecology, where farming works in tandem with the environment instead of exploiting it. If mowed a few times a year, for instance, natural meadows produce hay that is rich in grasses, legumes and flowers of the sunflower family, like daisies, dandelions, thistles and cornflowers. These biomes become reservoirs of biodiversity for our countryside, hosting countless species of vegetables, insects and birds, many of which are at risk of extinction. Until recently, these were common habitats in meadows that were not plugged or tilled and only required light fertilization. Today, however, they are becoming increasingly threatened: in the plains, where the terrain is used for monocultures like corn; or in hills and mountains, where fields are facing gradual abandonment.

It is worth noting that extensive agriculture, which requires smaller amounts of capital and labor in relation to the size of farmed land, can actually help curb climate change effects through carbon dioxide absorption. Researchers at the University of California, Davis determined that in their state, grasslands and rangelands have actually acted as more resilient carbon sinks than forests in recent years. Through a system of carbon uptake, these lands provide a form of natural compensation, going as far as canceling the farms' impact on the planet, rendering them carbon "creditors."

In the meantime, grasslands and pastures allow animals to live in accordance with their natural behavioral needs, spending most of the year outside being raised by bonafide farmers who care about animal welfare. A recent study by Nature found that allowing cows to graze out of doors has both psychological and physical health benefits, as they seem to enjoy the open space and ability to lie on the soft ground.

Some might worry about the economic losses that come with this slower and smaller business model, but there are also opportunities for creativity in diversifying activities, like agro-tourism and direct sales that can actually increase a farm's profit margin. This form of sustainable production goes hand-in-hand with the Slow Meat campaign, which encourages people to reduce their meat consumption while buying better quality, sustainable meat.

Others may assume that the only environmentally-conscious diet is entirely plant-based. That is indeed a valuable and viable option, but there are also thoughtful ways to consume meat in moderation — and more sustainably. It also should be noted that many fruits and vegetables have surprisingly large carbon footprints: The industrial-scale cultivation of avocados, for example, requires massive amounts of water and causes great hardship to farming communities in Latin America.

But forging a broad shift toward more "biodiversity-friendly" pastoralism requires action by both those producing and eating meat, and those with the legislative power to enact industry-wide change. It is urgent that policies be put into place to support a return to long-established agricultural practices that can sustainably feed future generations. Although no country in the world today has a defined strategy to decrease consumption while transforming production, governments are bound to play a key role in the green transition, present and future.

In Europe, Slow Food recommends that the Fit for 55 package include reducing emissions from agriculture activities by 65% (based on 2005 levels) by 2050. Agriculture-related land use emissions should also reach net-zero by 2040 and become a sink of -150 Mt CO2eq by 2050. But these targets can only be met if the EU farming sector adopts agroecological practices at a regional scale, and if consumers shift to more sustainable diets. If we are indeed what we eat, we should also care deeply about how the choices we make impact the planet that feeds us.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!