A German exodus from the church may be chalked up to a small bookkeeping change to federal tax rules. It begs some big questions.
BERLIN — 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 — 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 — not to be confused with materialism — 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 — 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.
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Berlin Cathedral — 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 — 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 — and this is exactly how the Church can again become important in our lives.