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Germany’s Pay to Pray Scheme

If you don't pay the church tax, you can't have the sacraments, say German bishops
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This certainly sounds like a bad idea. In Germany, as in a number of other European countries, if you are a member of a church or mainstream religion, you have to pay a pretty significant tax to the government, which distributes the money to the churches. From the Wall Street Journal:

German church members must pay an additional 8% to 9% of their gross annual income tax and capital gains tax bills to the church. That is typically steeper than in many other parts of Europe. A registered believer, for instance, paying a 30% income tax rate, or €30,000, on an income of €100,000, would pay another €2,400 to €2,700 in church tax.

To American eyes, that’s stunning. Now, the German government is closing a loophole having to do with capital gains, which means an effective tax increase for its officially registered Christian believers:

“After we paid income taxes to the church all of these years, to now face another tax is a bit audacious,” said Renate Müller, a retiree from Frankfurt.

Ms. Müller said she and her husband left the Protestant church this spring after their bank informed them they would have to reveal their religious affiliation and begin paying the church tax on income from their retirement fund.

While the church tax had officially always been due on capital gains, it had never been properly enforced. Under the new rules, which the churches lobbied for, banks will be required to report their customers’ religious affiliations, rather than wait for customers to volunteer the information.

“We’re not doing it for the additional revenue,” said Thomas Begrich, finance chief for the Protestant Churches of Germany, or EKD, defending the change. “The wealthy need to pay their fair share.”

The church tax issue has become a big deal with the German Catholic bishops taking the lead in trying to liberalize the universal Catholic church’s rules on married and divorced people receiving communion. Look at this report from the National Catholic Register:

In response to the numbers de-registering, the German bishops issued a decree in September 2012 calling such departure “a serious lapse” and listing a number of ways they are barred from participating in the life of the Church.

The decree specified that those who do not pay the church tax cannot receive the sacraments of Confession, Communion, Confirmation, or Anointing of the Sick, except when in danger of death; cannot hold ecclesial office or perform functions within the Church; cannot be a godparent or sponsor; cannot be a member of diocesan or parish councils; and cannot be members of public associations of the Church.

More:

The critics point out that while Cardinal Kasper and most of his fellow German bishops have been leading the charge to allow those in “irregular” marital situations — those who are divorced and remarried — to receive Communion, they have simultaneously denied the sacraments, including even Confession, to those who opt out of paying Germany’s “church tax.”

In both cases, the German position is at odds with Church teaching: admitting to Communion those formally not allowed; and forbidding those whom the Vatican says can validly receive the sacraments.

The German definition of mercy, critics say, is a “pay to pray system” that has its “financial” limits.

The bishops in Germany “are notoriously the most merciful in wishing to grant Communion to the divorced and remarried, but at the same time are the most ruthless in de facto excommunicating those who refuse to pay the church tax, which in their country is obligatory by law,” Vatican analyst Sandro Magister wrote Oct. 29 in his “Settimo Cielo” blog for Italy’s L’Espresso newspaper.

Read the whole thing.  If I were a German Catholic or Protestant, I would be enormously offended by this whole thing. It’s outrageous that if you are a German Catholic who wants to go to confession, the priest will deny it if you haven’t paid the church tax. How is this much different from Johann Tetzel’s indulgence business, selling salvation to Renaissance German Catholics? For that matter, how is this significantly different from simony?

I have always tithed, and always will. Christians who don’t support their church financially, according to their means, stick in my craw. But if my tithe was collected by the government, and it was part of a system in which those who didn’t pay were denied the mercies of the sacraments, I don’t know what I would do, frankly. I would want to leave the Church officially in protest. Catholics don’t have a choice, though, not if they wish to receive the sacraments. Nor do Lutherans.

This system seems appalling to me. What am I missing?

(Incidentally, I checked, and Orthodox Christians in Germany are not obligated to pay the church tax.)

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