Various news stories relating to the question of Germany’s church tax have broken today. Archbishop Cranmer’s post was noted with interested. Whilst accusing the Catholic Church of simony he seems to see nothing wrong with the Church of England’s practice of operating a system of state imposed fees and levies in exchange for weddings, funerals and baptisms. Okay, maybe not baptisms technically, but it’s difficult to provide proof of baptism without buying the certificate at £12.
The very idea of the Church imposing taxation on her followers is quite offensive to the modern mind. The situation in Germany, however, is complex and needs to be put into context.
- The tax is not imposed by the Church but by the German government. It is then administered by the Church or by the State and then passed on to the Church for a fee.
- There is no legal means by which Catholics can opt-out of paying the tax and remain Catholics. In order to be exempt from the tax, one must officially leave the Church.
- One cannot therefore remain a Catholic and not pay the Church tax. One has officially left the Church.
- The Bishops are therefore not persecuting forward-thinking, modern, liberal-minded Catholics. They are warning them that leaving the Church is a serious matter and involves the forfeit of one’s right to frequent the Sacraments.
It sounds harsh and it is but that is the position the Church finds itself because of the way in which the government administers the Church tax.
But why a Church tax at all? Isn’t it all a bit mediaeval and unsuitable in today’s modern, secular world?
As it happens, I’m not sure I do agree with a Church tax. Whilst the administration of the Church tax in Germany is sensitive to peoples’ circumstances – those poorest in society are not expected to contribute and those with larger families pay less – and the money is well-spent on providing social services which would only be run by the government through higher state taxation I think I am uncomfortable with the very notion of a Church tax. What must be seen, however, is the historical context of why the Church was given this tax to administer.
During the nineteenth century the tolerant and secularising spirit of German rulers naturally meant the seizing of Church property and the closing down of Church institutions such as schools and universities. Stripped of assets, the Church was forced into a position where it had to raise its own taxes to continue its work. This also suited the state since it meant it did not have to pay for the work which it still expected the Church to do. With the end of Bismark’s culture war in Germany, certain rights were negotiated for the Church (the priests Bismarck politically imprisoned were also released!) which included the Church tax. The tax, historically speaking, is the compensation by the State for what was stolen from the Church.
The current tax rate is eight or nine per cent, depending on where you live in Germany. It is a percentage of your tax bill and not your income, so practically speaking it is a small amount. Like all effective taxes, however, a small amount paid by large numbers of people provides a substantial amount of money which the Church uses to further its religious and charitable mission. I would prefer for the Church and other religious groups in Germany restored to them the assets which were stolen, but I think we all know that it will not happen.
To finish off with a little contrast: a married couple with two children living in an area of Germany where the Church rate of tax is nine per cent will not pay any Church tax until they are earning three and half thousand euros a month. That couple, assuming they earn three and half thousand euros a month will pay the hefty monthly sum of €14.67. And it will cost you £22 just to have your banns of marriage published and at least £262 to get married in a Church of England parish no matter how rich or poor you are.