You may have read, as I did, this article in Cathnews yesterday: German Catholics to exclude tax dodgers. Like me, you probably wondered what it was all about.
Well, of course, I cannot claim any inside knowledge. But I can point out that the Cathnews article was a reprint of an article in the Australian which was a reprint from an article in The Times. When I see that sort of thing, I begin to get suspicious. I want to know: what is the source? Is this a case (as in so many other cases) of ecclesiastical news via journalistic Chinese whispers, with the added complication that the original journalists didn’t understand the language in which the news originated let alone the ecclesiastical details behind the source?
Well, it took a bit of tracking down, but I did find the original German decree on this page, along with a pastoral letter to be sent by parish priests to persons who make the declaration of withdrawal of membership in the Church necessary to opt out of paying the “church tax”.
There is, of course, history behind this situation. A lot of it, which would take too much to go into now (I am sure our good readers will expand upon this in the combox). I am just going to make a few comments:
1) The news stories say (variously) that this decree from the German Bishops Conference has been “approved by the Pope/Vatican” etc. but I see no statement of this in the decree itself. Perhaps I am missing something? If it has received some sort of approval from the Vatican, I would like to know which curial office or official approved it. That would tell us something.
2) it is perhaps regretable that, in Germany and similar countries, the government has become involved in collecting financial support for the Church (and indeed the Protestant Church, Synagogues and other religious groups). It seems so “Constantinian” to us. At the same time, these countries have no tradition of supporting the Church through giving in the collection plate as we do here in Australia (many German Christians who come to Australia are suprised to learn that our Government doesn’t collect “church tax”).
3) It should be noted that there are great positives, however, in having the Government collect material contributions for the Church in this way. First it is only 8 or 9% of the total income tax, not 8 or 9% of income. In other words, we are talking a pittance here. On top of that, it is, in effect, a form of tax-deductible giving to the Church: you don’t pay tax on the money that you give to your religious commuity as we do here in Australia. This is a big gift of the Government to religious communities. Finally, it means that the Church and other religious communities have a lot of cash to do their charitable work in society which we don’t have here.
4) Of course, part of the European culture was the assumption that everyone in the community belongs to one religious community or another, and that they actually want to support their community financially. The tax is designed to be fair and just to all. It really wasn’t designed for a situation in which a very large minority of the community don’t self-identify in this way.
5) No matter, there is a simple solution: if you don’t want to have to pay the tax to the religious community with whom you are registered, you simply make a statutory declaration that you don’t belong to that religious community any more. As far as the Government is concerned, this stat dec is just for their tax purposes; what your religious community makes of it is their business. A recent court case in 2009 upheld the right of any given community to still accept as members people who have made this stat dec before the government officials.
So, what then is all this business about excommunicating “tax dodgers”?
Well, it all hinges on a couple of things:
1) The Catholic Church does not recognise (as do Protestants) a distinction between the Church as the Spiritual Body of Christ and the Church as a visible society in the human realm.
2) It is an obligation upon all Catholics to support the material needs of the Church
3) Apostacy is a grave sin, and a public official declaration that one is leaving the Church – for whatever purpose – constitutes an act of apostacy.
It is notable that the decree cites three canons: 209 §1 , 222 §1 and 1263.
The first says: “209 §1. The Christian faithful, even in their own manner of acting, are always obliged to maintain communion with the Church.”
The second says: “222 §1 Christ’s faithful have the obligation to provide for the needs of the Church, so that the Church has available to it those things which are necessary for divine worship, for apostolic and charitable work and for the worthy support of its ministers.”
The third says: “1263 The diocesan Bishop, after consulting the finance committee and the council of priests, has the right to levy on public juridical persons subject to his authority a tax for the needs of the diocese. This tax must be moderate and proportionate to their income. He may impose an extraordinary and moderate tax on other physical and juridical persons only in a grave necessity and under the same conditions, but without prejudice to particular laws and customs which may give him greater rights.”
Now, it seems to me that a Catholic in Germany who decided not to pay the church tax, but instead put 10% of his income in the collection plate each Sunday would be fulfilling Canon 222 §1. The problem is, as things currently sit in Germany, the only way in which registered German Catholics can get out of the legal obligation to pay the church tax is for them to adopt a “manner of acting” (a very public and legal manner of acting”) which indicates that they are ceasing to “maintain communion with the Church.” Hence, the point at issue is a an act of apostacy.
But what does that matter? you ask. Afterall, it is only a piece of paper. Tell that to the early Christians in the Roman empire, who, if they simply offered a pinch of incense before a statue of the Emperor, would get a “piece of paper” certifying their apostacy. Such acts might save your life, but it would mean your excommunication from the Christian community, not to mention the loss of your eternal salvation.
More interesting, however, is the existence of an interpretation of Canon 209 from the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, unearthed by the defendant in the 2009 court case aluded to above. In 2006, the Pontifical Council wrote to Bishop William Skylstad, then president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops: “The juridical-administrative act of abandoning the church does not per se constitute a formal act of defection as understood in the [Code of Canon Law], given that there could still be the will to remain in the communion of faith.” Apparently, Pope Benedict XVI himself then ordered that this judgement be circulated to ALL bishops conferences, including, one assumes, the German Bishops Conference.
That in fact puts a whole different light on the current matter, and why I would like to know if indeed the German Bishops Conference’s decree has the express approval of some authority in the Roman Curia. Now, of course, the Letter from the PCLT leaves open the possibility of that the one making the statutory declaration of defection from the Church in order to simply get out of paying the Church tax “could still [have] the will to remain in the communion of faith”. This perhaps is the reason for the pastoral letter that the Conference has prepared for pastors to send to individuals who take such a step. The pastoral letter states in closing:
Maybe you do not realize the implications of your decision and want to undo it. I invite you to have a conversation with me (or another Catholic priest of your choice) for clarification. But even if you do not think about changing your decision, I am interested in speaking with you and I look forward to your feedback in this regard.
with friendly greetings,
That appears to be the pastoral end of the Bishop Conference’s stick. On the face of it, they are warning Catholics in Germany that what might seem to be simply a bit of legal mumbo jumbo is in fact very serious indeed: “per se” it may well constitute a formal act of apostacy. The concern here is not money, but the eternal soul of the believer. I do not know how such a pastoral conversation would go – it might even leave open the question about whether or not the making of the statutory declaration will be considered an act of apostacy – but I think the fact of the existence of the pastoral letter does change the way we view the original story.
To the cynical, this will seem to be just about money. But it is, in fact, about the salvation of souls.