How the 'church tax' corrupts German Catholicism

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Nov 20, 2015

“There is always a danger of corruption within the Church,” Pope Francis said in a November 20 address to visiting bishops from Germany. “This happens when the Church, instead of being devoted to faith in our Lord, in the Prince of Peace, in joy, in salvation, becomes dominated by money and power.”


Money and power. It isn’t a coincidence that Pope Francis spoke on these issues in an address to bishops from Germany. Nowhere else in the world does the Catholic Church have so much money, so much power, and—is this surprising?—such a precarious future.

Pope Francis has spoken frequently about how he longs for “a Church that is poor, and for the poor.” He will not find that Church in Germany, where the Church is fabulously rich, thanks to the “church tax” that funnels millions of dollars into diocesan coffers.

The Pope’s talk on November 20 was to a group of German bishops making their ad limina visits: the trips to Rome that all bishops make every five years, to report to the Pontiff and consult with Vatican officials. As other groups of German bishops take their turns, the Holy Father will have opportunities to revisit these same sensitive topics: money, power, and corruption.

Consider first the money that flows into the Catholic Church—not because the faithful toss money in collection plates at Mass, but because they are required by law to pay a percentage of their income to the Church. German law stipulates that if someone is registered as a member of a religious congregation, he must pay the “church tax”—which is collected by the government. Thus the wealth of the Catholic Church in Germany comes directly from the government, and only indirectly from the faithful. Right away the potential for corruption—for bending Church policies to ensure smooth dealings with the government—should be obvious.

Notice, too, that when I say that the funds come indirectly from the “faithful,” I am using that term loosely. A German citizen is obligated to pay the ‘church tax’ whether or not he is actively involved in his religious community. Anyone who is registered as a Catholic, whether or not he ever shows up in a parish church, is obligated to pay.

This curious policy has two results. First, the Catholic Church has enormous financial power. Second, the Catholic hierarchy has a clear and compelling incentive to maximize the number of people who are registered as Catholics—whether or not they practice their faith.

The financial wealth of the Church in Germany is staggering. The ‘church tax’ has brought in more than €5 billion ( $5.3 billion) in each of the last three years, with actual revenue trending upward. That enormous income allows the German hierarchy to sponsor a wide range of medical, educational, and social programs. In fact the Catholic Church is the country’s 2nd-largest employer, behind only the government!

Last year the world heard a great deal about the “Bishop of Bling”: Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz van Elst, who resigned his post as head of the Limburg diocese after being criticized for spending $43 million to remodel his residence and diocesan headquarters. But the truth is that his pattern of spending is not radically different from that of other German prelates. Just for example, Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich, the president of the German bishops’ conference and a member of the Pope’s Council of Cardinals, has spent a whopping $186 million on his own new archdiocesan headquarters.

A German cardinal can command a salary of about $16,000 a month—roughly three times what his American counterpart would receive. That figure does not include his residence, automobile, food, health care, and travel expenses, all of which are covered. In short a German prelate receives the sort of compensation one might expect for a senior corporate executive—which, in a real sense, he is. But there is a crucial difference: the prelate is paid by the state.

The state pays, however, only because citizens register as Catholics. If the number of registered Catholics drops, so too does the compensation for bishops, and the government support for Church-sponsored programs. Thus the bishops look askance at Catholics who do not register their church affiliation. As a matter of fact, the German hierarchy has taken steps to deny the sacraments to unregistered Catholics.

That rigid attitude toward registration—which contrasts so vividly with the German bishops’ public pleas for a “welcoming” Church—has developed in response to a mass exodus from the pews and, more directly, from the tax lists. For several years, Catholics have been removing their names from the parish lists at an alarming rate. With the “church tax” creeping upward, inactive Catholics have realized that they can save money by formally removing themselves from the list of registered Catholics. Each year since 2012, over 100,000 German Catholics have taken that step; this year the number will approach 200,000.

Church income keeps rising; Catholic registration keeps falling. The same contradictory pattern is visible in the activities of the German Church. In the 1960s, about 50% of the country’s registered Catholics were at Mass on any given Sunday; today that figure is 10%. Yet while Mass attendance was plummeting, the number of lay people employed by Catholic Church was soaring: from about 100,000 in the 1960s to over 700,000 today.

The net result is that the German hierarchy is struggling to maintain a booming business—an empire of social services—while its base of faithful followers erodes. Is it any wonder, then, that the German hierarchy has taken the lead in calling for a relaxation of Church discipline? The German bishops have argued that the Church should show a merciful attitude toward homosexual Catholics, divorced Catholics, feminist Catholics. Are these calls motivated by a honest desire to draw everyone closer to God, or by a financial incentive to keep people on the parish rolls? Under the current circumstances, with the ‘church tax’ dominating the scene, it is impossible to distinguish between the merciful and the mercenary.

St. Thomas Aquinas wrote in the Summa Theologica (II-II, 87) that “the ministers of the Church rightly refrain from demanding the Church’s tithes, when they could not demand them without scandal.” The best, simplest, step toward reform for the Church in Germany would be to renounce participation in the ‘church tax’ system.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Bernadette - Dec. 14, 2015 1:43 PM ET USA

    Catholic Charities in this country receives anywhere from 90 to 95 and sometimes 99% of its funding from the U.S taxpayer. Very similar. The Church in the U.S. should stop asking the govt. for money and stop asking its people to petition the Congress for this or that welfare program, that it be kept on the books, etc...On another hand, I don't see anything wrong with a pastor asking his people to register and to tithe and to refuse the Sacraments if they do not do so. This teaches much.

  • Posted by: rjbennett1294 - Nov. 25, 2015 7:10 AM ET USA

    I am an American Catholic living in Germany, and I have to say that Phil Lawler has provided a comprehensive and outstanding description of what really amounts to a scandalous situation - $5.3 BILLION OF GERMAN CATHOLIC CHURCH INCOME IN EACH OF THE LAST THREE YEARS?? THE GERMAN CATHOLIC CHURCH IS THE 2ND LARGEST EMPLOYER AFTER THE GOVERNMENT?? No wonder the Kasperites have such influence at the Vatican. After all, money talks, and the German bishops don't speak German. They speak MONEY.

  • Posted by: james-w-anderson8230 - Nov. 24, 2015 11:01 PM ET USA

    This is very similar the the US "catholic" institutions (colleges, hospitals, social service agencies, CRS, etc.) that rely heavily on government contracts for much of their funding.

  • Posted by: seewig - Nov. 24, 2015 6:24 PM ET USA

    Continued from my previous post: I think the "Konkordat" is arranged between the individual states (Germany, Austria, - and others?) and Rome, as I understand. So, if that is correct, the Pope may have the power to stop this system. But that would take courage, because I think Rome gets also a slice from the "tax".

  • Posted by: seewig - Nov. 24, 2015 6:18 PM ET USA

    This whole "church tax" system is a carry-over from the previous monarchies. The same is done in Austria. And the way the people get around this system is by officially leaving the Church and then still "go to church" on Sundays, not belonging to a particular parish. Other simply leave the Church with a bad taste in the mouth. I talked to some parishioners and priests in Austria, but not much desire to change things. The tax office does make generous allowances which shouldn't be in their power

  • Posted by: loumiamo - Nov. 24, 2015 10:15 AM ET USA

    I don't know the answer to this, but as the universal legislator, can't the Pope simply instruct the German episcopate go put an end to their participation in that source of funding?

  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Nov. 23, 2015 3:45 PM ET USA

    Certainly explains why German bishops are so attuned to the demands of secular culture and so indifferent to the demands of the Gospel.

  • Posted by: the.dymeks9646 - Nov. 22, 2015 7:13 AM ET USA

    I don't think there is any doubt that this financial arrangement is a sacred cow for the German Church.