A dear friend of mine, who grew up Catholic and then left the Catholic Church some years ago, became an evangelical in his adult life. This good friend then returned to his birth church several years ago. His reasons are both thoughtful and prayerful and compel me to respect him and love him all the more. My friend continues to be a lover of all of Christ’s people, thus of the global catholic church. He supports me personally and profoundly challenges my vision in ways that he doesn’t even know. I count this brother, who I almost never get to see in person as I would like, to be a unique and true friend. He recently sent this important and passionate email to me:

Dear John–

Your charitable handling of things Catholic in your blog and the Act 3 Weekly help to “reign in” my anger and frustration, but this has been a difficult week.

On Sept. 24th the German Bishops declared that if you don’t pay the church tax, then you cannot receive the sacraments.  Since 1933 the state collects taxes for the Jewish, Catholic, and Evangelisch (Lutheran); I don’t know about the others. So you have to declare on your taxes if you are Catholic.

[The story can be read here.]

In 2007, a professor of theology challenged the system. He went to the authorities to get his church tax removed. On the form, he added a comment: “I am only leaving the tax system, I am still a practicing Catholic.” (or similar to that). It caused a conundrum and he got off the hook after going to a civil court.

Since the abuse scandals in the church, many folks have been leaving or refusing to pay the tax; as a result the church is trying to protect their income. To remain a Catholic in good standing it is not a matter of merely professing your faith, you must also pay the state collected church tax in Germany.

Professor Hartmut Zapp, who challenged the system, stated that he would voluntarily support the church but that he does not believe that it is right to do it under duress. Prof. Zapp [was] in court in Leipzig on Wednesday, Sept. 26th for a final ruling on the matter. You can read the story here.

I wrote to Professor Zapp yesterday just to try and do something to show my concern. If you read the news links that I included, you’ll see that both liberal and conservative Catholics are upset and voicing their concern regarding the bishops’ action. In case anyone wonders, I do believe that if you are a member of a church you should support it. [My friend also cited an interview with the recently deceased Cardinal Martini that he notes gave him a measure of hope. I concur. You can read that  interview here.]

My friend wrote Dr. Zapp the following email:

Dear Professor Dr. Hartmut Zapp,

I am very saddened by the news that I have read coming from the Bishops of Germany
this week.

I am a Catholic layperson who is involved in “one on one” dialog with Protestant and
Evangelical Christians. It has been very difficult (because of all the scandals) to
constantly try to defend the Catholic Church and to assure Protestants that things
have changed for the better. Now, it will be next to impossible with the “rebirth of Tetzel” !

I am writing to express my appreciation for your efforts and to assure you of my prayers (and “Yes”, I will also be praying for the Bishops…but with more difficulty).

If God is to be glorified, we must offer Him a free gift, not a compulsive tax.

May Grace and Peace be multiplied to you !

Honestly, it pains me to write a blog like this one. I am concerned about this decision and believe it not only hurts the Catholic Church but the mission of the whole church in Europe. The overwhelming majority of young people have already abandoned the church. I believe this decision will potentially reach far beyond Germany. Will the Catholic Church now move away from the decree of Vatican II that I wrote about last week? This new decision is surely a step in the wrong direction. I share my Catholic friend’s deep concern. If you are Catholic, and love your church faithfully, I would urge you to also express this concern to everyone in leadership that you can. This is not a left/right partisan issue. Don’t let Hans Kung’s non-orthodox theology, which I profoundly reject regarding doctrinal issues such as the Trinity and the incarnation, keep you from the wisdom of his expressed concerns on this particular issue. This is an issue of fidelity to the ongoing reformation of the Catholic Church, a stance that the Catholic Church committed itself to with regard to freedom in 1964 at Vatican II. I pray the Vatican, and the bishops, will reverse this stance. There is a synod of bishops, gathering to discuss evangelization, that begins in Rome on October 11. Several of my Protestant friends have been invited as guests to offer response to the bishops. I sincerely hope this gathering will address this German tax issue with deep concern. I believe it truly threatens the church’s good intentions with regard to new evangelization. I speak as a true friend, not as an enemy.

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  1. Cary Balser October 4, 2012 at 12:19 pm


    I read your blog often with great admiration. I very much admire the work you do and have done. I am a Catholic convert and your blog does have me wondering at times why you aren’t Catholic but I am sure your reasons are detailed and thoughtful. I enjoyed your discussion earlier this year with Cardinal George. In any case, I also realize that you are far more studied than I and as far as this goes I will leave my intro there.

    I wanted to give a little info before getting into my comment so that you might understand where I am coming from. Wrt the post at hand I think Fr. Z has best summed up that this “coverage” is at best sloppy (http://wdtprs.com/blog/2012/09/sloppy-reporting-about-new-church-tax-decision-by-bishops/). A long commment thread follows but I digress. More to the point is that it does not seem that you or your friend have given the benefit of the doubt to the German Bishops. You may feel you have no reason to but you should (and I think you do this) approach it from a more direct angle. There are plenty claiming (as you would expect) that the Church is “at it again” by selling sacraments and being greedy. I dont think either of us buy this talk. Another angle, one which I am inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to is that the Bishops are merely affirming what has always been taught, namely that you can’t renounce your faith publicly and still earnestly practice the faith. This is particularly problematic concerning the Eucharist, Pennance, and Marriage. How can you recieve Christ, make a good act of contrition, or pledge yourself to a vow with God regarding a spouse while denying the faith needed to make these things true to you? I think here: http://blogging-ordinand.blogspot.co.uk/2012/09/germanys-church-tax.html and here: http://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2012/09/27/german-bishops-decree-on-church-tax-a-call-to-integrity/ do a good job explaining alternative viewpoints. I am certainly open to being corrected and challenged on this (especially on whether you think i’m just exercising my own confirmation bias via my posted articles). However, I think the MSM and other treatment of this subject and others surrounding the Church and religion warrants a skeptical eye first towards their reporting and secondly towards their biases.

    I profess, I tried to find the original document itself but only found it in German (of which I dont speak) but i’ll take First Things word for it for now because I’ve found them reliable in the past. My main problem here is tha your title insinuates that the Church could really remove freedom of concience. The title itself appears, to me at least to be leading in the direction of the affirmative, and to be somewhat uncharitable without a balanced approach to an alternative view.

    If a Catholic finds such a compulsory tax abominable it is still within their right not to pay it on just grounds but to pay the toll for doing so (jail or otherwise) or can lobby for an appeal of the law. I think this (easy to say) would probably be my preferred action given that I disagree with the law itself for true charity can not be forced and forced giving fails the giver the ability to exercise virtue in his or her own right. In any of these cases, I certainly am not a big government fan and not a fan of this law particularly, but of course I am an American.

    In Christ
    Cary Balser

  2. Eric October 4, 2012 at 5:33 pm

    This is good background info for anyone interested:

    Many countries with a history of a state church have a church tax. In some countries, you can choose which church or charity gets some of your tax money. In others, the tax is additional to what a non-church member pays.

    Many church leaders might prefer the pattern of the rest of the world, where members’ donations keep the churches running, a changeover would be difficult. Some denominations have a lot more nominal members than attenders, so it is not just about getting people to put money in the bag, it is about governments subsidising church-run community services.

  3. Joseph Hedden October 4, 2012 at 6:46 pm

    I certainly do not know enough about this issue and but I did serve a congregation of the Evangelical Church in the Rhineland from 2003-2004. In my understanding, other than the legal challenge brought by Prof. Zapp–this is nothing new. Parents in the Protestant Church need to pay the tax to have their child baptized, to be married in the church, and in order to have a pastor preside over a funeral, the tax must be paid as well. This is a very complicated arrangement (re: church and state) and many folks, both Protestant and Catholic, have withdrawn from the church in order to reduce their tax burden. Recently there has arisen a whole cottage industry of free churches and chaplains who will preside over funerals for a fee regardless of the tax. If there is to be reform on this issue in Germany, it will need to be, minimally, tripartite–Catholic, Protestant and the German State. Thank you for bringing this post to our attention!

    • Joe Heschmeyer October 4, 2012 at 11:04 pm

      As Pastor Hedden has suggested, there’s more to this story than meets the eye.

      1) This isn’t an exclusively “Catholic” tax, per se. Rather, it’s the way that Catholic, Protestant, and Jewish churches collect money from their members.

      2) This isn’t a new thing: nor is it a “movement away” from Vatican II. On the contrary, this system of taxation has existed, uninterrupted, from before the Council to the present day. It’s a long-standing part of German law. Article 140 of the German Constitution (the Grundgesetz, or Basic Law), incorporates Article 139 of the Weinmar Constitution of 1919, which provides in relevant part: “Religious communities with the status of public corporations are entitled to raise taxes based on fiscal records and in accordance with state regulations.” As Pastor Hedden suggested, that makes this issue a bit more complex than if it were a simply internal Catholic rule, or some newly-proposed idea.

      3) It’s worth noting that in the US, religious communities also get tax-preferential treatment, in the form of 501(c)(3) status — including, if I’m not mistaken, your own ACT 3, John. Christians in countries without such a system might be shocked at this, but it’s a long-standing part of U.S. law, in recognition of the social good that these religious institutions do. Part of the reason that the notion of a “church tax” seems so appalling is simply that it’s very unlike the U.S. system. From the donation of pagan temples to the early Church, down to 501(c)(3) status today, there have been any number of Church-State interactions that raise moral and prudential judgments… this “Church tax” is simply another part of that story.

      4) There *is* an opt-out of paying the tax: you can declare yourself no longer a part of the religious community. Everything’s based on your own testimony. If you tell the government you’re Jewish, you’re taxed an additional amount, which is then given to the local Jewish community. If you list that you’re Catholic, it gets sent to the local Catholic church.

      5) So here’s where the problem is: for someone like Zapp to get out of paying the tax to the Catholic Church, under German law, he has to declare himself no longer a Catholic (Zapp, for example, declared himself no longer a part of “the public body of the Church”). There’s a word for that: apostasy. And apostates can’t participate in the life of the Church without first being reconciled.

      In other words, this isn’t a simple issue of “you have to pay if you want the Sacraments.” Rather, it’s an issue of whether formal and material apostates (those who have publicly and intentionally renounced their faith to avoid paying taxes) should be allowed to continue to participate in the life of the Church.

      6) Finally, I would point you to Acts 4:32-5:11, and the situation of Ananias and Sapphira. Ananias and Sapphira didn’t want to turn over all of the proceeds of their sale of property to the Church, so they lied about it. They were struck dead for it. Was that a violation of their “freedom of conscience”? Of course not.



      P.S. Having said all of that, I’m troubled by this “Church tax” as well. As I said in # 3, these Church-State questions can get hairy, and often rely on prudential judgments. It seems to me that, even if their Protestant and Jewish peers remain a part of this system of taxation, it would be a powerful witness for the Gospel of grace if the Catholic Church took the lead in rejecting this system.

      More important than my opinion is that of the pope, who expressed his concern about the tax system on pp. 155-56 of “Salt of the Earth,” his book-length interview with Peter Seewald. While saying that the question needs to be handled with “care and prudence,” he added:

      “On the whole, the German Church tax system still enjoys the support, it seems to me, of a pretty broad consensus, because there is a recognition of the social services performed by the Churches. Perhaps in the future the path could go in the direction of the Italian system, which on the one hand, has a much lower rate of assessment, but on the other hand – and this seems very important to me – is voluntary. In Italy, everyone is obliged to direct a certain quota of his income – 0.8 percent, I think – to a cultural or charitable purpose, which can be the Catholic Church. But one can choose the beneficiaries freely. As a matter of fact, the large majority choose the Catholic Church, but the choice is voluntary.”

      My point is simply that IF this system is going to be in place, it goes without question that those who denounce the faith to save money on their taxes are guilty of apostasy. Otherwise, we owe a big apology to all of the folks who denied the faith under much worse pressure (like the libellatici of old).

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