Alarmed by their declining congregations, Catholics in Germany who refuse to pay a church tax will be refused Holy Communion or anointing of the sick — unless in danger — Germany's Catholic bishops have decreed.
The German bishops' conference issued a decree on Friday, saying it was "worried" about the Catholic Church's dwindling numbers and wanted to stem the decline, Deutsche Welle reported.
Roughly one-third of Germany's 82 million citizens are registered as Catholic. In place since the 19th century, Catholics pay an extra sum — eight or nine per cent of the income tax they owe — as church taxes. The same tax applies to Protestants and Jews, The Washington Post said.
"If your tax bill is for 10,000 euros, then 800 euros will go on top of that and your total tax combined will be 10,800 euros," Munich tax accountant Thomas Zitzelsberger told BBC news.
The levy amounts vary depending on where the person lives. It is collected by the state tax authorities and forwarded on to churches for a handling fee. The Church rakes in more than €4 billion ($5.2 billion) annually, according to official statistics.
But in the past two decades, almost 3 million German Catholics have opted out of paying church taxes. An average of 120,000 parishioners officially "leave" the Church every year.
But the number of congregants leaving the church swelled to 181,193 in 2010 — the highest yearly number ever recorded.
"This fall in the number of German Catholics is due, firstly, to the demographic developments in society as a whole – more Catholics are buried per year than are received through baptism, and secondly, the share is reduced by renunciations of membership," so says the German Bishops’ Conference website.
As a result, the Irish Times reports that the “general decree”, effective starting September 24th, excludes non-payers from all religious activities, including Communion, Confirmation and Confession, belonging to a Catholic congregation, working in a church, becoming a godparent or taking part in parish activities. Catholic funerals will also not be possible “if the person who has left the church has not shown any sign of remorse before death”.
Pay and pray
Following the decision, Roman Catholic activists in Germany blasted the decision. "'Pay and pray' is a completely wrong signal at the wrong time," said the progressive Catholic-affiliated organization "We Are Church" ("Wir Sind Kirche") — which claims to represent tens of thousands of grassroots Catholics — in a statement.
“Instead of seeking to understand the reasons for the high number of people leaving the church, the bishops' decree represents a threat to the people of the Church," reformist movement said on Monday.
"[The decree] is not going to motivate people to remain loyal or to join the community of those who pay their church tax," it said. But the decision "shows the great fear of the German bishops and the Vatican about further serious losses in church tax revenue".
"So sacraments are for sale," said a conservative group called the Union of Associations, which is loyal to the pope, in a statement, Guardian News reported. The group wondered why Catholics who stopped paying the tax would be punished but those it called heretics could stay in its ranks.
"Whoever pays the church tax can receive the sacraments," it said in a statement, saying the link the decree created "goes beyond the sale of indulgences that [Martin] Luther denounced" at the start of the Reformation.
Bishops defend the decree
Defending the decree, bishops said they were spelling out the consequences of a worshipper choosing to leave the church to avoid paying. Some Catholics had tried to remain active in their parish despite officially quitting the church.
One such Catholic is Hartmut Zapp. Zapp, a retired German theology professor of church law, announced in 2007 that he would no longer pay the tax but intended to remain a member of the Catholic community.
The Freiburg University academic said he wanted to continue praying and receiving Holy Communion and a lengthy legal case between Prof Zapp and the church will reach Germany’s top Administrative Court on Wednesday, the BBC says.
"It's rubbish to assume one could leave the institutional church and remain a Catholic," said the secretary of the German Bishops Conference.
"Whoever leaves the church," Rev Hans Langendoerfer told a Catholic radio station in Cologne, "leaves it completely."
“The decree clarifies that one cannot partially leave the church,” the bishops said last week.
Theodor Bolzenius, spokesman for the Central Committee of German Catholics, told AFP they were pleased that the move had been formalized "with explicit support from the Vatican".
When a German Catholic decides to stop paying religious tax their parish priest will in future send a letter outlining the costs of such a decision.
“Maybe you haven’t considered the consequences of your decision and would like to reverse this step,” the letter adds, inviting the believer to seek out their priests for a clarifying chat.
“If the reaction of the believer . . . can be attributed to a schismatical, heretical or apostatical act,” the bishops write, “appropriate measures will be taken," The Irish Times reported.