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Oct 23 2013

State-supported German churches

The scandal over the German bishop Tebartz-van Elst (nicknamed Bishop Bling Bling for his lavish spending on himself) has drawn much-needed attention and ridicule and has resulted in his suspension by pope Francis. But what I was surprised to read was that he is not really such an outlier for Germany.

Still, even as Francis drives around Vatican City in a 20-year-old white Renault clunker gifted by an Italian priest, the head of the German Bishops’ Conference, Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, balked at the idea of giving up his company car, a BMW 740d.

“To me that car is not a status symbol, it is the office I use when I am traveling,” Zollitsch said at a press event in early October, when asked whether he would trade it down.

In Germany, most of the church’s top officials drive high-powered Mercedes, BMWs or Audis.

Other German clergymen have been chastised for lavish expenditures. Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich’s archdiocese spent around $11 million renovating the archbishop’s residence and another $13 million for a guesthouse in Rome.

Carsten Frerk, who specializes on church finances in Germany, said German bishops’ reluctance to follow Francis’ new course is no surprise.

“The German Catholic Church is one of the country’s wealthiest and largest organizations and its top officials expect a certain lifestyle,” said Frerk, who has published two books on the German churches’ wealth and what he describes as their opaque financing. [My italics-MS]

But what really surprised me was this tidbit.

There are 23 million German Catholics who have declared their faith and by law must pay 8 to 10 percent of their incomes to their respective churches. That brought the Catholic Church $7.1 billion in tax revenue in 2012.

Since the secularization process instigated by Napoleon in the early 19th century, the state also pays the Protestant and Catholic churches an annual allowance as compensation, which yielded a combined total of about $12 million for the Christian groups in 2012.

I have been complaining about the tax-exempt status that religious institutions get in the US. But at least the churches here are not actually given money by the government out of taxpayer revenues.

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  1. 1
    Pierce R. Butler

    Why didn’t more attention get drawn to this during the merry reign of Joseph Ratzinger, aka the Panzerpapst?

  2. 2
    Randomfactor

    Who, the guy with the Prada slippers?

  3. 3
    Al Dente

    A German who wants to get out of paying the Church tax must pay a €60 processing fee.

  4. 4
    natifftoffe

    That churches – both Catholic and Protestant – still receive taxpayers´ money is due to a deal 200 years ago: Napoleon expropriated the churches and distributed their property to German sovereigns as compensation for the annexation of parts of their territories. After his defeat, the monarchs kept the land but agreed to pay annual compensation to the Churches. Unfortunately, the treaty did not include an expiration date…

    @Pierce: When Pope Ratzi spoke to the German Bundestag (Parliament), he did say that the German Church should stay away from worldly matters, being widely understood as a hint that he questioned the collaboration of state and church for the material benefit of the latter (and feared being compromised). This appears to be one of the few matters where he shouldn´t be blamed.

    As for Tebartz-van Elst: I don´t think it was the spending that broke his neck. It was just as much his secretiveness, his authoritarian management style and his lies (smart phone-recorded by a journalist). After all, he is about to receive a penalty order for false testimony in lieu of oath.

  5. 5
    Jörg

    @Al Dente: Isn’t that dependent on locality? I did not have to pay anything. (Disclaimer: That was several decades ago.)

  6. 6
    AMM

    It’s worse than you think. The following is based on what I learned while living in Munich a number of years ago, but I doubt it has changed.

    * It’s not just the Catholic Church. The protestant (Lutheran) church, also called the “Evangelical Church” (no connection with US Evangelicals) also collects tithes from its members through the government. I’m not sure which other religions do this.

    * German citizens are required to declare their religious affiliation to the government. If it’s one of the state-affiliated churches, the government collects the tithes out of your paycheck. And one’s state-registered affiliation is equated with belief. If you’re not registered as Catholic, you are not Catholic, end of story (and vice versa.) It is possible to register as “nicht-glaeubig” [how do you get umlauted vowels on Linux, anyway?], which means you are officially without religion (cf. “The Man Without A Country.”)

    * Schools are all government-run, and you take your religious instruction in the public schools, from teachers supplied by the church but paid by the state; the classes you take are determined by how you’re registered, so everybody knows if you don’t belong to the majority religion or (Dog forbid!) you don’t belong to any.

    * Many social services are run by the churches and getting them is tied to one’s church membership. The Catholic-run child-care places will only take children who are registered as Catholic, the Protestant-run ones will only take children who are registered as Protestant, and if there are child-care centers that take anybody else, I didn’t hear about it when I lived there.

    * The churches collect 100% of the tithes from their members, but they also get substantial government subsidies, on the theory that they are performing services that the state would otherwise have to provide. So even if you’re an atheist, your taxes support the churches.

    * When I lived there, a national news magazine sent reporters into confessionals in Bavarian (Catholic) churches, who would express to the priest some soul-searching about which party to vote for in the next election. A large number of priests told the supposed penitents that God expected them to vote for the CDU (the conservative party.) When church officials were asked about it later, they insisted they couldn’t comment about it because of the “sanctity of the confessional.”

    It’s worth noting that although nominal church membership is higher in Germany than the USA, contempt for the churches, even among members, is much higher and the level of belief reported in surveys is much lower than in the USA.

    Theocracy breeds contempt.

  7. 7
    Mano Singham

    You’re right. It is much worse than I thought.

  8. 8
    David Marjanović
    must pay 8 to 10 percent of their incomes to their respective churches

    What, that much? In Austria, which otherwise has the same system, it’s just a bit above 1 %!

    But at least the churches here are not actually given money by the government out of taxpayer revenues.

    On the other hand, donations to the churches are correspondingly much lower than in the US.

    When Pope Ratzi spoke to the German Bundestag (Parliament), he did say that the German Church should stay away from worldly matters, being widely understood as a hint that he questioned the collaboration of state and church for the material benefit of the latter (and feared being compromised).

    Problem is, he only communicated in hints. He never spoke clearly about pretty much anything.

    As for Tebartz-van Elst: I don´t think it was the spending that broke his neck. It was just as much his secretiveness, his authoritarian management style and his lies (smart phone-recorded by a journalist). After all, he is about to receive a penalty order for false testimony in lieu of oath.

    All these are factors, but there are things about the spending that are just shocking. The projected costs increased stepwise from some 5 million € to at least 31, allegedly even 40. Among the things that drove the cost up are: a free-standing bathtub for 15,000 € (a comedian tried to find a bathtub that costs that much, but a whirlpool with all the bells & whistles you can imagine and then some tops out at 4,000); a conference table for 22,000 €; reopening the recently finished roof of the private chapel to build a rope mechanism in so stuff can hang from the ceiling…

    “nicht-glaeubig” [how do you get umlauted vowels on Linux, anyway?]

    Linux has a keyboard driver that is meant seriously. Try Ctrl+u and then a? – The Austrian equivalent is the more neutral- and bureaucratic-sounding ohne Bekenntnis, “without confession/denomination”.

    so everybody knows if you don’t belong to the majority religion or (Dog forbid!) you don’t belong to any.

    …which is much less of a deal than in the US, say; in many places it’s none at all. The East Germans are the most godless people on Earth – 50 % of them are atheists, and that percentage has continued to increase since the end of communism!

    if there are child-care centers that take anybody else

    There are, but apparently not many.

    nominal church membership is higher in Germany than the USA

    That’s because there’s much, much less diversity in the religious landscape than in the USA. I’m told there are places in the US where “so, what church do you go to?” is considered smalltalk. In Germany, that question would not only be considered bizarrely intrusive, but also pointless – everyone, by default, belongs to the denomination that everyone within several hundred kilometers has belonged to since the mid-17th century, namely Catholic or Lutheran. Turkish immigrants and their descendants are Muslims and usually stay Muslims. That’s pretty much it. So, even if their faith bleaches out very strongly, people tend to stay in their denominations as long as they can talk themselves into continuing to pay church tax.

  9. 9
    AMM

    so everybody knows if you don’t belong to the majority religion or (Dog forbid!) you don’t belong to any.

    …which is much less of a deal than in the US, say; in many places it’s none at all. The East Germans are the most godless people on Earth – 50 % of them are atheists, and that percentage has continued to increase since the end of communism!

    I wasn’t in East Germany (which at the time was still pretty much inaccessible to Westerners), I was in Munich, the heart of Franz-Joseph Strauss and CDU land and a bulwark of the Catholic Church and its more reactionary elements. When I was there, Ratzi was bishop in Freising (I called him “Rattenfaenger”), a 15-km bicycle ride from where I lived.

    Being “konfessionslos” wasn’t a big deal for me, partly because I was a foreigner, but for my friends, not being Catholic was an issue while they were in school — there was prejudice against non-Catholics and especially against the non-religious.

    That’s because there’s much, much less diversity in the religious landscape than in the USA.

    There’s much less diversity, period. Europeans are much more suspicious of people who aren’t exactly like themselves than USAans. That’s why there’s so much more xenophobia there. One reason I moved back to the USA was that I realized that no matter how much I tried to assimilate, I would always be a foreigner. A “good” foreigner (as opposed to a Turk or Yugoslav or Italian), but an alien nonetheless.

  10. 10
    Marcus Ranum

    at least the churches here are not actually given money by the government out of taxpayer revenues.

    The Bush admin’s faith-based programs were notorious money pumps – basically a vote-buying scheme which the Obama admin has cheerfully continued. It’s the usual republican fiscal program: great bags of money being handed out with no accountability. There used to be links on the White House website about the program, including the expenditures – $400m for abstinence-based sex ed, hundreds of thousands of dollars for church roofs and parking lots, etc. Really corrupt stuff.

  11. 11
    left0ver1under

    I’d tell the government to send the bill to the church.

  12. 12
    left0ver1under

    “To me that car [a BMW 740d] is not a status symbol, it is the office I use when I am traveling,” [Robert] Zollitsch said at a press event in early October, when asked whether he would trade it down.

    In the long running comic, “For Better Or Worse”, Elly challenged her husband John on the sports car he bought during his mid-life crisis. She said to him, “That’s not a car, that’s the other woman!”

    Hearing that parasites like Zollitsch are buying luxuries for themselves reminds me of that. They can’t get away with having sex and romantic flings (see: Riccardo Seppia, who gave cocaine to young boys in exchange for sex), so they go for greed to fill their empty and wasted lives.

    As others have noted elsewhere, taking the church’s money is the unpardonable sin for a catholic priest. In the (short) eyes of the vatican, having sex with children is a minor issue (a double entendre), according to cardianal Ratfink a/k/a pope Vindictive who wrote the “two tykes and you’re out” rule.

  13. 13
    thewhollynone

    According to reports I saw some years back, Catholic Charities gets at least 80% of its money from government sources, mostly federal, and it’s a huge national operation. And that was before Bush started handing out money from his faith-based programs; dog only knows how much they are getting now. In Louisiana religious schools, most of them Catholic and fundie Protestant, get all kinds of subsidies and payments from the government– from textbooks to lunches to buses and on to teachers paid to teach special ed students, and that’s been going on for 50 years that I know of personally. On the Mississippi Gulf Coast the churches and the Salvation Army and the Feed My Sheep (I swear that’s what they call it) food pantry get all kinds of government support and handouts, and everyone thinks that fine. All of that comes out of taxpayer revenues because what other income does the government have? And in addition, religious businesses are treated as non-profit tax-free entities, free from property taxes and subject only to payroll taxes for the benefit of their employees, even if they are in competition with private business. There’s an huge office building in downtown New Orleans that is owned by the Jesuits that operates tax-free. Yep. See, in the USA the money is just passed more subtly, under the table, so to speak, but no politician would dare to suggest a reduction, much less an end, to this unconstitutional use of public money.

  14. 14
    kraut

    “must pay 8 to 10 percent of their incomes to their respective churches”

    bullshit. It is some percentage of your income tax. Maybe 8% percent or so
    http://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kirchensteuer_%28Deutschland%29
    read that before posting further nonsense.

  15. 15
    Alex

    May I stress that Bishop’s salaries are paid by the German State? It’s a little gimmick from 1919. The salaries are the same as of high level government officials. For example, an Archbishop gets 11000 Euros, while Chancellor Merkel gets 15000 a month.

    @AMM

    how do you get umlauted vowels on Linux, anyway?

    I don’t know about you, but I wield the power of QWERTZ.
    Höhö :D

    There are 23 million German Catholics who have declared their faith and by law must pay 8 to 10 percent of their incomes to their respective churches. That brought the Catholic Church $7.1 billion in tax revenue in 2012.

    That sounds very wrong. You mean 10 percent of income tax maybe? Still, it’s a huge pile of money.

    What is particularly jarring about the situation is that many Germans think that the churches run all those kindergardens, hospitals and homes for the elderly from their own expenses out of sheer love, and that therefore we all owe them soo much. When you say that you have left the church officially, you usually get accused of being selfish or even a sponger who just wants the benefits, even by atheists who are still in the church (and are unaware that all these services are not paid by the church). I kid you not, it’s completely warped.
    Of course, they get almost all of the money from the state, and in return get to patronize, discriminate and indoctrinate on the taxpayers’ dime. In fact, they are such good christians that they have lobbied the government into letting them relax worker’s rights for their employees.

  16. 16
    Alex

    There’s much less diversity, period. Europeans are much more suspicious of people who aren’t exactly like themselves than USAans. That’s why there’s so much more xenophobia there. One reason I moved back to the USA was that I realized that no matter how much I tried to assimilate, I would always be a foreigner. A “good” foreigner (as opposed to a Turk or Yugoslav or Italian), but an alien nonetheless.

    I am as German as they come (**), but I can completely understand what you mean. With the US, if you’re, say, Russian, and you move to the US with your family, and let’s say your kids go to school there, what is likely to happen is that you go help organize the next BBQ for the sports meet at school or whatever, you’ll be there and talk to other parents, and they will ask you – hey, what are you? And you’ll say “Russian”, and they’ll probably say, cool I’m half Irish-German-Portugese, but my great-grandfather on my mother’s side was Russian! And then you grill the burger, talk about the latest in Football or whatever, and get to be as american as apple pie. In Germany, you are just not German, period. Because being German apparently has something to do with descent, while for being USian, it’s at least not as obvious (*). We reeeally need to work on that, if the millions of russians, turks and former yugoslavians living here will not be able to feel at home here and identify with the place, the country is really fucked in the long run. What can I say… Cem Özdemir for chancellor!

    (*) of course there have aways been the immigrants being otherized as non-american, be it the irish back in the old days, or arab-looking people today. But this xenophobia is I think not as deeply rooted and easier to get rid of.

    (**) Well, everyone’s familiy around here only moved here from Switzerland in the 1600s, but that’s of course something entirely different.

  17. 17
    Sir Mordred

    Some remarks on that:

    It’s not just the Catholic Church. The protestant (Lutheran) church, also called the “Evangelical Church” (no connection with US Evangelicals) also collects tithes from its members through the government. I’m not sure which other religions do this.

    Every religious group with a proper organisation and enough followers can register for official status and collect taxes. AFAIK not many besides the two big churches do, the Witnesses for example decided not to collect taxes as they don’t want to cooperate with any worldly authority.

    German citizens are required to declare their religious affiliation to the government. If it’s one of the state-affiliated churches, the government collects the tithes out of your paycheck. And one’s state-registered affiliation is equated with belief. If you’re not registered as Catholic, you are not Catholic, end of story (and vice versa.) It is possible to register as “nicht-glaeubig” [how do you get umlauted vowels on Linux, anyway?], which means you are officially without religion (cf. “The Man Without A Country.”)

    Actually, you either register as someone belonging to one of the official churches or none at all.The term for that is Konfessionslos. No Muslim for example would be considered Nicht-gläubig, but AFAIK no Muslim community is registered for tax-collection, so they are not registered as members of any religion.

    Schools are all government-run, and you take your religious instruction in the public schools, from teachers supplied by the church but paid by the state; the classes you take are determined by how you’re registered, so everybody knows if you don’t belong to the majority religion or (Dog forbid!) you don’t belong to any.

    Being one of a handful of Catholics in a traditional Protestant area was no big deal when I went to school in the 80s in a quite rural area, in the big cities with a generally more mixed population, the situation was even more relaxed and I don’t think it got worse in the meantime.

    Also, there are quite a number of private schools around.

    Many social services are run by the churches and getting them is tied to one’s church membership. The Catholic-run child-care places will only take children who are registered as Catholic, the Protestant-run ones will only take children who are registered as Protestant, and if there are child-care centers that take anybody else, I didn’t hear about it when I lived there.

    If that ever was actually the case, it has not been for quite some time. Church affiliated social services are taking in everyone, if they wouldn’t they would face quite a lot of legal trouble.

    Employing non-members is a different situation, though. Quite a number of social workers I know are paying members of a church just to keep working in their job – there are secular charities, but you have way more choices if you are “officially” a member.

    The churches collect 100% of the tithes from their members, but they also get substantial government subsidies, on the theory that they are performing services that the state would otherwise have to provide. So even if you’re an atheist, your taxes support the churches.

    Sadly, this is 100% true. Bishop Bling’s salary for example is payed by the state, and not from the taxes collected from his followers.

    When I lived there, a national news magazine sent reporters into confessionals in Bavarian (Catholic) churches, who would express to the priest some soul-searching about which party to vote for in the next election. A large number of priests told the supposed penitents that God expected them to vote for the CDU (the conservative party.) When church officials were asked about it later, they insisted they couldn’t comment about it because of the “sanctity of the confessional.

    Sadly, that’s also quite true. The more or less open support for the CDU by the Catholic church continues, resulting in things like the conservatives having a sure subscription for the Bavarian vote.

    Generally the current situation stinks, but with more and more people leaving the big churches things may change. Current membership is about 60%, and I think quite a big part of this are older people and non-active members who might drop out when the next scandal hits the press. Especially the Catholic church has lost quite some taxpayers after the Abuse scandal finally reached the mainstream press and allegedly bishop Bling achieved record numbers for his area!

  18. 18
    dean

    lavish spending on himself) has drawn much-needed attention and ridicule and has resulted in his suspension by pope Francis.

    Yes, highly appropriate – they can’t have mere employees living in buildings as opulent as those in the vatican. How would the masses be able to tell which men were really important in the church?

  19. 19
    Jared A

    “nicht-glaeubig” [how do you get umlauted vowels on Linux, anyway?]

    For special characters like umlauts, you can usually get away using the ascii unicodes.
    hold down alt, and then type the code on your number pad:

    alt+0196 = Ä
    alt+0214 = Ö
    alt+0220 = Ü
    alt+0228 = ä
    alt+0246 = ö
    alt+0252 = ü
    alt+0223= ß

    Seems time consuming, but once you get the hang of it it doesn’t slow you down much.

  1. 20
    LIST TAX FREE STATES USA 2014

    […] State-supported German churches » Mano Singham […]

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