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.