Not so quiet on the German front
The German bishops begin their fall meeting today with the “pay-to-pray” church tax controversy to be high on the agenda.
Tom Heneghan of Reuters has an update, noting that the hierarchy has done at least one good thing with the move: it has unified left and right in the church:
Liberal and conservative Roman Catholic activists in Germany criticised a decree that came into effect on Monday to deny sacraments and religious burials to people who opt out of a “church tax”.
The German bishops issued the decree last week warning Catholics who stop paying the tax they would be excluded from all religious activities, also including working in a church job, becoming a godparent or taking part in parish activities.
“‘Pay and pray’ is a completely wrong signal at the wrong time,” the reformist movement We Are Church said on Monday. The decree “shows the great fear of the German bishops and the Vatican about further serious losses in church tax revenue.”
A conservative group called the Union of Associations Loyal to the Pope asked why Catholics who stop paying the tax would be punished but those it called heretics could stay in its ranks.
“So sacraments are for sale – 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.
Heneghan goes on to provide more details about the background and the stakes in this debate:
The German bishops had long told Catholics they would be excommunicated from the Church if they officially declared they were leaving it.
But the Vatican ruled in 2006 that a simple declaration to a tax office that one was leaving the Church was not enough to justify excommunication, Rome’s stiffest punishment. The church leaver must also declare this to a priest, it said.
That prompted retired canon law professor Hartmut Zapp to file a legal case against the German Church, saying it could not excommunicate him for leaving simply to avoid paying the tax if the Vatican did not agree he deserved that punishment.
After contradictory lower court rulings, Zapp’s case will go on Wednesday before the Federal Administrative Court in Leipzig. A ruling in his favour could throw into doubt Germany’s whole church tax system, which was introduced in the 19th century.
The bishops’ decree, described as “excommunication lite” by the German media, could however undercut Zapp’s case because the exclusions it listed were not described as a formal excommunication.
A fine mess, seems to me.
UPDATE: Via CNS, the leader of the German hierarchy explains and defends as the bishops start their fall meeting:
“There must be consequences for people who distance themselves from the church by a public act,” said Archbishop Robert Zollitsch of Freiburg, conference president, in defending the Sept. 20 decree.
“Clearly, someone withdrawing from the church can no longer take advantage of the system like someone who remains a member,” he said at a Sept. 24 news conference as the bishops began a four-day meeting in Fulda. “We are grateful Rome has given completely clear approval to our stance.”
The archbishop said each departure was “painful for the church,” adding that bishops feared many Catholics were unaware of the consequences and would be “open to other solutions.”
“The Catholic church is committed to seeking out every lost person,” said Archbishop Zollitsch, whose remarks were reported by Germany’s Die Welt daily.
“At issue, however, is the credibility of the church’s sacramental nature. One cannot be half a member or only partly a member. Either one belongs and commits, or one renounces this,” Archbishop Zollitsch said.
I dunno. This talk of “taking advantage of the system” doesn’t strike me as ecclesiologically sound, and we are still talking about an arbitrary financial contribution as the trip wire for being in communion, or not.
Moreover, Joseph Ratzinger himself has spoken at several points (I believe citing Augustine) of the church being made up of members who have varying degrees of involvement in the life of the church but who remain members nonetheless. Ratzinger’s German confreres seem to be focusing on an either/or, “in-or-you’re-out” model.