Do German Bishops Deny Sacraments To Those Who Don’t Pay Church Tax?

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Today, I read an interesting article about the Catholic Church in Germany. There apparently is an uproar because the German bishops have declared that those who leave the Church in order to avoid ‘Kirchensteuer’ (Church Tax) have no longer access to the Sacraments. Caritas in Veritate blog wonders if that is even legal under canon law. Father John Boyle acknowledges that he doesn’t know much about the Kirchensteuer and why it exists in Germany. Let me explain what it is first.

Kirchensteuer (Church Tax)

Church Tax or Kirchensteuer is 8% of the amount of income tax you pay which is taxed as an additional tax for the church you belong to. Basically it’s a tax paid to the state which in turn gives that money to the church you belong to. The Church has nothing to do with this, it is a federal tax. The tax originates from the Weimar Republic, Germany’s first try to get a democratic, secular, republic. Some of the “Länder” even had it before that as early as the 1800s in an effort to curb the Church’s influence in their area.

In Germany’s history there are a lot of examples of dioceses not only being a religious institution, but also secular territory. A bishop would be a spiritual shepherd and a secular ruler physically owning the territory at the same time. Such a bishop would be called a Prince-Bishop. It’s not hard to imagine there always has been a tension between church and state.

In lots of countries, governments made efforts to separate these two in the era following the French Revolution. In France, for example church buildings will be maintained with state money and clergy will be paid by the state (Belgium is another example). The technical term for this is Laïcité. Church Tax is therefore Germany’s attempt of protecting the state from church influence, particularly the Catholic Church. Back in that day, the fact that everybody adhered to one faith or another was a given and Church Tax a way to distribute money in a fair way to churches.

How To Avoid Being Taxed

There are two options how you register your faith as a German: you are either of faith or of no faith. If you are of faith, you are asked to register your faith and have to pay Church Tax. The only option not to get taxed is to make sure you are registered as being of no faith.

This means that if you are Catholic for example, you have to go to the Church and ask to be removed from their register as a Catholic (in this case) and from that point forward you will not be considered a Catholic anymore by both church and state and therefore you won’t be taxed. A similar system also exists in countries like Spain and Italy, but as far as I understand you cannot be exempt from the tax if you renounce your faith. If you do, the proceedings will go to the state instead of to a church.

Note that this tax is part of an income tax. If you don’t have an income, because you don’t work either because you are too young, too old (retired) or unemployed, you don’t have to pay a Church Tax. Only the German work-force is being taxed. People trying to avoid the tax usually don’t do that because they ‘cannot afford’ the tax, but for other reasons.

No Sacraments for non-Catholics

The bishops then said: if you go and ask the Church to remove you as a Catholic to avoid this Church Tax, this has as a consequence that you cannot receive the Sacraments anymore, or ask for a Catholic funeral. Many media outlets interpreted this as ‘those who don’t pay, don’t get access to the Sacraments’. But that’s not the point here.

If that were true, the Church would need to exclude other people who don’t pay the tax: children, retired, unemployed Germans. This clearly isn’t the case. The reason people get denied the Sacraments is not so much the fact that they don’t pay tax, but that they voluntarily renounced their faith. The reason why people renounce their faith is not relevant. When someone doesn’t care about renouncing their faith, just to avoid paying a small 8% tax, that faith must have been very shallow to begin with. Why would someone still want to receive Sacraments, when their faith is that meaningless to them?

Getting rid of Church Tax

None of my German family members pay Church Tax because they are Atheists. They see the tax as an example of how greedy the churches are. They don’t realize that it’s a federal tax, a secular tax. A lot of other people are not happy with the tax either, the Vatican is not happy with it, but it exists and we have to deal with it as long as it is there.

I am not defending the bishops’ stance: I’m only trying to explain and give some background. Personally, I don’t like the Church Tax thing either. I don’t really know what to think of it. It creates more antipathy for the Church: a lot of people don’t know the history of the tax. In The Netherlands many Catholics pay nothing to support their Church because they don’t have to, making it hard for the Church to make ends meet.


It’s not a bad idea if the Catholic Church would encourage the practice of tithing more. I give 10% of my net income to charity and the church. I did that even when I was on welfare, only earning 50% of minimum wages. It’s not that hard to tithe. Many Protestants think it’s normal as a Christian to do so and I also know a lot of American Catholics who tithe. Stress personal responsibility instead of relying on weird structures like Church Tax.

In the mean time, the Catholic Church in Germany got another dent in her image, because the bishops didn’t communicate the message in the right way. As a result, international media outlets misunderstood what the real issue was. Google search shows the same headlines over and over again: only people who pay taxes have access to the Sacraments in Germany. A statement which simply isn’t true. The German bishops’ conference did a poor job explaining why people who defect from the Catholic Church exclude themselves from the Sacraments. Miscommunication again, something the Church seems to excel in.


There was some discussion between me and other people on Twitter about this. Some more context. Several years ago, a lawyer wanted to pay his church donation voluntarily. He wanted to unregister himself for the state at his local diocese, but remain a Catholic for Canon Law.

So, basically he wanted to remove himself from the tax register only. Then there came a law suit, which he won. Then an appeal which he lost until a verdict of the a high administrative court (Bundesverwaltungsgericht) made it final today. If you not want to pay a Church Tax, that’s only possible if you are of no religion.

The bishops explained today that you have to defect from your Church if you don’t want to pay Church Tax. If you do that, you are no longer Catholic and under Canon Law you cannot receive Sacraments anymore. The question is whether this is a good thing or not. The state basically forces you to defect from your church if you don’t want to pay the tax. It seems like it is not so much the bishops being that difficult, but German law.

A tax with the intention to separate Church and State now causes for a situation that’s exactly the opposite.

Link: Press Release Bundesverwaltungsricht, Sept. 26, 2012 (in German)


Another Update

Father John Boyle posted a follow up post at his blog entitled Further Comment On German Bishops.

What do you think about it? Combox is open!

13 thoughts on “Do German Bishops Deny Sacraments To Those Who Don’t Pay Church Tax?

  1. “The reason why people renounce their faith is not relevant here.”

    In this case, it is… People ‘renounce’ their faith, although they may still believe that Jesus Christ the Lord and Savior of mankind. Why is renunciation the only way to ditch Kirchensteuer? That’s a fundamental flaw in the system. One could go as far to argue that the system incites people to renounce their faith, which is contrary to everything we stand for.

    1. Kirchensteuer was instituted in a time were faith was normal. To be perfectly clear: I don’t like the system either, but it is a tax from the federal government. It’s odd that at the one hand there is a separation between Church and State, but at the other hand, the municipal records and the church records are linked, just like in the Netherlands.

      I have an anecdotal example how that is not a good thing: Back in the time when I lived in a dorm as a college student, one of my roommates was ‘Reformed Liberated’. Her parents were, her grandparents were. She was baptised in the Reformed Liberated Church and she did her Confirmation there. When her dad had to go to the municipal office to register her as a newborn, he also registered that their faith was ‘Protestant’. As a result we had someone at the door every single year from the Protestant Church in the Netherlands (PKN) asking her to make her church donation for that church, because she was registered as a ‘geboortelid’ (birth member) of that church through the database of the municipal office. For her there is no way to get rid of this. She never has been to that church and probably never will (especially after this).

      I’m sure the German state had good intentions getting the Church Tax instituted in Germany in the 1900s, just like the Protestant Church has good intentions with registering everybody who calls themselves ‘Protestant’ as a ‘birth member’ so they can get more donations, but sometimes it just doesn’t work out the way it should. This is why I am in favor of ditching the Church Tax system and call for tithing, at least to point out to people who attend church every Sunday that maintenance and service costs money and that they are expected to give a small donation (which is tax-deductible)

      [EDIT]This very point is being discussed by the German high administrative court (Bundesverwaltungsgericht) right now. Follow this link for details. Hat tip to @InCaeloblog

  2. Reading the comments here and on Twitter, I have to agree that there is a flaw in the system. If it is a secular law, it is the state that enforces it, not the Church. So if you don’t pay the Church tax, it is, I expect, the state that comes knocking. Will the diocese and parish even be informed that parishioner X isn’t paying his or her tax? And if so, will that constitute renunciation of their faith?

    Sacraments are not for sale, and a person’s faith is not measured by his monetary output, we all agree on that. On the other hand, I think it should be encouraged that faithful support their parish or community financially. But should the state enforce that? I have my doubts.

    The German bishops are right when they say that if you’re not a Catholic, you can’t receive the sacraments. But should financial contributions decide whether or not someone is a member of the Church? Because that is, in essence, what it comes down to, as far as I can see.

    1. The thing it revolves around that if you don’t want to pay the tax, you can only be exempt if you defect. It’s always possible to refuse paying I guess, but I don’t know how that works. I guess the state won’t notify the diocese, why should they? I guess they will come knocking on your door: you either pay the tax or defect from your church if you don’t want to.

      Most people who don’t want to pay Church tax are nominal Christians, they never went to church, therefore they don’t want to pay the tax. In my experience most people who do attend church just pay the tax and don’t even bother fussing about it. This whole debate was sparked by a lawyer who wanted to test if you can partly unregister. Today the court ruled you can’t , which means everything is as it was.

      My solution would be: get rid of the stupid tax altogether. But how will the church be funded if there’s no tax? And does the state want to lose control over the church?

      1. That’s a major flaw right there: there is no way for the Church to find out or decide who is able to receive the sacraments and who isn’t. The Church is on one end of the process: she receives a given amount of money via the state. The taxpaying faithful are on the other end: they pay their taxes to the state, not to the Church.

        I agree that getting rid of tax would be an improvement, but it should coincide with a renewed sense in the faithful (or some of them) that supporting their parish or diocese, financially or in another way, is something to encourage.

        It’s a sad fact that we all need money, and the Church is no exception.

        1. True. But since that administrative court confirmed that in order to avoid the tax, you need to leave your religious community, the Church cannot encourage people to evade taxes which is a crime). The Church gets the money from the state.

          The Church Tax is a tax that’s collected by the state for practical reasons. The Catholic Church could also say they don’t want the Church Tax, or that Catholics shouldn’t be taxed. The reason they don’t is that Germans don’t tithe. If they do, they do so via the Church Tax. So opting out of the Church Tax means you’re cutting off your main stream of income without having an alternative.

          See what impossible position the Church is in?

          Here is what I think: The Church knows they cannot say that you can you can receive the Sacraments if you are not a Catholic. They also know that the current law implies that if you don’t want to pay the tax, you need to leave the Catholic Church. And they know there’s no way to check in the Communion line if someone has left the Church or not. So nothing really changes in reality. It’s just the lawsuits ignited by this lawyer Zapp that forced them into these measures, that they need to come up with a provision in order to comply with both Canon Law and German Law.

  3. Thanks for your detailed comment and response to my blog post. You throw a lot of light on the situation in Germany, particularly your point that the only way to avoid the tax is to go to your church and “defect”, and that 8% of your tax bill is not that much and if you are poor you’ll pay less or nothing. You point out that it is a state tax, not a church tax. But what do you make of the PCILT interpretation, as quoted in my blog post, that “the removal of one’s name from a Church membership registry maintained by the government in order to produce certain civil consequences” is not sufficient of itself to bring about a formal defection from the Church? My post was a question rather than an answer and I hope that things will become clearer in time.

    1. I am a lay person, I don’t know anything about Canon Law and all that. I just assume that since the Vatican backs this, it’s justified in some sort of way. I leave the technical details to the experts.

      I just read a post by Jimmy Akin, senior apologist at Catholic Answers which probably answers your question: Are the German Bishops Just Greedy?. I recommend this to everybody who is curious about the Canonical structures in all of this.

  4. Germany sounds like a country where it’s not necessary to have evangelistic enemies of faith or the Church to destroy people’s trust and faith. It’s disgraceful

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