Can states control churches

More and more people are turning their backs on the church and stepping out: One of the reasons is the church tax. It is not even clear to many how sensibly this money is used in Germany. Are you thinking of leaving the church? Answers to the most important questions.

Why church tax at all?

In the Middle Ages, when a prince asked the bishop to have a church and a pastor for a place, he had to build the church himself, donate land for its maintenance and that of the pastor. What grew on it financed the church and pastor. Today there are still church foundations and beneficiary foundations, especially in southern Germany. The priest's benefices had to feed him.

As a result, the churches soon became the largest property owners and aroused the envy of secular princes. These sought the land that belonged to the churches. In the Reformation this was done by the princes who themselves became Evangelicals and made their subjects Evangelical. They incorporated the land of the bishops and monasteries into their own property. In 1803, after Napoleon's victory, so did the princes on the right bank of the Rhine, who held themselves harmless from the losses caused by Napoleon through church property from Catholic monasteries and bishops. In both cases they undertook in return to finance the church administration and the pastors.

In the middle of the 19th century, however, that became too expensive for them. Due to the industrial revolution, immigration from Poland and Italy, and the population explosion, there were suddenly so many churches and pastors to pay for that the German kingdoms and principalities no longer wanted to finance them. In Cologne, for example, there were 18 state-paid pastors in the 18 parishes, plus 90 vicars, chaplains, vicars and curates who also had to live. The grant from the Prussian state only covered a third of the clergy's cost of living. Prussia, which according to the law was supposed to pay pastors from the state treasury, wanted to be the first German state to exonerate itself. Against their will, it forced a new source of funding on the churches: the church tax. It began in Lippe Detmold in 1827, and was introduced in the provinces of Rhineland and Westphalia in 1835. It was established throughout Germany by 1905.

The church tax quickly became the most important source of money for the two Christian churches; in 1907 the state benefits were even higher than the income from the church tax. In 1939 the church tax brought in twice as much as the ongoing payments from the federal states. Today, the church tax for both Christian churches brings in more than 11 billion euros, more than 20 times as much as the state payments, which are regularly increased in line with civil servants' salaries.

Who pays how much church tax?

You don't have to hack into their accounts to know how much church tax is being taken from the top two representatives of the major churches. The two earn 13,000 euros a month. The state church treaty and concordat reveal that. The Protestant regional bishop in Bavaria and council chairman of the Evangelical Church in Germany, Bedford Strohm, and the archbishop of Munich Freising and chairman of the German Bishops' Conference, Reinhard Cardinal Marx, are paid like civil servants according to grade B 10.

If you then look in the general tax tables, you can see that Bishop Bedford Strohm pays 4,000 euros in wages tax and 320 euros in church tax, Cardinal Marx 4,700 euros in wage tax and 380 euros in church tax. Where is the difference? One is married and therefore in tax class III, the other is of course unmarried and is therefore in tax class I, so pays more wage and church tax.

The church tax - as this example shows - is a so-called annex tax. That means: it is tied to a different tax. Church tax is only paid by those who also pay wage or income tax. Those who earn so little that they are not subject to wage or income tax also do not pay church tax. The churches themselves determine the amount of church tax as a percentage of wage and income tax. Church members in Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg pay eight percent, and nine percent in all other federal states. Anyone who earns 4,000 euros gross per month in North Rhine-Westphalia, a primary school teacher for example, pays 64 euros per month church tax if they are single and have no children. If he is married and has two children, he only pays 9 euros 27. A butcher shop assistant with a standard wage of 1,900 euros pays nothing at all. Anyone who earns 130,000 euros a month as a manager or entrepreneur pays 3,300 euros. Anyone who has to pay tax on interest income pays 25% withholding tax. Church tax is also levied on this. In contrast to wages tax, the church tax is not a tax that accrues to the state. It is a membership fee that only members of Christian churches in Germany pay. The tax office, to which the employers pay the church tax, collects the tax and passes it on to the churches. But not quite, the state tax authorities keep between two and four percent as a fee for the collection, totaling more than 300 million euros per year.

The way of money (from the tax office to the municipality)

Which tax office receives the church tax of a postal worker in Hanover? And what is the church tax for a teacher in Bielefeld? It's very easy, do you mean, these are the tax offices in Hanover and Bielefeld? Not even close. The post transfers wages and salaries from Bonn, the headquarters of the company, and pays all wage and church taxes to the Bonn tax office. All salaries of state officials in North Rhine-Westphalia are paid in Düsseldorf, so their church tax goes to the tax office in Düsseldorf. These tax offices do not care about where the church taxpayers live and which diocese should receive the tax. They simply deliver everything that comes in from them in the form of Catholic church tax to the Finance Director of the Archdiocese of Cologne.

But he is not allowed to keep it, but has to pass it on to the dioceses in which the church taxpayers live and live. More than a quarter of the € 900 million church tax that the Archdiocese of Cologne collects each year must be passed on in the so-called clearing process. The Association of Dioceses of Germany redistributes the money according to lists that it receives from the financial administrations of the federal states. 250 million of Cologne's income is distributed primarily to the North Rhine-Westphalian dioceses in which Catholic employees of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia live, but also wherever Deutsche Post employees live, from the Archdiocese of Freiburg to the Diocese of Görlitz.

If the church tax is properly distributed, the dioceses pay their own expenses first, for example they pay the entire pastoral staff, the central administration, run academies and day-care centers, finance construction work, cultural and social institutions. A very different proportion of the church tax goes to the parish as a subsidy. In the Archdiocese of Berlin that is less than ten percent, in the Diocese of Rottenburg-Stuttgart it is 50 percent. Cologne is just under 40 percent. The parishes, in turn, have to cover all of their expenses from this and with their own income. This also includes the staff, with the exception of the pastors, who are paid by the diocese. The percentage of a believer's church tax that goes to their own community is therefore difficult to say and varies from diocese to diocese.

How do the others do it?

In relation to most other countries, the churches in Germany are doing quite well. The reason for this is the church tax. It has existed in the Rhineland and Westphalia for 180 years, and has been the Catholic Church's most important source of income for 80 years. In most dioceses it accounts for about three quarters of the income. In Bavaria and Baden Württemberg it is eight percent, in North Rhine-Westphalia and all other federal states nine percent of the income tax.

In countries where there used to be Protestant state churches, such as Denmark, Sweden or Finland, church funding has also been switched to a kind of tax. The closest to the German solution is the one in Austria. There, no tax is collected by the state, but church members are forced by a law to pay the so-called church contribution. However, it is not the state tax offices that have to collect it, as is the case here, but the churches themselves. The church contribution makes up about one percent of taxable income for the Evangelical Church and 1.1 percent for the Catholic Church.

Let's take an unmarried elementary school teacher who earns around 4,000 euros a month. With us he pays about 64 euros church tax per month, in Austria it is 40 or 44 euros. In general, the church contribution in Austria is lower than the church tax in Germany.

Italy and Spain have completely different systems. There everyone, believers and non-believers, church members and non-church members, pay the same income tax. The citizen can, however, decide whether part of this tax should go to his church or to another worthy purpose, such as monument protection, culture or sport. This means that leaving the church does not automatically lead to tax savings, the tax remains the same. In both countries, the churches are running advertising campaigns asking their members to put the cross in the right place on their tax returns so that the money goes to their church. In Italy, the share of this so-called mandate tax in income tax is 0.8 percent, in Spain 0.7 percent.

It is difficult for the church where there is no regular funding system. In the United States, for example, parts of the Church are rich and some are poor. It changes from place to place, from parish to parish. The churches are dependent on donations and inheritances. And it is not uncommon for rich people to donate only to the parishes or dioceses whose socio-political activities come close to their position. As a financing concept for a church that interferes, this is not suitable,

Why don't Muslims pay church tax?

In addition to the 45 million Christians in Germany, there are also slightly more than four million Muslims. They pray in 2,600 mosques and have organized themselves in so-called mosque communities. But unlike the members of Christian churches, they do not pay church tax. Why?

In order to be able to collect church tax as a church in the amount that it has set itself, this church must be recognized as a corporation under public law. The prerequisite for this is, among other things, that it is a long-term, central organization based on a large number of people, which must also meet a few other requirements. This includes, among other things, the recognition of the Basic Law as the highest guideline.

The mosque communities in Germany have no common structure, no common representatives and leaders, there are no hierarchies and common organizations. Even the Islamic telephone counseling in Germany can only exist because an Islamic aid organization initiated from abroad has taken over the sponsorship. The various Islamic faiths, Sunnis, Shiites and Alevites are further apart than the various Christian denominations. There are extremely conservative and liberal mosque communities, there are those who can imagine female imams, and others for whom such a thing would be blasphemous.

If you ask Muslims why they make themselves so dependent on Saudi Arabian money or the Turkish religious authorities, why they have foreign imams put in front of their noses and not train their own, they explain it by saying that the communities do not have enough money for it would have. But if one assumes that the Muslims voluntarily donate as much to their congregation as the Christians have to pay church taxes, the congregations would have enough money. If you take the average amount that every Catholic pays in church tax, namely around 300 euros per year, then a mosque community with 1,000 members would have an income of 300,000 euros a year, enough to pay the imam, caretaker, secretary and the maintenance of the mosque .

If Muslims seriously wanted to build a permanent religious structure, they could be recognized as a corporation and have church taxes collected by the state. Even if they don't do that, but are willing to pay as much for their congregation as Christians pay in church taxes, they can still build a flourishing congregation life on their own.

Why do non-churchgoers pay church tax?

70 years ago, over 90 percent of Germans still supported one of the two large Christian churches. Today it is only 57 percent. Accordingly, only 57 percent of the German church tax pay, 43 percent do not have to. Of the 45 million Christians, only a fraction still goes to church on Sunday. 2.2 million, i.e. ten percent of the church members are among the Catholics, 800,000 or three percent among the Protestant Christians.

But why do those who make so little use of their church still pay their membership fee, the church tax? And how long will it stay that way? Here are a few theses:

A Freiburg theology professor once called church tax a "flat rate for liturgical services". You pay to have a claim: That the children are baptized, that they can go to First Communion and Confirmation, that one can say yes in front of large relatives in a white wedding dress in a decorated church, that at the end of life there is someone who, with good words, lets the coffin slide into the ground.

An economist has described the church tax as an insurance premium for the afterlife. Maybe there is something in God, in the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit after all. Perhaps after death there will be eternal life after all. You don't want to destroy all prospects, cut all ties to the church, you want to reassure yourself, even if you don't otherwise adhere to the church commandments.

The psychologist may say: The guilty conscience keeps many in the church. You don't go to church for convenience, but you know that's wrong. And they do not want to do it to their parents, relatives, or those around them to appear as someone who has left the common faith community.

A final group is that which generally values ​​the institution of the church for overriding reasons: as a warning and warning, as an institution that provides society with a set of values, as a social and cultural institution that cannot be imagined without tradition, as an institution, that does good for society.

So there are four possible motives to stay in the church, to pay church tax, even if you "don't feel that way with the church".

Future of church tax

In recent years, German finance ministers have been swimming in money. And since the church tax is linked to the lively income tax and wage tax, church tax revenues have risen sharply in almost all dioceses. But just like the end of fun in the federal budget, this will soon also be the case with church tax receipts. Many factors indicate a slump.

At the EKD Synod in 2018, a study was presented according to which only 19 percent of the 19 to 27-year-olds describe themselves as religious, but 61 percent as non-religious. Really to expect that these 61 percent, like the non-churchgoers today, will still pay their church tax obediently because they want to use liturgical services or have a guilty conscience, that would be presumptuous.

So do we have to expect that instead of 57 percent of Germans today, in 20 years' time, only 39 percent will belong to a church and pay church tax? That would mean a drop in revenue by a third. But other factors also indicate a decline. The strong vintages today are between 45 and 65 years old. If they gradually retire, many will drop out as church taxpayers. Likewise, those who leave their church: that is 360,000 for the Catholic and Protestant churches together per year. In addition, there are about 240,000 fewer baptisms than burials each year.

The church tax makes up between 50 and 70 percent of the dioceses' income. Expenditures, especially for personnel and construction, which are the churches' two largest expenditure items, are increasing by around 4 percent per year. If church tax revenues are now falling sharply, this means that deep and painful austerity processes will be necessary.

In addition to its actual purpose, the church fulfills a variety of social needs. It is responsible for hospitals, old people's homes, social stations, schools and day-care centers and thus serves people far beyond their own believers. The state could not take over these institutions, and neither could the private sector. So if the number of church members is halved in the next 40 years and the church tax revenue as well, then that is not just a problem for the churches, but one for society as a whole.

That’s what we should talk about today. Even if the income is still gushing now.