Recently, I got a nasty letter from the Catholic Church.
But I’ll get to that.
Let me start with the following: one of the shockers of living in Germany, for ex-pats who come from other democracies founded in the Enlightenment tradition, is a lack of separation between Church and State. There are plenty of problems with church/state issues and religious freedom here: not just that State holidays are Christian Church holidays, that there are bans on broadcasting the Call to Prayer, or that German law won’t allow for a traditional Islamic burial (you must be buried in a coffin, not a shroud, and so Muslims send their cadavers abroad). I am talking about something very basic in the way the State operates in favour of Christian religion in Germany: and that’s the money it collects for those religious institutions.
Kirchensteuer or ‘Church Tax’, established under the Weimar constitution (and reiterated under the Grundgesetz of 1949), takes approximately 8-9% of one’s income tax. The German State in this way facilitates the financing of religious institutions and collected almost 10 billion dollars in tax for them last year. Almost the entirety of this amount is split evenly between two Christian faiths: The Protestant Church (Evangelische Kirche) or the Catholic Church. A number of smaller Churches (Old Catholics, Unitarians, some Jewish communities) benefit from relatively minor contributions.
Since the State charges a fee to collect these funds, some communities exempt themselves from being ‘Statutory Corporations’ (Körperschaft des öffentlichen Rechts… such as the Jewish Community of Berlin). Other groups are not allowed to collect Kirchensteuer because their activities are not considered centralised enough: the Muslim community with almost 5 million members is the largest minority community denied this form of official fundraising by the State. The exclusion of Muslims from Church funding is considered by many critics as one of the greatest indications from the State that it considers itself a primarily Christian country where Islam as foreign.
When I first came to Germany, I had to register my address (the Anmeldung) in a neighbourhood office. I was asked at this first interview whether I was religious. I replied: I am not. But the official at Kreuzberg’s Bezirksamt was not going to let me go so easily. She asked: but, surely, you’ve been baptised? This is how, at that time, in a flurry of German bureaucracy, and without the necessary technical language or local savvy to understand the German tax code, I was entered as ‘Roman Catholic’ on my file. I filed taxes every year without ever thinking I might be registered as belonging to a religious community, until the tax man came knocking on my door demanding 8% of my income tax for all those years for the Roman Catholic Church in Germany. I did not want to pay it but in the end I had to.
The way out is the Austritt: or an official declaration that you have left the Church. I showed up at the Amtsgericht in my community, sat in a grey office, filled out a form, they took a copy, I took a copy to my tax lawyer. I wouldn’t get my (unintentional) subvention to the Church back, but at least I wouldn’t be obliged to chip in for the holy wine in future. It was a liberating act, even if I’d made my break from the institution years before.
About a week later, I get a nasty letter in the post from the Church. They weren’t too happy and wrote a rhetorically very careful epistle meant to hook into all that Catholic guilt education you’d grown up with: ‘we respect you… but… you are damaging our concrete work’. I will not digress about how I feel about the concrete work of the Church (the sex-abuse scandals, its position on homosexuality, on contraceptives in HIV-plagued Africa…let alone all the ‘man in the sky’ malarkey) or about how the contributions I make to secular charitable organisations are more meaningful to me. Meanwhile, apparently the Catholic Bishops have decided that if you don’t pay Church Tax, you are de-facto excommunicated. I already expected not to benefit from Catholic social services when I’m old, but now no more confession (schade) and the refusal of a church burial. I never thought being Catholic should be about paying tax to an earthly authority, but I guess I was wrong.
Now that there are German federal elections this weekend, take a look at the posters around town from the Pirate Party stating “Privatise Religion Now!”. I can’t be the only one who has lost faith in the way the State implicates us in affairs which should not be those of the State.