Reader John McGinnis sends this interesting piece from the International Herald Tribune on an attempt by the Catholic Church in Germany to encourage its faithful to continue paying that country’s so-called “church tax.” Under German law, religious associations can assesses a tax — really, it’s more like membership fee — on members. The state collects the tax, which typically amounts to 8-9% of the taxpayer’s total liability, and then distributes it to the church the taxpayer designates on his tax form. All a taxpayer has to do to avoid paying the tax is to resign his church membership. Traditionally, however, German taxpayers have continued to declare church membership, and pay the church tax, notwithstanding the relatively low rate of religious observance in that country. Sociologists of religion have described this phenomenon as “belonging without believing,” and it reflects a standard European attitude toward religion.
That may be changing. The IHT suggests that an “exodus” is underway both in the Catholic and Lutheran Churches, as taxpayers increasingly end their formal affiliations to avoid paying the church tax. The Catholic hierarchy has come up with a strategy to stop the departures. Starting this week, Catholics who resign their church membership “may no longer qualify for religious ceremonies such as a Christian burial and may not partake in confession or communion; become a godfather at baptism or confirmation; or hold office within the church.” This has led to protests from Catholics who resent being told they have to pay for such things, as well as perhaps predictable references to the pre-Reformation sale of indulgences — notwithstanding the fact that the Lutheran Church participates in the church tax too.
From an American perspective, this is all very interesting. Americans fund our churches through private (though tax-deductible) donations. Early on, we decided that the state could not collect revenue for religious bodies — not even “three pence,” in Madison’s famous phrase. Many European countries, by contrast, have adopted a state-funding model; the level of private donations is comparatively low. Now, it seems, increasing numbers of Europeans want neither model. Yet they insist on the right to receive church services and protest when someone points out that it costs money to keep a church open. Grace droppeth as the gentle rain from Heaven, but someone has to pay the electric bills. What these protesters seem to be saying is, give us the services, but don’t ask us for anything. Come to think of it, that does sound a bit American.