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Kirchensteuer: What It Is And How It Survived

Marinus van Reymerswaele, “The moneychanger and his wife”.

Before I write another post about the Kirchensteuer, I think it necessary to give some enlightenment (at least according to my limited lights) about the genesis and – more importantly – the place of the Kirchensteuer in the German Weltanschauung.

It is widely reported that the Kirchensteuer was introduced as compensation for expropriation of Church patrimony. This is, of course, nothing else than a historic remnant, which in itself would not in the least justify the existence of such a “tax”.

Firstly, Italy, France and many other countries have seen massive expropriation, without anyone ever being even tempted to propose or even to think anything of the sort (I have already explained that the beautiful sette per mille in Italy is a completely different cup of tea, whose adoption in Germany I would salute enthusiastically; not so the German Bishops…). Secondly, the amount collected through the Kirchensteuer (between 7% and 9% of the tax bill of the vast Catholic population in Germany) is such a vast amount that to justify it with past expropriations is an example of very bad numeracy.

No: the reason for the existence of the Kirchensteuer (paid, let us not forget it, by Protestant and Jews alike) is a social and cultural one, and it is the change of the social and cultural framework which will, in the long-term or perhaps earlier, destroy this anachronistic institution.

The Germans are an extremely gregarious people. If Italians are foxes, Germans are wolves. They think and act in group, and to them the community and the idea of doing things together – and to oblige themselves to do things together – is much stronger than among Italians, French, Spaniards or Britons.

Whilst this can be bad in certain situations (say: a country fighting under the bombs with utterly remarkable tenacity, to an extent which to the individualistic oriented Italians seems senseless; nay, inconceivable) it has in the past brought remarkable advantages. From the health system to the system of state pension (which in Germany were and are based on an insurance and cooperative system rather than on a state-owned mammoth; note once again the mentality of close-knitted communities spending their money efficiently) to the cooperative banks, Germans have always had a knack for this idea that they cooperate, and are therefore stronger. I struggle to recall now from my younger years at school a more complex, powerful and successful example of widely ramified alliance than the Hansa, another clear fruit of – if also spread outside Germany – German thinking.

This mentality, which pre-dates the Kirchensteuer, was a fertile humous for such a system. The Germans wanted to pay in a cooperative way, and the Kirchensteuer worked because it corresponded to the German way of thinking.

But this mentality – and this is very important – works only until the Germans see value for the money they pay. They reacted – literally – violently  when the waste and political correctness following the Reunification proved to them the money was massively wasted away; they are exceptionally attentive that their social security system – the most efficient in the West, I am sure – gives a good return for the costs it causes (and it does!); they handle based on a principle that as long as they know “where the money goes” there will be no great discussion as to the lawfulness of such an operation, or the opportunity of having the Church going to bed with the State in such a rather scandalous manner.

It was a win-win. The measure was accepted among the masses; the Government cared for the receipt of the money in a far more economical way than the Church and the other organisations would have ever been able to; most Catholics (nay: most people) were rather poor, and their payments a pittance anyway. And it was all so, so German…

Then the changes came.

The explosion of mass welfare in post-war Germany led to an expansion of the welfare state; which led to an expansion of taxation, now rather painful even at low-income levels, and brutal already at medium-income level. This in turn led to a literal explosion of the Church’s revenues.  Therefore, not only we saw an explosion of incomes per se, but an even more pronounced explosion of revenues as the taxation of low and average incomes grew more than proportionally.

In Germany, you never hear the Church complaining about high taxation. They have their snouts right there in the trough. Smart move for the government, too. This is also what made the Church in German so influential already in V-II times: they who pay the most will, human nature being what it is, probably be the loudest (and no, the Vatican is certainly not above such influences; by far not).

Secondly, this vast wealth has made of the German-speaking churches the ones with the richest clergy around. Your average German priest has an income your average non-priest Scot or Welsh can only dream of, and is rather well situated even in comparison to the other Germans. His income is linked to the one of the German Beamte, the life-hired, middle and higher echelons of the Public Service. Once again, they are fully linked to a very powerful lobby, and as they do not have children their disposable income is, for a priest, more than remarkable. The factory worker, the shop employee, the small accountant slowly take notice, and wonder, because they don’t even go to church anymore.

Which leads us neatly to the massive social shift in the attitude of Catholics, once disciplined soldiers of the German church and now utterly indifferent to everything going in the way of their adulterous or contraceptive behaviour. This, the German church deserves entirely; they had it coming and they should now complain only with themselves. By trying to pander to the feelings of their wandering sheep, the stupid German clergy alienate them long-term, and make themselves despised by the children of those entrusted to their care. The grandchildren will not even think of ever paying the Kirchensteuer. It serves the German clergy right, by the way.

Fourthly – and I think the least important factor as far as revenue is concerned, but the most explosive for devout Catholics – there is the scandalous waste of public money for things that have nothing to do with being Catholic: a big administrative apparatus, scandalous “ecumenical” initiatives everywhere, and so on. The Church in Germany has become so little Catholic, that Catholics finally start to question the Catholicity of an obligatory and automatic payment. 

Summa summarum: what one hundred years ago were small payments for most, made by devout Catholics who knew their money went to a serious organisation who spent the money wisely, have now become substantial payments the Church demands from largely non-churchgoers who know their money is wasted by an over-fed apparatus (and for devout Catholics: in non-Catholic or even scandalous initiatives).

Now, how could the system survive as the pressure built up? Basically in two ways:

1) By shrinking. The system has been creaking for many years now, and the number of Kirchensteuer-payers decreasing regularly. Mostly were, though, non-churchgoers. It is only in the last years that the system has started to show serious fissures.

2) By social pressure. Think again of how gregarious the Germans are. Merely to be seen to want to subtract oneself to a solidarity payment smells ( or used to smell) of Southern-European anarchy, and of menace to the world as we know it. Even among Protestants (many of them, let me assure you, as atheist as Mao) the resistance to the Austritt (the exit out of the system) is fairly strong. The Proddies react, by the way, exactly like the Catholic hierarchy: they lick their people’s plates, and hope for the best.

You wish. 

I hope this has given a cultural framework – at least as I understand it – of why the Kirchensteuer was born; why it operated fairly well for some decades without any massive moral questioning or legal challenge; why it created an explosion of revenues and with it of corruption, addiction and waste, whilst at the same time creating an unholy alliance between tax-imposing politicians and tax-cashing clergy; and why all this is now slowly crumbling, caught in the middle between mickey-mouse Catholics who want sacraments against their money, real Catholics who do not want their money to be used to finance an utterly corrupted apparatus, enslaved to the money of the adulterous and contracepting crowds, and a shameless clergy who wants money against sacraments, or at least wants you to believe that without paying the first you won’t have access to the second.

But for the latter consideration, you’ll have to wait for an ad hoc post.



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