Never before have the German media — television, radio and national and local newspapers — carried so many stories on the Catholic Church on prime-time programs and front pages as in the past few months. The stories, showing that the Church has a deep crisis on its hands, span the topics of sexual abuse of minors by priests, secret handling of abuse cases and the resignation of one bishop, and financial mismanagement by some Church authorities. 

Already weakened by long-term declines in church attendance, number of priests and financial health, the bishops have lost significant portions of the confidence and credibility they used to enjoy from the faithful and society at large. The number of people leaving the Church is steadily growing, and more and more people publicly oppose the privileged position of the Church in the state. 

Historic structures 

To understand the unique church-state relationship in Germany, one has to take in consideration its historical development. Today the constitution of the Federal Republic of Germany guarantees freedom of religion and general separation of church and state. However, it also provides for the maintenance of “cultural goods“ and common activities of the churches. This structure dates back to the Middle Ages, and partnerships between emperors and popes, kings and bishops.

 It changed in the 19th century after the European revolutions when Napoleon separated state and church. He expropriated all possessions of the clergy and religious orders, including land possessions amounting to about 27 percent of Germany’s size today. After Napoleon’s fall, European rulers signed new treaties governing the consolidations, which in different forms are still in legal existence. 

In Germany they are laid down in historic treaties and “concordats” between the Holy See and the German government and regional states like Bavaria or North-Rhine-Westfalia in which old privileges and traditional rights are also guaranteed. They include donations for bishops, members of cathedral chapters, priests, religious teachers and church buildings. The Church has been considering modifying the concordats, partly in response to growing criticism that they are anachronistic. 

Additionally, the state pays subsidies to all churches for different services like religious schools, hospitals, social work and charities. With the influence of the churches diminishing in secular society, political groups occasionally demand the repeal of all state subsidies to churches. Up to now, no government has denied the churches financial support because it would cost the state much more to pay all the services done by church employees in schools, hospitals and social work, especially considering that confessional institutions are often regarded as higher qualified than civil ones.

Church tax in discussion 

The second special trait of church-state relations in Germany is that the Church is supported not by voluntary donations of the faithful but through a tax — amounting to 8 or 9 percent of an individual’s income — collected by the federal government. This tax accounts for up to 70 percent of each diocesan budget, and recently has taken a heavy hit. Last year for the first time the number of people who declare themselves as “without religion” — 34 percent of the total population of about 82 million — surpassed the 30.7 percent of declared Catholics and 29.9 percent of Lutherans (Muslims reach just 4.6 percent). 

The problem is that membership in the Church is combined with a civil administrative act. To avoid paying the Church tax, one must declare to the civil authority to no longer be affiliated with the Church. This act, however, does not only end the payment of Church taxes but is automatically connected with excommunication. In a decision on the lawfulness of the German tax system, a court in Baden-Württemberg said that the question of membership to the Church as body of Christ cannot be answered by a secular court. So, this problem remains unsolved. The plaintiff plans to appeal to the Vatican arguing that belonging to the Church cannot depend on paying taxes. 

The tense financial situation of the Church in Germany already had forced dioceses to reduce staff in administration, service institutions and schools, and to close church buildings and merge parishes into “pastoral units.” Even as the consolidation earlier this year was taking place, the Church was hit by the sexual abuse scandal. In March the first disclosure came at the initiative of the head of a famous Jesuit school in Berlin. Subsequent media investigations brought to light other cases of molester priests, including crimes in two old Benedictine educational institutes in Bavaria that caused particular public outrage. Revealed also were cases of heavy beating and humiliation, including accusations that Bishop Walter Mixa of Augsburg beat children as parish priest. After denying the charges for a long time he finally resigned. 

As in the United States, most of the crimes date back 20 and more years. The German bishops acted quickly: the president of the bishops’ conference, Archbishop Robert Zollitsch of Freiburg im Breisgau, apologized publicly for the victims’ pain and offered assistance to them, promised to bring all wrongdoers to justice and established a special office for handling the abuse cases. 

The archbishop referred to guidelines published by the bishops in 2002 in which they decree procedures in sexual abuse cases “according to Church law.” This created new tensions between the government and the Church because the state requires that civil authorities be notified of allegations of sex abuse against minors. The public opposition against this ongoing closed-door policy of the Church led finally to a revision of the guidelines. 

Although all the affairs are a great burden to the Church, the bishops see a chance for renewing the Church. A recent poll showed that 70 percent of the German population still call themselves “religious,” even if they are no longer affiliated to a church. Facing this situation, the bishops’ conference established a steering group of three bishops who will explore “the special influence of cultural pluralism in present German society with its consequences for the Church.” The president of the pastoral commission, Bishop Joachim Wanke of Erfurt, called for “a stirring new vision of the Church” that could lead to new credibility and confidence.  

Ferdinand Oertel writes from Germany.

A Look at the Church tax (sidebar)


2008: $7 billion 

2009: $5.1 billion 


60 percent personnel 

10 percent Non-personnel expense 

10 percent Church buildings 

10 percent Schools and education, social work and charities 

Diocesan budgets are published each year. They include Church taxes and other income like revenues, donations and fees.  

They do not include what critics of the system call “hidden wealth” of the Church, like antique Church treasures that were not confiscated by Napoleon.