Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Can the German Bishops do this?

UPDATE September 27th.

Since writing the below yesterday, a lot of comment has been generated which greatly clarifies the situation. It would seem to me that there is a clear break of communion by those who "defect" or declare their intention to leave the Church. In which case it would seem that the bishops have the right/duty to inform the people of the consequences. It's not about the money but about the act of defection. There is, however, the problem of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts specifically excluding the removal of one's name from a government maintained register in order to secure certain civil consequences (see below) as sufficient for procuring formal defection. I guess it would depend on the means required for such removal. If, for removal, one actually has to say "I wish to leave the Catholic Church", then one should be taken at one's word and face the consequences.

Please see Further Comment. Also of interest are: Jimmy Akin quoted in Further Comment, Sentire Cum Ecclesia, Ars Vivendi, the German Bishops Conference, comments of Dr Edward Peters.


As widely reported the German bishops have decreed that Catholics who "renounce" their membership of the Catholic Church so as to avoid paying the religious tax will not be able to receive the sacraments, act as godparents or have a Catholic funeral. Which sounds pretty severe. Is it legal in Catholic Church law?

Reports can be read at the BBC and Reuters. I'm not knowledgeable about why Germany operates a religious tax system. No doubt it has historical roots. The religious tax is about 8% of your overall tax bill, so if you pay 10,000 euro income tax, a further 800 euro will be added to your tax bill and go towards your church/religion of declared affiliation: Protestant, Catholic, Jewish... It is not an 8% income tax. Apparently over 180,000 Catholics "left" the Church in 2010 following the various scandals that have rocked the Church in Germany and elsewhere. Other religions have also experienced a fall in their tax-paying members. Apparently, many "left" as way of reducing their tax bill when income tax went up to cope with the effects of the reunification of East Germany with the rest of Germany in the early 1990's.

So, can the bishops deny baptised Catholics the sacraments because they do not pay the tax? Have Catholics who have decided to remove themselves from the civil religious register put themselves outside the Church? The media reports claim that the Vatican has approved the measure, but this does not mean the measure is beyond appeal. And I daresay it won't be long before someone appeals to Rome if they are denied the sacraments, or prohibited from being a godparent, or their relative is denied a funeral, simply on the basis that they are not registered in the State taxation system.

What does Canon Law have to say?

How is a Catholic defined?
Can. 96 By baptism one is incorporated into the Church of Christ and is constituted a person in it with the duties and rights which are proper to Christians in keeping with their condition, insofar as they are in ecclesiastical communion and unless a legitimately issued sanction stands in the way.

Can. 205 Those baptized are fully in the communion of the Catholic Church on this earth who are joined with Christ in its visible structure by the bonds of the profession of faith, the sacraments, and ecclesiastical governance.
So if one is baptized in the Catholic Church, or received into it after valid baptism in another Church or ecclesial community, one is joined with the Church in its visible structure, unless one breaks the bonds of faith, sacraments and/or governance. One has duties and rights. Does removal from the religious tax register constitute being no longer joined with the Church in its visible structure? As for the duty of supporting the Church, could one not claim that one is fulfilling this duty in ways other than paying the tax, e.g. by placing money in a collection etc? The Church has never stipulated a set sum of money that must be contributed for membership to continue.

The Eucharist

The rights/duties of Catholics as regards the Eucharist:
Can. 912 Any baptized person not prohibited by law can and must be admitted to holy communion.
So a Catholic is presumed to have a right to receive holy communion. There are very strict conditions that must be met before a minister can refuse to give holy communion to a Catholic.

There is a special requirement for children:
Can. 913 #1. The administration of the Most Holy Eucharist to children requires that they have sufficient knowledge and careful preparation so that they understand the mystery of Christ according to their capacity and are able to receive the body of Christ with faith and devotion.

Can. 914 It is primarily the duty of parents and those who take the place of parents, as well as the duty of pastors, to take care that children who have reached the use of reason are prepared properly and, after they have made sacramental confession, are refreshed with this divine food as soon as possible. It is for the pastor (parish priest) to exercise vigilance so that children who have not attained the use of reason or whom he judges are not sufficiently disposed do not approach holy communion.
So, the question arises: are Catholic children whose parents have removed themselves from the civil religious tax register prohibited from receiving the Eucharist? It would appear that the tenor of the Canons is quite to the contrary. Everything should be done - primarily by the parents of course (and here they must examine their consciences as primary educators of their children as to the consequences of removal from the religious tax register) but also by the pastors - to ensure that children with the use of reason receive the Eucharist at the earliest possible time.

An assessment must therefore be made as to the consequences for their children of parents removing themselves from the register. Does such an action conflict with their duty of educating their children in the Catholic faith? I'm not pretending to give a general answer to this question. I am simply posing it. Perhaps the German bishops' decree addresses this issue. I have not seen it.

Those who may not receive the Eucharist:
Can. 915 Those who have been excommunicated or interdicted after the imposition or declaration of the penalty and others obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to holy communion.
This Canon refers to the external forum. The reports state that all talk of excommunication has been carefully avoided and, indeed, excommunication is a penalty that can only be imposed on one who has committed a crime in the Church. So those who have removed themselves from the religious tax register have not received either of these penalties. They are not being accused of having committed a canonical crime.

So, are they amongst those who obstinately persevere in manifest grave sin? It's certainly manifest in that it is a matter of public record. But is withholding the religious tax a grave sin?
Can. 916 A person who is conscious of grave sin is not to ... receive the body of the Lord without previous sacramental confession unless there is a grave reason and there is no opportunity to confess; in this case the person is to remember the obligation to make an act of perfect contrition which includes the resolution of confessing as soon as possible.
This Canon refers to the internal forum of conscience, but again the question hinges on whether or not self-removal from the register is a grave sin.

Canon 844 concerns the discipline regarding administration and reception of the sacraments of penance, holy eucharist and anointing of the sick by/to members of other churches and ecclesial communities. But this canon would not be applicable since the people we are talking about are Catholics.

Does removal from the tax register constitute departure from the Church? It is possible to formally defect from the Church and there used to be consequences of such defection on the validity of marriage contracted outside the Church. These consequences were done away with by Pope Benedict but it is still possible to formally defect. And this must have consequences.

In a 2006 interpretation from the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts, the conditions for a successful formal defection are described in detail and may be read on its website. Of great relevance to our study is the following paragraph:
The substance of the act of the will must be the rupture of those bonds of communion – faith, sacraments, and pastoral governance – that permit the Faithful to receive the life of grace within the Church. This means that the formal act of defection must have more than a juridical-administrative character (the removal of one’s name from a Church membership registry maintained by the government in order to produce certain civil consequences), but be configured as a true separation from the constitutive elements of the life of the Church: it supposes, therefore, an act of apostasy, heresy or schism.
It is to be noted that the removal of one's name from a tax register simply to avoid paying the religious tax is explicitly mentioned as not being sufficient for formal defection from the Catholic faith. One must have the intention of rupturing one's communion with the Church by an act of apostasy, heresy or schism. This would surely have to be verified in each individual case.

What about the concept of notoriously or publicly abandoning the faith, (which is not the same as the formal act of defection mentioned above)? Notorious or public defection from the Catholic Church has consequences such as: being unqualified to vote in any canonical elections for ecclesiastical offices (Can. 171 #1,4); automatic removal from any ecclesiastical offices held (Can. 194 #1,2); becoming unqualified for reception into public associations of the faithful (Can. 316 #1); their marriage in the Catholic Church would need the permission of the local ordinary (Can. 1071 #1,4) and when marrying a Catholic their marriage is subject to certain conditions that apply to mixed marriages i.e. they are treated in some way as non-Catholics (Can. 1071 #2) while still remaining subject to ecclesiastical law (Can. 11).

All the Christian faithful are obliged to maintain communion with the Church. (Can. 209 #1) and to notoriously or publicly abandon the faith is, I would guess, a grave sin, and so one guilty of such an act would doubtless fall within the category of those in manifest grave sin referred to in Can. 915 as well as falling under Can. 916. So they could be refused communion. But is removing one's name from the religious tax register such a notorious and public act of defection?

One notes that the German bishops' document states that those who have removed their names from the register must get the permission of their bishop before marrying a Catholic in a church ceremony. They therefore do indeed seem to be classifying these people as notorious and public defectors from the faith. (See my reference to Can. 1071 two paragraphs up.)


Among other things sponsors must

  • have the aptitude and intention of fulling this function (in assisting an adult in Christian initiation or together with the parents an infant for baptism, and helping the baptized person to lead a Christian life and to fulfill faithfully the obligations inherent in baptism);
  • be at least sixteen years old;
  • be a Catholic who has been confirmed and has already received the Eucharist;
  • be leading a life of faith in keeping with their function as sponsors;
  • not be bound by any canonical penalty. (Cann. 872, 874)

Under these canons, it would have to be verified whether or not removal of one's name from the tax register constitutes a failure in living the life of faith in keeping with the function of sponsor. I cannot see that any of the other requirements are affected by this act.


The Canons dealing with denial of funeral rites are as follows:
Can. 1184 #1 Unless they gave some signs of repentance before death, the following must be deprived of ecclesiastical funerals:
- 1 notorious apostates, heretics, and schismatics;
- 2 those who chose cremation of their bodes for reasons contrary to Christian faith;
- 3 other manifest sinners who cannot be granted ecclesiastical funerals without public scandal of the faithful.
#2 If any doubt occurs, the local ordinary is to be consulted, and his judgment followed.

Can. 1185 Any funeral Mass must also be denied a person who is excluded from ecclesiastical funerals.
Can a general statement be made of those who have removed themselves from the religious tax register that they are notorious apostates, heretics or schismatics, or manifest sinners? I would find this hard to accept. It must surely be determined on an individual and case by case basis.

But the bishops seem to be clear that these people do fall under one of the categories of Can. 1184 #1 for they state that
"If the person who left the Church shows no sign of repentance before death, a religious burial can be refused."
As I must stress, I have not seen the decree nor any other documentation concerning this matter. But it would seem to me that the burden of proof is with the ecclesiastical authorities to verify that one who has removed his/her name from the religious tax register has in fact notoriously abandoned the faith or formally defected from the Church or is by some other means in manifest grave sin.

I await with interest the comments of Dr. Edward Peters who is obviously studying the matter closely. The reported position of the German bishops is that
"This decree makes clear that one cannot partly leave the Church.It is not possible to separate the spiritual community of the Church from the institutional Church."
This is obviously a fair point, but I think a lot rests on the motives for the removal of one's name from the tax register. I think it would be difficult to uphold the requirement of being on a tax register for being considered a member of the "institutional Church". But I'm sure the bishops have good Canon Lawyers involved in this and that the Vatican has guided them. We shall have to wait and see. I find it perplexing and would agree with one commentator that it sends the wrong signal.


  1. There have been more sins committed by priest, Bishops and cardinals over money than over any other matter. My own view is that even Pope's have failed to teach lest their teaching lose money for the Church!

  2. These bishops are dumber than a mountain of rocks. Where is real free will in this? Where is the right not to have one's personal offerings dictated by a civil 'authority.'

    Here's your choice: you are poor and maybe lost your job. You have to keep a roof over your head and your family fed. you do want to support the church with what you can and do so when you can. Feed your children and keep a roof over their head? Or keep more of your money by renouncing from the state taxing authority so you can feed the kids. And have the church cut you off. Lovely free will choice. But then the German government is one who takes children from parents if they dare home school. So why is this surprising.

  3. This article is not entirely correct. In order to avoid the tax in Germany, you need to go to the church you belong to and basically ask to be removed from their register. It basically comes to renouncing your faith. So for both the Church and state you will no longer be considered to be a Catholic in this case.

    As I recall, Sacraments are only for Catholics who are in good standing with the Church. How can you be still in a good standing with the Catholic Church after you leave that church?

    Being a Dutch Catholic in good standing with the Church, but not paying the Kirchensteuer since I'm not a German citizen, allows me still to receive Communion attending a Mass in Germany.

  4. Thank you for this post. I think that the German bishops have really made a big mistake over this.

    The only sin these people may have committed is failing to support their pastors financially. But cancelling the Church tax does not mean that they are not putting money anonymously into the collection plate each weekend.

    By the way, Gem I was under the impression that they don't save money this way because their Church tax is diverted into the funds of another charity (eg the Red Cross) of their choosing.

    1. In many countries with a Church Tax like this (for example Belgium) clerics are paid by the state, not the Church. The whole tax system is an example of laïcité.

      There is no such thing as 'removing yourself from a tax register'. That's not how it works. You are on that register because you are registered as a member of Church X, Y or Z. The only way to get exempt for the tax is to defect from church X, Y or Z. It's really not hard to understand.

    2. Inge: I think your perspective is interesting and I thank you for it.

      I guess I'm interested in the strictly canonical. Is going to your Church and asking to be removed from the register equivalent to a formal defection from the Catholic Church, or to notoriously and publicly abandoning the faith, and/or does it make you a notorious apostate, heretic or schismatic?

      Depriving someone of their rights in the Church can only be done under strict conditions. The insight of other canonists will be very interesting. I am particularly looking forward to Dr Edward Peters' observations.

    3. In the mean while I wrote a post on my own blog to provide some context and explain the bishops' stance. It's not about denying people who don't pay tax any Sacraments, but people who voluntarily left the church. http://goo.gl/cfBGF

      The whole debate got sparked by a lawyer trying to be removed from the tax register only but remain Catholic. Today, the Bundesverwaltungsgericht ruled that's not possible. This is a link to that: http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5jSlD9TmctC-Jm-tR901L0ARw4WLw?docId=CNG.f4d4fec426309741ec996fb87c31f219.1101

      So this is not something the bishops made up, it's something they are forced to do by German law, which makes this more complicated than you orignally thought it was.

    4. Father, given the actual process for cessation of the religious tax in Germany—see, e.g., http://www.german-tax-back.com/church-tax.html—I think you ought to revise your question as follows:

      "Is going to a secular tribunal or competent state official and solemnly declaring that you want to leave the church equivalent to a formal defection from the Catholic Church, or to notoriously and publicly abandoning the faith, and/or does it make you a notorious apostate, heretic or schismatic?"

      With that revision, it should be plain to see that the situation is at least, on its face, notorious defection, schism, or both.

      I recognize that an individual who made that declaration may not have really meant it, which would be a great defense against the ecclesiastical consequences but may have pretty serious secular consequences.

      But I admit that I could be wrong regarding this analysis and welcome your comments.

    5. Paul: I don't know how authoritative the website you link to is - it seems to be a bit frivolous at the end - but it certainly does appear to be an expression of leaving (i.e. defecting from) the Church. And as we are all bound to maintain communion with the Church, it is a serious matter. So, I agree that it amounts to a defection from the Church. And if the people are made aware of the consequences of their actions, as the bishops are certainly doing, then they are making an informed choice.

  5. I am looking into this, though around prepping for the Synod of Bishops. My sense is that some very simple points are wrapped up in some very complicated laws here. People have been good about sending me good data on the process. We'll have to see. Best, edp.

  6. Your readers await your considered views, Professor! Good luck with the Synod prep. And prayers for you and all as you participate in this hugely important event as we launch further into the New Evangelization.

  7. Suppose a parishioner went to his/her pastor and told him that he could not contribute money to the parish for any easily imaginable excellent reason (lost job, crushing financial obligations elsewhere, etc.) And the parishioner offered to work around the parish some number of hours per week as contribution. In virtually any parish in the US, such a person/family in this situation would be considered a member in good standing, and I imagine everywhere else in the world, too. (Not to mention they probably would find themselves beneficiaries of the parish's charitable activities.)

    Inge describes a procedure where the church member goes to the church to remove themselves from the rolls, not to the taxing authority. Given what the bishops have said about people removing themselves from the rolls -- what happens now in Germany in the situation where a parishioner goes to the pastor and asks to be taken off of the tax rolls because he/she cannot afford the financial burden for some serious reason, but then makes him/her-self available to work as a volunteer in church ministries?

    (Several decades ago my in-laws, who never had much money, had two children in college, and my father-in-law was in somewhat precarious health, and he worked six days per week, about 60 hours/week. My mother-in-law wrote a letter to their pastor explaining that money was very tight, and so they were going to have to stop contributing to the collection. She offered to volunteer in any capacity that she was needed, and also in the past my father-in-law and both kids had volunteered many many hours working the parish bingo fundraiser. She got absolutely no response to the letter, which she took great affront to, and stopped going to church. Whenever money is involved, the opportunities to just completely screw up pastorally are LEGION!)

  8. For most of my four and a half years as a Catholic I have not been able to contribute as much as I would have liked to the Church, I was a poor undergrad and after that a poor unemployed graduate.

    Since Febuary I have been gainfully employed and have been able to contribute much more; should I have been refused Communion when I was putting less into the collection basket?

    1. Obviously, you were not refused the sacraments when you put less money into the collection. What is being overlooked is the fact that the Bishops were referring to people who are publically declaring their break from the Church. Even Jesus declared that we needed to openly confess that we accepted the Lord in order to have eternal life. If they allow money to come between them and their Lord and his Church then there is a problem here.

    2. so in effect german Catholics are being held to ransom by their bishops, you pay X% of your income or be declared an apostate hmmmmm sounds like the mafia to me

  9. Just another mad Catholic
    How much income tax did you pay when you were a ‘poor undergraduate’ and then a ‘poor unemployed undergraduate’. If you were poor then I would imagine that you paid no income tax. Therefore, had you lived in Germany, your tax bill towards the Church would have been precisely zero. Whether this tax is something which should exist or not, please remember that it is an extra amount paid by those who pay income tax: the less income tax you pay the less you pay to the Church. Therefore other comments about poor people are really irrelevant.
    As a retired teacher in the UK, I estimate that my tax contribution, based on the German system would be about £4 a week. I think that it’s only fair that I give more than that. But if I were a husband with a family of four children, on the same income, I might look at it differently.

    But that's a separate issue than whether or not the Church ought to be financed in this way and what consequences there should or should not be if people stop paying the tax.

  10. Why are we picking on the bishops who seem to finally be growing a spine?? These German "Catholics" are not unlike Judas willing to sell their faith for a few euros. This is shameful behavior and ought to be called out as the bishops are doing.

    1. Matthew: the intention of my post was not to pick on the bishops but to study the possible canonical bases for their action. It could be that it is justified, particularly as the Vatican has approved.

  11. Dear Father, you will find a link to the original decree and the pastoral letter to be sent to those affected by it on my blog here: http://scecclesia.com/?p=6625

  12. Francesco Possenti27 September, 2012 05:20


    Good article and much to think about, though it seems necessary to point out that the tax is not added onto the tax bills of Germans but rather is 9% (8% in Bavaria) of whatever the total tax bill is. So If a German pays the Government EUR10,000 then EUR900 (EUR800 in Bavaria) of that is relinquished by the Government and sent to his religious group (if he belongs to a group that receives such funding).

    I wonder whether this makes any difference to the canonical situation, since one cannot opt-out for financial reasons (since the 9% would simply go into the state coffers)?

  13. 1. I am not crazy about government collecting for any religious entity.

    2. I was under the impression that it is part of our obligation to provide tithe to the Church and that to refuse is sin? If so, is it a mortal sin? If it is mortal sin, does that not limit your access to the sacrements, until a bona fide confession?

    Just asking - all those who purged are in my prayers and I hope all readers

    “Lex Orandi, Lex Credendi, Lex Vivendi” (What you pray is what you believe is what you live)

    “Dei Gloriae, Hiberniae Honori” (To the Glory of God and the Honour of Ireland).

    “Wherever politics tries to be redemptive, it is promising too much. Where it wishes to do the work of God, it becomes not divine, but demonic.” Pope Benedict XVI

    “We believe that Social Security legislation, now billed as a great victory for the poor and for the worker, is a great defeat for Christianity. It is an acceptance of the idea of force and compulsion.” Dorothy Day

    “Progress should mean that we are always changing the world to fit the vision, instead we are always changing the vision.” G. K. Chesterton

  14. I am English and Roman Catholic living in Germany. I as well as my non German Catholic friends refuse to be registered on a list by the government.
    I cannot express my disgust enough that they put you on a list and use that list to tax you via the government.

    On top of this the German Church blackmailing me by threatening defacto excommunication.


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