Germany’s controversial church tax should be reformed, not abolished, according to Munich archdiocese’s finance director.
Catholics in Germany are obliged to pay the Kirchensteuer, or church tax, which amounts to an additional 8-9% of their income tax, depending on where they live. The only way for German Catholics to stop paying the state-administered tax is to formally declare that they are no longer Church members, after which they are sometimes denied the sacraments.
Church tax revenues are mainly spent on parishes, for example, on the salaries of sacristans, janitors, and musicians. They also fund the Church’s large central bureaucracy and bodies such as the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK), the powerful lay group driving the country’s contentious “synodal way,” as well as social and pastoral projects in the developing world.
The German Church received a total of 6.73 billion euros from the tax in 2021 — the second-highest figure on record — despite losing more members that year than ever before.
Analysts believe that the current dynamic of rising church tax revenue and falling numbers of German Catholics is temporary, and that the exodus of Catholics will eventually lead to a sharp drop in Church income.
In a 2,300-word essay entitled “Church tax: The most important source of income for the Church in Germany,” Reif noted that the debate about church tax was not new but was “gaining in intensity again.”
As finance director of the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising in southern Germany, Reif works alongside Cardinal Reinhard Marx, who has led the archdiocese since 2008 and is coordinator of the Vatican’s Council for the Economy.
Reif compared the German system with other models, such as the “cultural tax” used to fund the Church in Italy and “donation-based financing” in the United States.
“The expectations of the German people toward their state, which also strongly influence their demands on the churches, differ substantially from those of the people in the USA, who place much more emphasis on individual responsibility,” he argued.
Reif described calls to abolish the tax, voiced by a minority in the German Church, as “somewhat populist.”
“As long as there is no demonstrably equivalent alternative to it, such demands must seem frivolous or even irresponsible to people who find support and help in Church institutions in Germany or around the world, or who work there,” he wrote.
“Even the great support of the German Church for people in and outside the Church in less prosperous parts of the world, which is recognized outside Germany, is financed to a remarkable extent from the church tax revenues of the German dioceses.”
Reif concluded: “More intensive participation combined with even more opportunities for Church members to have a say in how the church tax is spent — and explicitly including those loosely connected to the Church — would probably be difficult, but it might be a more profitable solution than abolishing it.”
Stimmen der Zeit, the monthly magazine that published Reif’s article, was founded by the Jesuits in 1865. It was shut down by the Nazis during the Second World War and Fr. Alfred Delp, a member of its editorial staff, was executed.