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Luther nailing theses

sacraments – user pays?

Luther nailing thesesGermany’s We are Church movement is calling it a “pay to pray” policy.

In Germany the state takes a church membership tax from your pay and passes it on to the church. The Roman Catholic Church in Germany, with the support of the (German-led) Vatican, has decided that if you do not allow this church membership tax to be taken from your pay then you will be denied the sacraments and any church involvement. Effectively you are excommunicated.

German Roman Catholics who do not pay the church membership tax, can “no longer receive the sacraments of penance, holy Communion, confirmation or anointing of the sick, other than when facing death, or exercise any church function, including belonging to parish councils or acting as godparents. Marriages would granted only by a bishop’s consent and unrepentant Catholics would be denied church funerals, the decree said.”

Weekly Mass attendance has been dropping about a percentage point every couple of years, from 22% of Catholics attending Mass weekly in 1989 to about 13% now.

The tax earns the church about $ US 6 billion annually, making it one of the world’s wealthiest.

Requiring money for sacraments has always been regarded as grossly immoral. Simony. The extra irony of this story is that the Reformation began in Germany because of the church raising funds by selling indulgences. In Luther’s day the sacraments, of course, were out of bounds from such serious abuse. Times have changed.

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47 thoughts on “sacraments – user pays?”

  1. It seems to me there is a misconception here. The German church tax is taken from members at church and given to that church. The only way the money taken is when you are a member of that church. If you leave the Church, you do not have to pay that tax. When you leave the church however, you are putting yourself outside the church and therefore really cannot receive the sacraments. The whole isn’t really about the tax money its about church member and people leaving it. The government of Germany is going take out a church tax weather people like or not as long as you are a member of that church. If you aren’t a member, then no money will taken away. However, by leaving the church, you have committed apostasy and there fore can’t recieve the sacraments. Jimmy Akin of Catholic Answers, Catholic.com did a video that explains this far better than I am. This really isn’t as big of an issue that many people make it out to be.

    1. Thanks, Nathan, for your visit here and your comment. There is no misconception here, whatsoever. I fully understand your interpretation, but it seems to me erroneous.
      1) It ties apostasy to agreement with the state’s determination of what is appropriate financial support of the church institution;
      2) Theologically it places the cart before the horse: an unbaptised person needs to pay their tax through the state before they can receive the sacrament of baptism;
      3) Switzerland (and other countries) follow the same state-financing of churches, but there Roman Catholics can decide whether they support the church institution through the state’s taxation system or through voluntary contributions independent of the state’s tax collectors;
      4) If your interpretation has any validity at all it would apply equally to Evangelische Kirche (Lutheran/Protestants). If you can indicate that THAT is the case, then we have news indeed!!! Do let us know.


  2. It might be worth noting that it has always been a fundamental rule of the Catholic Church that the faithful should contribute towards the upkeep of their pastors. What is different in this case is how the rules apply in a particular place and time.
    Should the faithful be allowed to opt out of supporting the church and carry on receiving the sacramental grace that they bring (If memory serves Luther wasn’t in favour of the ex opere operato principle) ?
    I presume those that choose to ex communicate themselves in this way would not be turned away by a priest in danger of death. If I am mistaken then I would be against such a rule but generally if people do not wish to support the church financially they should be prepared to take the consequences of that choice.

    1. Thanks for your visit and comment “68Ron”. I’m presuming your name is just Ron – we use our ordinary names on this site; it helps the positive culture here.

      Yes, you are right, we should support the church institution financially. In Switzerland, as I have mentioned, you choose whether to do that via the state’s taxation system, or via personal contribution.

      To your question, should those who do not support the church financially through the state-determined means and amount be thereby automatically excommunicated – I would give a resounding NO! From the earliest church there has always been the most careful separation of sacraments from financial remuneration. To link them is called “simony”. It is wrong. Grace is free.


  3. Oh my, Fr. Bosco,

    This reminds me of the old adage: The more things change, the more they stay the same…

  4. To baptize your child in the Church and make vows before God to raise them in the Catholic Faith is no trivial thing. In Texas we certainly are not taxed by the civil government but to Baptize my children in the Church must be registered member of my parish in good standing, I must be married according to the rules of the Church and I have to take a class to understand the importance and consequences of Baptizing my child before I can do so. Certainly someone who has taken a public act to declare themselves “Not Catholic” should not be admitted to the sacraments or have their children baptized. Why would the Church baptize the children of avowed non-Catholics? In the early Church many renounced their faith or apostatized by offering a libation to Caesar to save their lives. These people were kept him the sacraments until they did penance and were reconciled to the Church. Certainly to renounce the Church to avoid a mere tax is a grave matter that separates you from the Church. As an American I cannot imagine the Civil Authority collecting my tithes and offerings in the form of a tax to distribute to my Church. But I would never lie about my status to avoid the payment and expect to be treated as a member in good standing. Ananias and Sapphira come to mind.

    1. Thanks so much, Alex, for your comment here [for others, this continues a conversation we were having on twitter]. I respect others may differ in their opinion but, with the formal agreements that all Christian baptism is one and the same, you are answering why the church can baptise those who are not explicitly a signed-up member of their denomination. In the case of RC theology, a person’s baptism has eternal consequences – the refusal of baptism to a child presented for baptism by a couple or individual who is not “a registered member of the parish in good standing” appears a very serious decision on the part of the church. Whilst Ananias and Saphhira with execution, not just excommunication, springing to your (Texas) mind – that is far from mine, which tends immediately to Simon Magus. Grace is God’s free gift. Blessings.

  5. I think one of the main problems here is that the Chiurch and-or state decides, via the tax, how much each person gives. What about the very poor, who cannot afford to give? What about the unemployed, or those who”s income is so low that they pay no tax? This is not just a question of contributing to the Church, it is a matter of being forced to give an amount specified by the Church or State, and it might be too much for many to afford. This is simony and it is wrong. Will the sale of indulgences be next? Did Jesus insist that people pay?

  6. As a Catholic Texan, I am opposed to the death penalty. When I think of the seriousness with which Anglicans treat the Sacrament of Baptism, the play “The Importance of Being Ernest” springs to mind. People who baptize their children for mere social convention should not do so. It is not a naming ceremony, or a quaint convention you do to please your mother. You should not make vows before God if you do not intend them. It is bc of our theology and the power we believe is granted at Baptism that we require parents and godparents to be Catholics. Any person seeking to Baptize their child need only right themselves with the Church, and in difficult cases Priests frequently make exceptions as needed.

    1. Alex, it is very difficult for us to make windows into others’ souls; often even into our own. Our motives are mixed, and, hence, we are called not to judge. The validity of baptism is not dependent on the motivation of those participating. Restricting the sacraments to the righteous is a contradiction of the gospel, as is simony, the subject of this particular post. Blessings.

  7. There was an interesting discussion about this on ABC Radio’s Religion and Ethics Report (see http://tinyurl.com/92lm8xn). My understanding is that some of the people who are not paying the church tax are ones who wish to protest the bishops’ handling of the sexual abuse crisis.

    It does seem very immoral to me to link, in any way, the capacity to pay with receiving sacramental or pastoral ministry. This cuts entirely across Jesus’ teaching, if you ask me, and is an invention of the institutional church. I don’t doubt that Christians with a capacity to contribute (financially, practically, prayerfully…) to the church’s work should do so, but I do not think there should be any connection between financial giving and receiving ministry.

  8. “Weekly Mass attendance has been dropping about a percentage point every couple of years, from 22% of Catholics attending Mass weekly in 1989 to about 13% now.”

    Well, monetary coercion is a surefire way to lure them back into the pews… [Sarcasm alert]

  9. I too think it’s wrong to link capacity to pay with the sacraments but is it really to do with “capacity” to pay? Are you suggesting that those who are unable to pay as opposed to unwilling to pay will be denied the sacraments? Is that really the case?

    1. Ron, thanks for your visit and comment. There appears to be two parts to your comment. My strong position would be that “unwilling to pay” should still not bar one from the sacraments. Secondly, I thought it was clear in my post – this is just rolled up within the German tax system. Unable to pay your tax doesn’t enter into it normally – the state extracts the tax whether this means you struggle more or not. If you remove yourself from this part of the state’s taxing, the RC church excommunicates you – end of story. Blessings.

  10. Father, with all due respect I think you have gotten some inaccurate information. In reading the rule at the German Bishops Conference website, I find no indication that the indivIduals denial of the faith in any way affects their children.

    Also there is nothing in the report that indicates converts must show proof of payment before being accepted in the church. This rule affects only those who were previously paying the tax, and then under oath denied they were Catholic for the sole purpose of evading the tax. In short, it effects only those who lie to avoid paying the tax. And are not those who are in a state of unrepentant mortal sIn ineligable for the sacraments anyway?

    1. Thanks for your comment, Kenneth. Are you suggesting that those not paying the tax can still get their children baptised? That seems to me very surprising since the interpretation you are taking is that they are no longer Roman Catholics. Similarly with your suggestion that they are in a state of unrepentant mortal sin – can parents in such a state still have their children baptised? It would certainly help this conversation to go from making an assumption from silence on the website to confirmation that children are in no way affected. Blessings.

      1. Yes, those not paying the tax can still get their children baptized. Canon 868 of the Code of Canon Law lays out the criteria for a licit baptism. And the state of grace of the parents is NOT an issue. Also, the parents are still Catholic, merely apostated. The German Bishops have stated that they cannot receive the sacraments of Penance, Holy Eucharist, Confirmation, and Anointing of the sick, except in danger of death. Which is every Catholics right.

        Nothing in their decree directly relates to the status of the children of such people, I would assume that is because the children are unaffected.

        1. Kenneth, your assertion that excommunicated Roman Catholics can have their children baptised is explicitly denied by another Roman Catholic commenting here. My understanding is that apostates are not regarded as Catholics (“merely apostated”). Sounds like we need some canon lawyers at ten paces 🙂 Blessings.

  11. Hi Bosco! I think being unable to pay your tax would come into it if, for example, you did not earn above the tax allowance.
    Looking at the issue another way, are there any moral problems caused by a Christian who lies about their church membership for tax advantage? If there are, what would be an appropriate response from the Church about that?

    1. Ron, not earning above the tax allowance means there is no tax that one is “unable to pay”. Your second question is an interesting one. We have a regular census here. If you wrote down, on that, that you did not belong to a particular denomination, do you think that this denomination should thereby exclude you from all its activities, facilities, sacraments etc.? Blessings.

      1. Hi Bosco! You say my second question is an interesting one but it’s not sufficiently interesting for you to answer. However I’ll have a go at answering yours:
        I think it would depend on the situation: Is it an oversight? Is it deception? What are the fears of the person filling in the census? Are they concerned about state persecution? Exclusion from the sacraments would be very harsh in those cases. Are they embarrassed by their religion? I am quite clear in my own mind, though, that lying in order to evade tax is a bad thing.

        1. Ron, it is becoming clearer through this discussion that this tax is imposed by the church, and varies from denomination to denomination. It has interested me from the start what the Lutheran response is in Germany – do they excommunicate those who do not pay the tax. No one has yet affirmed this with referencing. Were that the case – it would be news indeed!!! There is an honourable (Christian) tradition of breaking laws that are unjust. If, in conscience, you were opposed to this compulsory removal from one’s pay of a certain percentage of one’s income which was then assigned to your denomination (your having no say either over the percentage removed, nor where the funds went), does non-compliance with this aspect of the taxation system warrant excommunication? I would posit it does not. Blessings.

  12. Bosco, it is not the government that takes the church-tax.
    In fact, the churches (e.g. the two mainline denominations, RC and EKD Churches) pay (!!) the government to use its tax system. Because if the churches had to set up their own financial system to a similar effective extend it would cost them far more.
    And money could spend much better for church purposes than for administration.

    The tax in fact is 8% or 9% (depending which church you belong to) of your income tax. It is way less to pay per head than if tithing was taken literally.
    If you have no or a very small income you don’t have to pay this tax, also if you are above a certain income.
    Nevertheless a lot of people leave the church for monetarian reasons.
    They do opt out and by doing that they declare in a legal act that they do not want to be members of a church any more let alone make use of the sacraments or take on a role such as becoming Godparent.
    But anyone who leaves the church has the option to come back any time. And yes, there are several thousand people nationwide re-joining the church each year.

    This is the official side.
    In a pastoral setting there are some reasons that people who have opted out of the church do make use of the sacraments. Many of them are actually on a spiritual journey and quite a number do come back again.

    Greetings from Germany!

    1. Thank you SO much for your visit and explanation, Eva. That this is a church-created system that the church pays the government to action makes this story even more astonishing. Blessings.

  13. I’m not sure if it is a church -created system.
    Church history and the connection between the churches and the government in Germany is rather tricky.
    Would need a quite thorough detour into German(church-)history.
    Starting with Reformation and ending after WW1.

  14. Hi Bosco! Your willingness to accuse the German bishops of simony stands in contrast to your reluctance to frame “non-compliance with one aspect of the taxation system” as lying to evade tax. And while there is a noble Christian tradition of civil disobedience there is a Christian tradition of rendering unto Caesar, not denying your faith, and not lying for tax evasion.
    I’d be very interested to discover what those who are not paying their tax are doing with the money they have now saved.

    1. The flip side of the question, Eva, is who decides what is done with the money the church collects (not excluding the question, who decides what percentage is collected)? There is an old adage: no taxation without representation. Blessings.

      1. Perhaps it boils down to this: When a person claims on their tax form that they are not in communion with the Church (so they can spend the saved money on all sorts of other things) should the Church believe them or not?

  15. @ Bosco: It is the church alone who decides what to do with the money.

    I know our church-taxsystem in Germany is unique in the world. But I think it is good and frees ministers from dealing with too many (there still are plenty!)money related issues. So time can be spent on the really important things.

    When taking a funeral or wedding for example I don’t have to deal monetarian issues with the families. Which I think is freeing. They know they’ve already payed for it by paying their church taxes.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Eva. Some responses:

      1) The German church-tax system is by no means unique in the world. The Netherlands and Switzerland are two that immediately spring to my mind.
      What is unique is the recent declaration that those who do not pay this church tax cannot receive the sacraments, etc.

      2) You say “it is the church alone who decides what to do” – you and I differ here on our understanding of “the church”. By “the church” I understand the whole people of God. I would be convinced by this sentence of yours if the laity decided the income and living-standards of the bishops, for example. My suspicion is that you are using “the church” to mean more “the bishops”. But I would be delighted for you to show I am wrong about this.

      3) I am fascinated that you take weddings in the Roman Catholic Church in Germany. I was presuming you are a woman. Can you explain further.

      4) “Paying for a funeral or a wedding” is totally in the understanding of user pays. That is a big discussion when it comes to church. Do you really think that Jesus would see the services he provides as user pays?

      5) We can discuss funerals and weddings – but when it comes to the sacraments: baptism, eucharist – to make the sentence “I don’t have to deal monetarian issues with the families. Which I think is freeing. They know they’ve already payed for baptism/eucharist by paying their church taxes” is wrong.


    2. I like the idea of being freed from monetarian issues, but ironic as it is, this particular system has made it all a very messy money issue.

      The key problem seems to be: the only way people can get out of paying the tax is to declare something that might not be true. I have just been watching a history of Scotland on television where one group of Christians asked another group of Christians to swear an oath that would be repugnant to some, with the aim of sorting out (and killing on the spot) people the ruler did not like. One of many sad observations from all that is how very little respect for solemn oaths – and, by implication, God – the people must have had that abused the oaths for their own agenda.

      I am not saying the German church authorities are as bad, in fact they have a responsibility to keep looking for efficient and appropriate ways to manage finances, and those trying to evade financial obligations should remember Acts Chapter 5, but if their system forces repugnant oaths on those who (for all sorts of reasons) may need to opt out, or makes the church out to be mercenary and disrespected, then surely there has to be a better arrangement.

      1. As I understand it, Mark, the Swiss system is similar, but one can opt out without being excommunicated, and decide to contribute financially to church in the manner we do in NZ (freely decided donations). Blessings.

  16. Just a quick response, Bosco!

    @1: I’ve never heard of a similar system in the Netherlands or Switzerland. Might be. Always thought (and was told so) that our system is unique.

    @2&3: Yes I am a woman, an ordained Lutheran pastor, to be precise. So I do not take weddings in the RC church ;). But the system is pretty much the same.
    All major financial issues must be approved by our General Synod which consists of 1/3 clergy and 2/3 laity. But of course I can speak for my Church (Evangelical Lutheran Church of Württemberg) only.

    @4 don’t understand your question. I am sure Jesus wouldn’t want “user paying for sacraments”. ( I personally would never ever ask for it either!) But still: to me it’s relieving not to think and discuss “money” when it comes to funerals and weddings.

    @5 agree- probably didn’t explain precisely enough what I mean. Of course we do not charge people taking communion.

    1. Thanks very much, Eva, for your clarifications. Especially that you are writing from the point of view of an ordained Lutheran pastor. This post/thread is about the German Roman Catholic Church excluding people from the sacraments if they have not paid/refuse to pay their church tax.

      From your last sentence I hope I am correct in understanding that this is not the case for the Lutheran Church. If someone does not pay the church tax they can still receive the sacraments in your church? That was a question asked early on in this thread. If Lutherans do exclude from the sacraments those who do not pay, as I said, that would be news indeed! Considering the history going back to Martin Luther.

      You still seem to only have funerals and weddings for those who pay the church tax and thereby indicate that they are members of your denomination. This, to me, is a “club/tribe” understanding. You pay to belong to the club, and then you have the rights of club membership. If you don’t pay, you aren’t a member of the club, and cannot participate in club things. You seem unable to consider a different way of being church – where funerals and weddings (and baptism, communion, etc) are integral to who we are and what we do as church.

      I really cannot imagine Martin Luther would be happy with the user pays approach to being church; and I am very surprised that this topic is not a hot topic of debate in the Lutheran Church, in Germany where the Reformation began around issues such as this.

      I suspect, please correct me, that German funerals still involve costs (Funeral Director, etc.); and German weddings still involve costs (photographer, cars, meal, clothes, flowers). So with everyone else those involved in funerals and weddings money is discussed.


  17. Historical analogies are interesting but can be misleading – instead of shedding light on a current situation it can distort our view so that we view the German Catholic bishops as latter day Tetzels and those who opt out of the tax system as 21st century Martin Luthers when the reality is very different.
    It’s a long time since I studied Martin Luther at university but I can’t imagine he would have advocated Christians lying about church membership in order to avoid tax.

    1. Ron, lying is wrong. Lying to avoid tax does not deserve excommunication.

      We have established that this is a church tax; the amount also being determined by the German Roman Catholic hierarchy. Johann Tetzel was charging for indulgences. This is effectively an episcopally-determined charge not on indulgences, which we can spiritually live without, but on sacraments, which the same episcopate would insist are essential. So I agree with you, the analogy with Tetzel can be distorting. Many would see this as worse.


  18. The German Catholic bishops are guilty of believing those who claim that they are no longer members of The Church.
    Apart from signing legally binding forms that indicate you are no longer a member of the Church what else do you have to do in order to renounce your membership?

    1. Ron, with respect, you keep skirting around and around. The German RC bishops have a system where church membership is directly connected to removing a percentage (that these bishops specify) from one’s pay packet. I and others question the decision to have church membership determined by ones willingness to conform totally to this episcopally-determined method and amount of financing. I respect that you, in Britain, are comfortable that this is the right of the German RC bishops. We will just have to agree to disagree. For me and others, at the heart of the Gospel is the conviction that grace is free and clearly seen to be free. We are called and empowered to be generous and loving in response to God’s free love and generosity, not as its prerequisite. Blessings.

      ps. As to your question, I am not aware of the RC bishops, neither in NZ, nor in Britain, providing legally-binding forms to sign to renounce membership of the RC Church. Please correct me if I am wrong about that.

  19. Well with equal respect, Bosco it seems to me that you are caught up in making tempting but misleading historical comparisons with the behaviour of the Catholic Church in Germany without recognising the responsibilities of those who consider themselves members of the Church.
    You are quite right of course – the system is different elsewhere the denominations in Germany are in a unique situation re tax and ecclesiastical financing but it would appear from this thread (for which very many thanks) the system is not that new nor does it differ much from the Lutheran Church in Germany.
    Anyway, thanks for great blog and stimulating chat. Best wishes and many thanks, Ron

    1. I’m delighted to have had your point so well made here by you, Ron, and hope you will turn up from time to time again. You may, for example, have appreciated the other posts this week (Sunday’s collect, history & commentary; the meaning, origin, and understanding of “Mass”). In any case, thanks again. Blessings.

  20. An interesting corollary is the LDS Church during the last century. In the LDS Church the expected amount of financial offering is the tithe and employees of the LDS Church had 10% of their income directly deducted from their payroll check. They had no say in the matter if they wished to be employed by the church. This was reportedly ended in the 1960s.

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