Monday, October 1, 2012

A church tax. How outrageous is this?

Last week, the Roman Catholic Church in Germany issued a bishop’s decree stating that anyone failing to pay a special church tax amounting to 8% of his or her income tax bill would be denied the right to Holy Communion or a religious burial upon death.  Apparently, this tax is something that all Germans, regardless of whether they are Protestants or Jews, pay.  Introduced in the 19th century, this was something that was meant to compensate for the nationalization of religious property.  I can only conjecture that this means that the monies collected would go into the upkeep and maintenance of church-owned properties.  These would include kindergartens, homes for the aged, and other church affiliated properties.

More apparently, the report stated that ‘without a sign of repentance before death, a religious burial can be refused’, and opting out of the tax would bar people from becoming godparents to Catholic children.

Understandably, this announcement caused a stir amongst the Catholics not only in Germany, but outside the country as well.  Many were livid at the way the Church in Germany seemed to put a monetary value on Sacraments and hence, the grace of God.  Some Germans said that though they did not want to pay the tax, they still wanted to receive the Sacraments and to go to Mass. 

Is this a wrong move to make, especially in a country that has Mass ‘attendances’ hardly in the healthy range?  I am wondering if this is the very reason the authorities had to take this seemingly drastic measure, because the active and contributing numbers alone are insufficient to meet the fiscal needs of the Church.  But is it really a simple case of ‘chicken or egg’, or is there more than meets the eye?

There has always been an unspoken understanding that when a person accepts Christ in baptism, that there is a complete re-orientation of one’s entire way of life and value system.  While it doesn’t mean that one automatically lives the life of a pauper, it somewhat requires (at least implicitly) that one learns to dispossess of oneself from that moment onward.  The first and easiest thing that one can do to activate and demonstrate this road toward selflessness and dispossession would be in a monetary and material way.  This works at a first level consciousness, and what would be noticed would be the ‘pain’ or ‘pinch’ that one feels when making that conscious choice to part with one’s hard earned money and drops it into the poor box or the collection plates that come around on Sunday before the offertory procession. 

But that is just the first level.  What should progress from there would be the further levels of selflessness and other-centeredness that are intrinsic in being disciples of the Lord.  For example, being generous with our time, being kind with our words, exercising forgiveness, developing our sense of community where we put aside our personal needs and wants for the good of the other, etc.  These are all the other necessary hallmarks of Christian living that the Gospel promotes.  They do not come easily, and one needs to constantly remind oneself (with the grace of God, of course) that at each moment, one is asked to die a little to oneself. 

While it is not a systematic and chronological flow, where one moves from a level 1 monetary giving, to a level 100 total self giving which sees a person imitating Christ’s sacrificial death on the Cross, there is some connection.  One cannot deny this. 

I am wondering if the great uproar that people are making about this tax issue is somewhat connected with the fact that Catholics have somehow lost the understanding that the Christian life does entail a payment on many many levels.  If it is not a payment in monetary terms, it certainly is in other ways.  The very act of being immersed in a pool of water at baptism symbolizes that our lives are surrendered over to God, allowing us to take on a new identity.  That first dramatic act of handing over our lives to God is merely the tip of the proverbial iceberg.  From that point on, there’s a whole life of giving that awaits us.  Perhaps the problem is that many of us tend to see the giving of anything – be it our time, our talents, our attention, our assets or our good disposition as something that the Church demands or ‘extorts’ unreasonably.  But isn’t the truth just the opposite, where if we really and truly understand and appreciate our new life in Christ and where he wants us to be at the end of our lives, i.e. heaven, that we will begin to see all these acts of giving as a mere response to what was first offered to us by God?  Truth be told, there is nothing that we can ever give that can equal or be worth anything near the tremendous gift of salvation and eternal beatitude.  It’s just beyond us.  Seen in this light, what is 8% of our income?  Everything else should in fact be seen in the light of salvation as gift, and gifts are meant never to be hoarded, but shared and distributed to those who are without them.

Yes, this is an ideal, but what is wrong with ideals?  Aren’t most of the problems in Church and the rest of life surrounding the fact that most of us are settling for mediocrity, the prosaic and the pedestrian?  There was an interesting article in a health supplement of the local (Singapore) paper last week about ‘Entering the discomfort zone’ in life, and the author insightfully showed how the greatest gains come only when we push ourselves beyond what our bodies are ordinarily used to do.  He gave the interesting examples of musicians who simply play easy, familiar pieces with the same old well-worn techniques, compared with the excellent musicians who push themselves harder, relentlessly honing their techniques eliminating their bad habits and ingrained faults with dedication and diligence.  This is hard work indeed, and analogously, so is our spiritual life. 

Most of us would prefer a ‘free lunch’ handed out to us in life, and sadly, a lot of us do think that the Christian life, initiated in baptism, is a kind of a ‘free lunch’.  Well, it isn’t.  We spend our entire lives responding to this call to spiritual perfection and it entails a dying to the self each day, and perhaps even each given moment. 

Is the Church in Germany wrong to peg an 8% minimum tax?  It does seem a tad drastic, and to be honest, I did feel rather uncomfortable with this setting of a number to ‘salvation’, though I am sure it is not meant to be the case.  It can easily misread as that, and I am sure that if it is not explained well, and to connect it to the basics of Christian living and the converted life, it probably will remain at that – a tax, and nothing more.  But if we take the trouble to re-examine what our baptismal calling is, and where it is really taking us to in the end, we may in fact be opening not just our purses more, but far more importantly, our hearts as well.  


  1. Dear Fr. Luke,

    I've often wondered why the Catholic church doesn't “impose” a levy of say.. 5-10% on our income. After all, it costs a lot of money to upkeep the church premises, run the various parish programs etc. I think it's perfectly acceptable and honourable that the church requires us to participate in its upkeep.

    However, how does one reach an equitable solution with regards to this? This is where it gets complicated. Take, for example, 2 people - both of them earning $2500 a month. One is a young bachelor (with no dependants) and the other is a father of 4 school-going children. Would it be fair to “tax” them the same amount? I think not. Obviously the bachelor in this case would have a good deal more disposable income as compared to the father-of-four. As they say, the devil's in the details.

    Having said that, witholding of the sacraments in the case of non-payment IMHO is absolutely wrong. You simply cannot put a price on the sacred: period. I must admit I was greatly taken aback when I read that (German) report. I cannot imagine what was going through the mind of those who came up with this proposal. Seems like an idea borne out of sheer desparation.
    Thanks for the post.

    God bless,

  2. When I first read your post, I didn’t want to believe that the German bishop would resort to such desperate measures as to sell Jesus so cheaply! Isn’t it the thirty silver pieces once again? We seemed to be so horrified that Judas would do that- especially one from his inner circle and - now -( isn’t the clergy His inner circle?)……..if we are to believe that in Holy Communion He comes to us in the form of bread /wine, do we now put a price tag on Him? Will a bigger piece of Him be given for a better price – on request? Where and how will this end if we follow this slippery trail? We know the intention or the ends may be good but ‘perdition awaits at the end of a road constructed from good intentions….’ The early Church condemns simony – surely that has not changed? It is as if we are mocking ourselves for our beliefs. All these thoughts and more clamoured for expression as I reflected on this.

    However, when my mind was still, I was caught looking inward, feeling something moved in my own depth……and a sense of peace and deep gratitude permeated my being as I saw that it was for such weak, fearful and sinful people like the apostles and us too, that He came……… to share of himself, to give of himself ……and to share our living and our lives - to save us from ourselves or our ‘base nature’! For it has been said, that we are ‘spiritual beings on a human path rather than human beings who may be on a spiritual path’. So, what seems to be crucial is how we respond to this gift of salvation for the time we have here is a liminal time.

    God bless you, Fr


  3. Indeed, Tessa, what is crucial in our spiritual quest is our response to what God is offering to us, which is eternal life. We fight this response in so many ways, due to our sinful human nature which seeks so much to inflate and preserve the self. That Christ came to give us his very life in the most vivid way, has to impact us to want to follow suit in appropriate and perhaps just as selfless and self-sacrificing ways. If not, our Christian life becomes mere lip service. The true Christian life response is lived when one begins to dare to live this out in very real ways. Being a contributing (financially) member of the church is then seen as a very small yet concrete way to begin developing this Christ-like quality of giving and sacrifice and loving the other for the sake of the other as other (that's a definition of love by St Thomas).

    Having said this, attitudinal change is one of the hardest changes to attain in ourselves, and even harder to instill in others without being received or misunderstood as an imposition or worse, an obligation. It is a moral tuning into, and I personally believe it entails a whole mindset, paradigmatic and heart-conversion which seems to entail a whole working of spiritual gears moving at the same time, and firing on all cylinders. But it's not unattainable. It's a high ideal, but we can't be mediocre if we truly want to be what the Church has always wanted us to be at the end of our lives, which is saints of God. Anything less would be not just a compromise, but indeed, the worse failure we could ever experience not just this side of eternity, but on the other side as well.

    Thank you, Tessa and Bob for your thoughtful responses and comments.

    Fr Luke

  4. Dear Fr Luke

    I have been mulling about your last few posts and had yet to put bits and bytes to screen. Pehraps 'I didn't get it' last week and this week. While I think the 8% tax is high, I would agree that we should contribute to the work of the church as much as we can both in cash and in kind, or find some way of putting commitment into tangible action.

    And thank you Father for the constant spiritual input. I have somehow felt overworked, distanced, restless and distracted in recent weeks but there is a stronger gravitational pull to be grounded when I have access to motivational sharings like your which give me pause to reflect and think outside my normal box.

    God bless,