The Deutsche Mark

While traveling in 1992 to Czechoslovakia in the last days of unification between what is now two separate nations, I asked a tour guide about St. Vitus Cathedral: how dd it survive the Soviet era, with policy toward religion? I was aware of Lenin’s atrocities directed at organized religion. In the next ten years, I visited Germany two times, but never picking up the particular distinctions of the religious system at work in their country.

Last week, a German high court ruled that the state recognized the right of Catholics to leave the church — and therefore avoid paying the tax supporting religious institutions. In its ruling, the court avoided addressing what happens when a parishioner formally quits a parish, stops paying taxes, but wants to attend a liturgy. Over the past two decades, “three million disgruntled parishioners,” according to the New York Times, believing their tax payments were better spent elsewhere, left the ranks of the Roman Catholic Church saving the cost of this tax. The court said that their departure was a matter of religious freedom, in a decision which upset the Catholic Bishops’ Conference in Germany. Facing the reality of a reduced revenue stream, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference in Germany issued a statement, endorsed by the Vatican, indicating that a Catholic who refuses to pay taxes will no longer be allowed to serve as godparent, hold office in the church, make confession, or receive Communion. What was not made clear was if practicing Catholics in German now have to produce an identity card or a tattoo in confession or when approaching the altar at Communion. The Catholic bishops “made clear, right away, that taxes are the price for participation in the church’s most sacred rituals: no payments, no sacraments.”  And I was left dumbfounded, thinking of those Jesuits who taught me, after they had vowed their own poverty.

The clear tone presented in the article, in the way of placement and use of adjectives by the writer, if not adversarial is one of religious bigotry. In a ruling obviously challenging the financial structure of the church, the bishops’ response is similar to what any chief executive officer might say, even if, say the New York Times was facing economic collapse in the new world order, in having to count the cost of the system by building a paywall, limiting free visits.

There is a universal problem of formulae which produce unengaged leadership if not unengaging leaders. Churches are financed by the state in Greece, Norway, and Belgium. Spain and Italy allow congregants to decide whether they would like a percentage of their income to go to religious organizations or be directed to civic projects. Belonging to a congregation in the Netherlands or France is based on tithes, not the predetermined charge levied by the government. Churches in Sweden, Switzerland, and Austria use the state to collect taxes from church members, with contributions either one to two percent of the annual assessed income tax, or predetermined, per the New York Times. In Germany, all members of the country’s Protestant and Roman Catholic churches, as well as approximately 120,000 Jews, pay a predetermined charge — 8 to 9 percent of annual income — tax levied by the government on behalf of their own church/temple. Muslim organizations rely on alms-giving that includes zakat donations, or support from outside sources. In Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, zakat is obligatory on the citizen, paid and collected in a centralized manner by the state based on on the net wealth. In Jordan, Bahrain, Kuwait, Lebanon, and Bangladesh, the zakat is regulated by the state, but contributions are voluntary.

The six hundred eighteen Germans who have read this blog since the last days of February – with many pieces written about the challenge to pass on belief and a way of life which contribute to national identity – surely have a better idea of the cost of belonging and the contribution that a church makes to their individual lives. The court ruled that the right to leave, as opposed to excommunication, was a matter of religious freedom, while Catholic bishops saw the decision as a threat to their power and influence in the modern German state — a modern state when men and women no longer did things based strictly on traditional impositions.

And so the punishment back and forth. Exile. Banishment. Inquisitions. What happens to the kids, when you have banished the parents? A child left to produce an identity card or a tattoo to all the impersonal holy men put in charge, to indicate how you really do belong? In a literate world, how many missed age to age, from East to West, the theme of this so very personal God discovered in the stories? Like in the highly readable, contextually sensitive, theoretically astute story of Adam and Eve, in the ethnography of a moral system in change. “Hence you no longer belong here?” Always the spiritual awkwardness, in front of God. In the strangeness of Germany.

Yeah, I was there in the last days of West and East Germany in what is now one united free-at-last nation, where a German court in June 2012 ruled that circumcision is bodily harm and contravenes a right to choose religion in later life. Note the name and thinking of public prosecutor Frau Müller for pursuing charges against a physician for performing a circumcision. Note the name and thinking of the Cologne presiding judge, Herr Beenken; note the name and thinking of the two presiding lay judges Bernd Boettcher and Hans-Jurgen Neuenfeldt. Note not only was the doctor prosecuted in Cologne but the acquittal of Doctor K had been appealed to the high court. It is what happens in secular countries where a holy father or mother tried to leave a mark on you — like in the story of Abraham and Isaac, much like the story in the Qoran of Abraham and Ishmael, when Muslims were recommended to use different routes to and from the prayer grounds on the day the end of Ramadam was celebrated — based upon the story, and not for their own personal safety. When the young, when it came to imposed sacrifice, were never going to exactly do as the elders were doing. So how soon before religious practice is outlawed in the European Union, and maybe Jews as well as Muslims are banished once again from German soil?

This innocence theme meeting annihilation: When a son did not share his father’s beliefs. Yet. About religion, about government, about the world.

Or when a woman did not.

Dealing with strangeness. When women were estranged, anywhere, in the age of liberation, when you were Catholic, in the days when some were still better than others – or not. Like molecules left behind from what previously had been cooked in the same German oven – and so what was government, or popes, serving up today?

Breathtakingly faster — when you were born into a totalitarian state, in the aftermath of war. Or just in the aftermath of another kind of totalitarianism, in times of revolution. Trying to run breathtakingly faster, and the food tasted the same. The conflict was much like in Vienna in 1815, deciding between Restoration or Reformation. And that was the problem for old men, when currency crises are still currency crises–but move breathtakingly faster than in the days  of the Weimar Republic.

In stories about the survival of all the great European Cathedrals.


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5 comments so far

  1. paperlessworld on

    Yes, last week a German high court ruled that the state recognized the right of Catholics to leave the church. As the story changed, on issues of power and dominion. Did you see the irony in the story? Just as how Adam and Eve had once been banished from the Garden of Eden, now, just like Jacob tried to escape Isaac’s household, German Catholics were allowed to escape the church which they were born into. When this world we were born into was always so unfair. And the Hebrew Bible always connected the sin of the current generation to the sins of the fathers.

    America magazine has noted, concerning the removal of one’s name from a Church membership registry maintained by the government in order to produce certain civil consequences, the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts from 2006 explicitly states “formal act of defection must have more than a juridical-administrative character.” Thus German pastors must dialogue with each of the 126,488 German Catholics who have chosen to remove their names from a national registry recognizing their membership in the church of Rome. As Western religion becomes a bit more personal in Germany.

  2. paperlessworld on

    In what is being hailed as a landmark case set to define religious freedom in Britain and across Europe, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the United Kingdom had failed to protect Nadia Eweida’s freedom to wear a cross in her job as airline check-in clerk. Nadia Eweida had lost her argument in front of an employment tribunal in Britain after being refused the right at British Airways to wear a Christian cross as a symbol of faith in the workplace in 2006. Headlines today proclaim that Europeans have won the “fundamental right” to manifest religion with a cross. That this matter was controversial in the European Court in 2013 after the history of an European government imposing the wearing of the Star of David is hard to believe. The union that the European Community has formed to address a mindset replacing the Common Market has become one astonishing thing to watch from across the seas, as local people give up not only their rights but their inherent identity — in this case out of Egypt as a Coptic Catholic — which always came out of a local place. Europe today continues to wrestle with reasonable accommodation for minority beliefs. In the ruling, the European Court of Human Rights stated that because “a healthy democratic society needs to tolerate and sustain pluralism and diversity; but also because of the value to an individual who has made religion a central tenet of his or her life to be able to communicate that belief to others.”

    Though British Airways later changed its uniform policy allowing employees to wear crosses, lawyers for the British government continued to press the matter actively in the court. So what did the head of the Anglican church think of the lawyers actively fighting on behalf of Her Majesty’s Government on issues of religious freedom? And did this entire ensuing six-year story seem to read like something that came out of the former Soviet Union in the 1960s? God save the Queen?

    Religion Blogs

  3. paperlessworld on

    Here is a 2014 update about the practices in Germany — the method of support — connecting church to state and the disbursement of moneys.

  4. paperlessworld on


    And in Norway….

    Is it for economic reasons, this exit? Did these Norwegians, speaking of saving or being saved, get their tax assessment back, after withdrawing from the Lutheran Church

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