God or Mammon: Benedict XVI’s Twilight Reflections on the Church in Germany

This past Autumn Last Testment in his own words, an interview of Benedict XVI by Peter Seewald was released in its English translation. It is full of fascinating and tantalising, almost teasing, tidbits. Scattered through the book are several passing comments on the Church in Germany, Benedict’s native land. Put them together and one finds a sobering reflection on this powerhouse of European Catholicism.

First, a quick reminder of the German Church. It has proved aggressively liberal, not least in some of its most prominent prelates, such as Cardinals Marx, Lehmann and Kasper. They cam into their own at Vatican II when they successfully pushed their liberal agenda onto the Council by means of their wealth and organisational savvy. The title alone of the classic (and approving!) contemporary history of the Council, The Rhine Flows into the Tiber, reveals that perfectly.

Cardinals Kasper (l) and Marx (r)

The Catholic Church in Germany is fabulously wealthy due to its share of the German Church Tax, an 8% tax automatically levied on all those who are officially identified to the government as members of one of various churches, such as the Evangelische Kirche (a federation of 22 Protestant sects, and predominantly Lutheran) or, of course, the largest Christian communion in the country, the Catholic Church. This tax is then returned to the churches to fund their works and their properties. In 2015 the church tax raised just over €6 billion for the Catholic Church. It is this financial clout that has allowed the Catholic Church in Germany to punch above its weight.

Any reduction in the church tax revenues gives the German prelates heartburn, and any hint of its abolition is der Alptraum der Alpträume (the nightmare of nightmares) for them. So, in the wake of the abuse crisis, when many Catholics began to de-register themselves with the government as Catholic in order to opt out of the church tax, the German bishops reacted with vile vigour, effectively (though not exactly) excommunicating church-tax renouncers by denying them the sacraments except in danger of death, and denying them employment in Catholic institutions such as schools or hospitals, and denying them even a Catholic funeral.

However, these same bishops are happy to change their rules to allow open and active homosexuals and remarried divorcees to work for the Church. Moreover they are almost all in favour of allowing civilly divorced and remarried Catholics to receive Holy Communion (though 6 brave bishops, mostly under 60 years of age, repudiate this decision).

It is no surprise that the German bishops are (mostly) both frightened of losing their church tax revenues and accommodating of secular orthodoxy. He who pays the piper calls the tune. Since the German state—thoroughly secular, and socially and morally liberal—pays the Church, it is no wonder that politicians occasionally seek to dictate terms to the Catholic Church as, for example, in the matter of the ordination of married men to the priesthood. The Church in Germany is compromised by its financial dependance on the state, and if the bishops had to earn their keep from voluntary contributions from the faithful they would be vastly poorer, and that much less powerful.

Benedict XVI in retirement

Keep this in mind a you read the gathered passing comments of Benedict XVI on the Catholic Church in Germany:

Particularly when I think of Germany—of the power of bureaucracy there, and how theoretical and political faith has become and how it lacks a living dynamism—which often seems as though it is nearly crushed by overweight bureaucratic structures, it is encouraging that other actors are asserting themselves in the global Church as well. In the end, they are missionizing Europe anew from the outside.  [p.31]

In fact I have great doubts about whether or not the church tax system is right, as it is. I don’t mean whether there should be a tax system at all. But the automatic excommunication of those who don’t pay, is, in my opinion, indefensible.  [p.215]

In Germany we have this established and well-paid Catholicism, often with employed Catholics, who then oppose the Church with a trade-union mentality. For them the Church is only an employer towards whom they are critical. They don’t approach matters from a dynamic of faith, but rather from just this sort of position. This, I believe, is the great danger threatening the Church in Germany: that she has so many paid employees, and therefore a surplus of non-spiritual bureaucracy. The Italians cannot afford nearly as many employees, so participation is  based mainly on voluntary work. In this way, for example, regular, large meetings of Catholics in Rimini were completely built up on conviction. Everything that has to happen there, converting the halls, the functioning of the technology, is done by volunteers, unpaid.  [p.217]

Does the Vatican possess too much? I don’t know. We must do a great deal for the poor countries who need our help… Money must be there above all for giving, for service. But it has to come in somehow before you can give it away. So I don’t really know what we could have given away. I believe that every local church should ask itself that, beginning in Germany.  [p.223]

Ouch. Deo gratias.

12 thoughts on “God or Mammon: Benedict XVI’s Twilight Reflections on the Church in Germany

  1. The other problem is that a great many other Churches are dependent on their generosity and in return the Germans gain influence. They threatened JPII with cutting off money in Lehmann was not created Cardinal and through Caritas they use their weight in India and Africa – and even amongst Argentinian Jesuits. Cardinal Sarah’s move to CDW from Caritas seems likely to have been their work.


  2. A future pope should pull the rug from under the German Catholic Church by issuing a decree along the following lines:

    1. The Vatican unilaterally revokes all concordats and agreements with the Federal Republic of Germany.
    2. German Catholics are free to choose between supporting their pastors via the 8% tax or alternatively withdrawing from the tax as long as they contribute via the collection plate.
    3. A tax-based withdrawal from the Church will be regarded purely as a matter of personal financial and tax planning and will not be interpreted in and of itself as an act of apostasy.
    4. The German Church has no power to deprive anyone of the sacraments for tax-related reasons. The sacraments must be administered to all Catholics otherwise worthy to receive them.
    5. Any German priest who denies the sacraments, or a Catholic funeral, to a person who has withdrawn from paying the Church Tax, is suspended a divinis.

    That will bring the Germans rapidly under control. And exactly the same decree should be issued with respect to Austria as well, which has exactly the same problems as the German Church.

    Liked by 1 person

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