By Ian Harris Otago Daily Times Oct. 12, 2012
Many and varied are the reasons people give for leaving a church, but saving a few dollars by avoiding the collection plate would be well down the list. That, however, is now an issue for German Catholics, thanks to a decree by their bishops that if they don’t pay their dues by way of the tax system, they will be denied the church’s services, from mass to Christian burial. The message is: “You join the club, you pay the sub.”
It is excommunication in all but name, and a reformist group within the church is not happy. It says the new rule is tantamount to saying that the sacraments are for sale, which “goes beyond the sale of indulgences that Martin Luther denounced”, triggering the Protestant Reformation 500 years ago.
Indulgences were an ingenious fund-raising device. Needing money to build the grandiose new St Peter’s Basilica in Rome, the pope promised that they would wipe away the penalties of sin, on earth and in purgatory, for those who bought them – and also for their dead relatives.
Luther was aghast both at this commercialisation of sin and salvation and at the church’s exploitation of lay people’s naivety. He challenged indulgences on theological grounds, and his charge that the German states had become “the milch cow of Europe” for Rome’s benefit fanned Reformation fervour.
In today’s increasingly secular world, the German churches’ claim on a share of taxes collected by the state seems out of place; but the practice is an overhang from a relationship with the state that goes back centuries. The tax, calculated at 8 to 9 per cent of a church member’s income tax bill, collected €5 billion (NZ$8 billion) from Germany’s 25 million Catholics last year, and €4.5 billion (NZ$7.2 billion) from its 24 million Protestants. It keeps the churches (and Jewish synagogues) well-funded, and enables them to run hospitals, schools and other social services at home and abroad.
But clouds are building. The Catholic Church has lost 3 million members in the past two decades, and with them the tax levy they once paid. So when a retired professor of church law, Harmut Zapp, challenged whether his religious beliefs should tie him automatically to a tax payment, the bishops were not amused. He wanted to stop paying but remain a church member. The bishops countered that “it is not possible to separate the spiritual community of the church from the institutional church”. Last month a federal court concurred – and that will no doubt spur many who now hover between staying in or getting out to decide one way or the other.
For people whose faith has ebbed away, the choice will be easy. But it is a real dilemma for those Christians, of every hue, who have glimpsed new horizons in faith and understanding, but who don’t find them reflected in their churches’ rituals and practices. A tension grows between where their evolving faith is taking them, and where their churches seem to be stuck. And the more their leaders insist that members’ religious duty is to acquiesce and obey, as some do, the more those people wonder why they should continue to support them with their cash.
More than 40 years ago, English Anglican Bishop John Robinson reflected on that tension between a liberating gospel and a stultifying church, while acknowledging that not everyone finds it stultifying. In 1966 it came to a head for a Catholic professor of theology in England, Charles Davis. He had grown increasingly uncomfortable about the sheer weight of the clerical system, which he found authoritarian, cramping and pointless. He felt his integrity was at stake by continuing to be part of it.
For Davis and others like him, getting out proved liberating. But Robinson said that was not the only option. Another was to stay within the church but switch one’s energies to service in the world beyond it. A third, to stay within the organisation and work to transform it from the inside.
The latter is the course chosen by the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, an organisation of American nuns, in their current disagreement with the Vatican (which I wrote about in July). Ordered to back off in their questioning of certain church teaching, in August the conference responded by seeking instead “open and honest dialogue”, in the hope of “creating more possibilities for the laity, and particularly for women, to have a voice in the church”. Wish them luck! Back in 1517, dialogue was what Luther was initially seeking, too