Monday, November 11, 2013

Taxation without salvation

When John F. Kennedy ran for president, my father wouldn’t vote for him because, he said, “I don’t think the country ought to be ruled by Rome.”  I was very much taken in by the Kennedy mystique at the time and ashamed of my father’s retrograde ideas.  “That’s ridiculous,” I told him.  “He’d be president of all Americans, not just Catholics, and I’m sure he will make that clear.”  He did, of course, and became a national, even to a degree an international, hero, much better known in history for standing up to Khrushchev than for being Catholic.

I’ve been reading lately about the Kulturkampf, the “cultural struggle” between Protestants and Catholics in Prussia at the time Bismarck was uniting all of the German states into one and am struck with how different the history of church-state relations in Germany is from the way we do things here in the U.S.  I started down this path when following up on the story of Bishop Tebartz-van Elst of Limburg, who got caught redoing his own digs at a price that some estimate would have built 60 apartments for the needy.   The questions were popping up all over the place.  Where did all this money come from?  How come so much?  Did he have the authority to spend it all?

And the answers will surprise a lot of people.  Yes, he did have the authority, it turns out, despite the fact that the money that pays for church upkeep, clerics’ salaries and other church-run institutions like schools and hospitals comes from mostly from taxes on the general public.  I began to smell something rotten, something much bigger than a cleric with a $15,000 bathtub.

I knew that, officially, Germany had separation of church and state written into the constitution.  But Germans clearly see that separation differently from the way Americans see it.  There they have a church tax system, also written into the constitution, and if you are a member of one of the semi-official churches (chiefly, the state-recognized Lutheran and the state-recognized Catholic churches), you pay between 8 and 9% of your income to the church of which you are a member.  Because Germany is now a very rich country, their churches have naturally become very rich, as well.   In 2008, for example, according to one source, the Catholic Church took in 5.6 billion euros in church taxes.  Another source has the figure for 2010 at over 10.8 billion euros (US$14.6 billion) going to all churches and suggests a further loss to the state of another 4.29 billion by releasing the churches from taxation. 

Germany is not the only country to assess a church tax.  Many European countries do.  But while Swedes, Danes and Finns, for example, pay between 1 and 2% and Italians pay only .08%, Germans pay a whopping 8 to 9%.

First thing we have to do, before going any further, is unpack the notion of “church” and make clear whether we’re talking about a collective, a “body of believers” (as Vatican II oriented Catholics are wont to do) or church as the Roman Catholic hierarchy would like to define it, as an organization established by God, if you believe their version of things, and meant to be run by a pope and his bishops.  And when we’ve done that, we then have to distinguish between the abstract notion of a people’s collective on the one hand and the concrete, i.e., brick, wood and stone buildings they house themselves in.

A “church home” as it’s usually called, is a building which sits on property.  Should that property be taxed?  Who pays for the police to direct traffic when large numbers of people go to church?  And who pays for the upkeep?  And for the salaries of the people who work there?

Our family used to love to tell the story about the time I spoke out in a loud voice in church (or maybe it was my sister – time clouds the memory) when the collection plate was being passed, “Daddy, did you put your nickel in?”  I was trained early on to believe it was your Christian duty to keep the church afloat.  To this day, though, I don’t know of any Americans who would actually think it’s a good idea to have the IRS do the collecting.

Two facts that accompany this story of taxing the populace to run the churches interest me – besides the astonishing figures, I mean.  One is that the amount that comes from church taxes is only about 70% of the actual take – another 30% comes straight out of regular taxes, which all citizens pay, including non-Christians, atheists ardently opposed to the church as a political force, and those the church has excommunicated.  And the second is that if you are a practicing Catholic and don’t want to pay anymore, you can be released from the obligation only at penalty of excommunication.  One retired professor of Canon Law is currently fighting for the right to remain a practicing Catholic and still be relieved of the burden, but his case is far from won.    

We in the United States can’t get our fellow citizens to agree to tax ourselves the modest amount it would take to establish a single-payer national health care plan, so people wouldn’t die from lack of medical care or go broke trying to pay the private corporations who determine the costs by whatever they think the market will bear.   But in Germany, it’s not only pay-to-pray but pay as well, if you’re Catholic, to receive Holy Communion.  The Protestant Reformation came about in large part to break this hold the hierarchy had over believers, but five centuries later, a Roman Catholic priest can still stand in front of you and tell you your path to God is blocked because you didn’t pay your dues to the church.

For a Protestant, especially those who believe in the “priesthood of all believers” you could easily get around  such a restriction (even if your church had such a thing – which it doesn’t).  You could still pray in the privacy of your own home.  But for a Catholic, who has a moral obligation to attend mass if at all possible, being told it’s not just showing up but paying your church taxes that is required, this is no small thing.  As for getting married in the church, forget it.  Buried?  Try the state-run pauper’s graveyard.

In that blog entry I wrote on Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst,  I took a liberty when tsk-tsking over his profligacy I maybe shouldn’t have.  I went and got figures for the State of Hesse, where Limburg is located and made a rough guess there were probably no more than about 8200 Catholics in Limburg.  If that is so, I concluded, the bishop’s spending of 42,000,000 euros comes to over 5000 euros per parishioner.  There’s a logical fallacy there in that I’m forgetting that in Europe, the home of the great cathedrals, churches are not merely places of worship but cultural treasures that belong to everybody.

Cologne Cathedral
Cologne Cathedral, for example.  One of the world’s most famous Catholic churches, yet it does not belong to the Catholic Church.  It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site sustained by an agency of the Prussian State (Cologne was part of Prussia) known as the ZDV, the Zentral Dombau Verein, or Central Cathedral Building Society.  The ZDV still pays half the costs from funds from membership, donations, bequests, and a lottery.

Charlemagne window,
I’m no friend of organized religion, as I’ve made clear all over the place, but I once reached deep into my pocket for some cash to put in the box marked “for church maintenance” when struck dumb at the beauty of the Cathedral at Chartres.   If you haven’t been there, and you can possibly go, get on a plane now, and fly to Paris.  Skip the Eiffel Tower, get yourself to Montparnasse Station and take the train to Chartres.  And tell me you’re not tempted to reach into your pockets to support the church (this church, anyway) as well.
St. James window,

The trick, obviously, is to keep separate the splendor of two thousand years of art and music from the doctrinal interpretations of people claiming to speak for God at any given moment in history.  Particularly doctrine in the hands of highly imperfect, most assuredly fallible, bishops, cardinals and popes who would lead you to believe you’re paying for stained glass windows and then kick you away from the communion rail.  Many Catholics stay in the church and pay their taxes for doctrinal reasons.  Many more stay there because of grandma’s voice.  Still more stay there because they are not boat-rocking kinds of people.  And then there are the folk who stay there for the windows and the Bach and Mozart requiems.

Martin Luther memorial
in front of Dresden Frauenkirche
in 1958
I made a trip to Dresden once, not long after Germany was reunited and the East was opened up.  It was one of the few times in my life I regretted a travel decision.  It was too soon after the wall came down and the DDR had not had the money to fix the place up so what you got to see in the downtown was acre upon acre of empty spaces where a city had once stood.  I found my way to a McDonald’s out of sheer perversity – it all fit, somehow, that after all that destruction we’d start building back up with junk food from America.  I sat there for a while looking out at a pile of rubble.  A half century after the war’s end they still had not cleaned up this site, right in the middle of downtown.  As I stared out at the rubble, I saw that it was the site of the former Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady) and that reconstruction was in the works.   Years have passed, now, and the Frauenkirche of Dresden has been rebuilt in all its baroque splendor.

Dresden Frauenkirche,
as it still was in 1964
Dresden lost I don’t know how many of its former churches.  Most of them, I think.   Many have been rebuilt, but by no means all.   If you’re into this kind of thing and want to do a meditation of the folly of war, have a look at the 84-page document on the ruins of Dresden churches and synagogues, many of which have never been rebuilt. 

If the cost of rebuilding them had been taken up by church members alone, there would be very little to show of this aspect of Germany’s cultural heritage. Keep in mind that 80% of the residents of Dresden have no religious affiliation.

When Dresden rebuilt its Frauenkirche, 102 million euros out of the total cost of 180 million came from legacies and stipends and other foundation monies.  And 70 Million out of state funds from Dresden city taxes, Saxony State taxes and federal taxes.  The church (building) belongs to the state.

Photo of Dresden Frauenkirche
rebuilt, taken in 2010
And that raises the question of who controls what goes on there.  Do the priests and ministers have a right to stand up in the pulpit on Sundays and rail against gays and lesbians, divorced people, non-religious people whose taxes they have used to build the glorious surroundings in which they live and work?

While one might be wary of any attempt on the part of the state to dictate who gets to take communion, for example, or decide whether one prays for the conversion of Jews inside Catholic or other Christian churches, there is still a moral question to be answered here – should non-Catholics have their money used to denigrate and demonize them, simply because these state treasures called churches traditionally belonged to the Demonizers? 

One may want to quibble that I am being unfair to the good Lutherans of Dresden who are not demonizing at the same rate as the Catholics.  “Our Lady” sounds terribly Catholic to American ears, but churches dedicated to “the blessed virgin” remain in all the Lutheran countries.   But there the similarities end.  While Catholic bishops have been known to withhold communion from people who voted for the wrong kind of politician, in their eyes, people who had divorced and remarried, and gay and lesbian people, the State (Lutheran) Church of Sweden has not only a female archbishop,  but a lesbian bishop as well.   Their approach is to leaving the judging up to God.     

I know it looks like I'm suggesting churches need to be dragged against their will to oppose racism, sexism and homophobia.  Much as I'd like that to happen, I think they should be allowed to be against dancing and singing, eating shellfish, writing with their left hands or whatever they believe will make God love them more when they are not out and about.  And, all sarcasm aside, who gets to take communion is not my issue either - it's an issue for Catholics to determine for themselves.  But my issue - and protesting that Protestants are not as bad only masks the real question – is whether any church should be exempt from the notion of taxation without representation.  It's true that perhaps if they focused more on Christian charity and less on cherry-picked rules made by and for the patriarchal elite of the institution, I’d be more inclined to lighten up on them.  But I can’t help thinking this German Catholic biting of the taxpayer hand that feeds them is of a piece with other scapegoating practices such as the demonization of gays in Russia and in Uganda.  In both cases you don’t have to look very far to see the church’s handiwork.

For too long now we’ve let this question of church interference in the affairs of state slide, whether it involves imposing the death penalty for homosexuality as Ugandan evangelicals have tried to do, taking their cue from American evangelicals.   Or whether it's an effort to make gays disappear from sight, which is what the Russian Orthodox Church's support for Putin's homophobia is all about.  Or whether it's the issue at hand, the lesser evil of ostracism and demonization characteristic of German Catholicism.  Trivial though the German case may be by comparison, the issue is the injustice.  It differs not in kind, but only in degree.

People have been afraid to upset the status quo because they tend to lump together all kinds of things associated with religion.   When they hear "church" they think of some magnificent building with lofty organ music and stunning stained-glass windows. Of the Hallelujah Chorus, or Amazing Grace, or requiems by Mozart or Bach (kind of) or Brahms.  The church, they have been taught, is the depository of our ethical system, failing to see acknowledge how well the world gets along with the Golden Rule and a sense of fair play, two things the church cannot lay exclusive claim to.  They then lump all this together with the aura of authority that comes from men claiming entitlement to own and run all of these things of beauty and comfort.  Men who live with a sense of exclusive entitlement to the fat of the land.  Men who tell you you have inherited sin and must be constantly on the alert or you will sin some more.  But - good news - they have the power to forgive you for those sins.

Many people still live under the spell of these men and the rules their forbears established chiefly for their own benefit in a pre-modern age.  The spell is held in place by the myth that they are the chief purveyors of good works in the world today, that they run the schools and hospitals for the benefit of all.  And by the associations we make in our minds with goodness and beauty and with places like Chartres and Cologne.

It's time to burst that bubble.  Church authorities have equal rights as citizens, but they do not have special rights as clerics.  The great churches of the old Christian world may represent some of the highest aspirations of the human spirit and some of the greatest accomplishments of European architects and builders.  But the old boys who claim to own them do not.  

A pig in a pretty dress is still a pig.

I didn't write that.

The devil wrote that.

The men who populate the Catholic hierarchy are not pigs.  They are not even bad men.  Just a tad on the smug side.  Highly imperfect beings.  No shame in that.  But they do not deserve special favors.  Not from anyone, and certainly not from taxpayers.  Next time you find an institution bearing a Catholic saint's name discriminating against a fellow citizen, find out who keeps the place running.  And go from there.

Photo credits: Charlemagne and St. James windows at Chartres
Dresden Frauenkirche photos
Cologne Cathedral photo


bhj said...

One very minor correction: The Church of Sweden is since 2000 no longer a state church.
But they do have female bishops, one them the newly elected arch-bishop, another one is a lesbian.

Alan said...

Thanks for the correction