The income the German Church receives from the ‘Church tax’ has hit a new high despite the record drop recently recorded in Catholic membership.

– Bishops rake in 6.76 billion euros in 2019, up from 6.64 billion in 2018

According to official figures released July 20 by the German Bishops’ Conference, the German Church received from the tax 6.76 billion euros in 2019.

That’s a 112 million euro or 1.8% increase on the amount received in 2018, when the Church collected 6.64 billion euros from the tax.

At the beginning of July, the Evangelical Church in Germany had reported on the income it receives from the Church tax, and it too collected a record high amount last year: 5.95 billion euros, up 116 million euros or 2.7% on the 5.79 billion euros it received in 2018.

The financial boon for both Churches, however, is not expected to carry over into this year, with both Catholic and Protestant authorities forecasting a sharp decline in receipts due to the coronavirus pandemic.

– Increase put down to good conditions in German labour market last year

At first glance the increase in income for both Churches seems surprising, given that at the end of last month both denominations informed of a record drop in the number of their respective faithful last year.

In the case of the Catholic Church, 272,771 people turned their back on the faith in 2019: a significant increase on the 216,078 people who did so in 2018.

Admissions and readmissions to the Catholic Church also fell last year, as did church marriages (-10%), confirmations (-7%), first communions (-3%) and baptisms (-5%), with the number of German Catholics regularly attending Church services also hitting the new low of 9.1% in 2019, compared to 9.3% in 2018.

How, then, to account for the rise in income from the Church tax? Experts are putting it down to the positive conditions in the German labour market in 2019, with the corresponding increases in wages and income tax.

Depending on the state in which they live, German Catholics, Protestant, Jews and other believers who are members of religious communities recognised by the State pay between 8 and 9% of their income tax towards financing their religious institution. The ‘Church tax’ system was introduced in its current form in 1919 as a way of ensuring the Churches’ financial independence from the State.

In return for paying the tax believers have the right to receive the sacraments and a religious burial. Those benefits are annulled – along with the obligation to pay the religion tax – if the individual chooses to renounce the faith in a formal written declaration.

Last year’s plunge in membership saw the total Catholic population in Germany decrease from 23 million in 2018 to 22.6 million in 2019, while the Evangelical population dropped from 21.14 million in 2018 to 20.7 million in 2019.

Of those 43.3 million active German Catholics and Protestants, the Churches estimate that just under half pay the Church tax, with those not paying income tax being exempt from paying the Church tax and, in the case of the Catholic Church, around 37% of the faithful accounting for 97% of the income.

The Church tax income is collected by the State tax office, which receives around 3% of the income for that service. The remainder of the money is then distributed to the different Churches and religions.

– Social causes and refugee aid, among the principal budget items

In terms of what the German Catholic Church spent the Church tax money on last year, a significant proportion went to social causes (591.6 million euros) and refugee aid at home and abroad (116.1 million euros).

Commenting in the guide in which the Church tax statistics were published today, German Bishops’ Conference President Georg Bätzing acknowledged, with respect to the falling membership numbers, that “despite our concrete pastoral and social actions, we no longer motivate a large number of people for Church life”.

However, Bätzing added that the German Church is committed to being a strong presence in society, “and especially with those who live on the margins… as well as with the sick and the weak”.

In a video message accompanying the presentation of the Church tax numbers, Bätzing also insisted that despite the drop in the faithful “here in Germany there are many good stories to tell” in the Church.

Not least of all the ‘synodal path’ reform process, which Bätzing said was “a workshop for the future” charged with nothing less than the “conversion and renewal of the Church”.

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Progressive Catholic journalist, author and educator. Working on social justice, equality and Church renewal.