Is it Church Discipline or Simony?

Is it Church Discipline or Simony? September 25, 2012

9/28/2012 Update:  see the end of the article.

The Church in Germany has just enacted a decree barring any Catholic who fails to contribute to the Church from the sacraments.   In Germany, there is an arrangement dating back to the 19th century whereby the government administers a church  tax:  if you declare yourself a Catholic on your tax forms, a surcharge (between 8% and 10%) is added to your taxes, and the funds are given to the Catholic Church.  (A similar arrangement holds for Protestants and Jews.) If you declare yourself “non-religious”, you pay no surcharge.

As reported by AFP and the AP,  increasing numbers of Catholics are declaring on their tax forms that they are non-religious to get out of paying their Church tax.  In response, the Church has decreed that beginning Monday, Catholics who do so are barred from the sacraments for “effectively leaving the Church.”  The one exception is a religious marriage ceremony will be allowed with the approval of the ordinary and “a promise to keep the faith and uphold the religious education of any children in the Catholic faith.”  (AFP)

Does this represent an appropriate form of Church discipline?  Can someone who refuses to pay the Church tax, for whatever reason, be equated with someone who has abandoned the faith and so deserves to be excommunicated?  Both press reports note that there are increasing reports of pedophilia cases in Germany, and many people are opting out of their Church tax in response.

In the United States, it is not uncommon for people to express their anger or disappointment with their pastor or bishop by reducing their contributions or withholding them entirely.   To the best of my knowledge, no bishop has every threatened to excommunicate parishioners for doing this.  (Morlino, in Wisconsin, threatened canonical sanctions, but withholding contributions was only part of what he was angry about.)  In Germany, the only way to accomplish this is tell the government to stop collecting the tax, which in turn requires you to declare yourself “non-religious”.

While I will defer to a canonist for a precise definition, this seems to me to be verging very close to simony: refusing the sacraments unless a fee (in this case, the Church tax) is paid.  Under the circumstances, it strikes me as both unjust and unpastoral.  Rather than trying to deal with the (possibly different) reasons people are refusing to pay, the Bishops are simply declaring them to be outside the Church.   Now, in fairness, they may have taken such steps, but the press reports give no indication, and truthfully, I have a hard time imagining the bishops doing so.
Update (9/28/2012):  Ed Peters, the conservative American canonist, has expressed some very nuanced opinions about this case in an article distributed by CNA.  Two quotes get to the heart of his opinion:

To invoke the consequences of excommunication, even if that term is not used, against those who object to paying a civil Church tax, raises some very serious questions about justice toward the faithful.

Long-standing civil-canonical mechanisms for rendering that support – even if those mechanisms are in need of reform – should not be challenged piecemeal, lest greater confusion about the duties of the faithful and the proper role of the state in regard to religion be spread thereby.

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  • dave

    You say there is an increasing number of “pedophilia” cases reported in Germany. Do you mean “pedophila” — that is, sexual contact with pre-pubescent boys? Or do you mean “homosexual” contacts?

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      I don’t know, but I don’t see any need to draw this distinction or to sidetrack this discussion into parsing the details of the pedophilia scandal.

  • brettsalkeld

    Ugh. This whole thing strikes me as a kind of warning to never get in bed with the state in the first place.

    • CT Michael


  • Jordan

    I agree with Brett that the church tax model (also practiced in Austria) is an unwise conflation of “church and state”. The German tax model is a throwback to a time when Germans were much more conscious of confessional divisions. The socioeconomic mobility of Germans within Germany and Europeans throughout the EU, combined with European postchristianity, suggests that the revenue from a confessional tax would be better applied for other means. Maybe it is time for the German government to hold referenda on the future of the church tax and the disestablishment of state-sponsored religious groups.

    The AFP and AP articles explicitly state that the decision pertains to the sacrament of marriage and the rite of Christian burial. I strongly suspect that no person who presents himself or herself for Holy Communion will be refused. Similarly, it is likely that no confession will go unheard. I cannot imagine a priest questioning a penitent or communicant as to their status with regard to the church tax. I would also not be surprised if not a few Catholic clergy wed and bury without question, perhaps out of a conscious disagreement with what I also agree could be considered simony.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      No, the CNS report makes it clear that it pertains to all sacraments. How it will be enforced is another matter. I am reminded of a truism which young officers are supposedly taught: never give an order you know will not be obeyed. Perhaps here we have the parallel: never issue a rule you know cannot be enforced.

  • I lived in Germany recently. It is, indeed, “appropriate” to bring up the pedophilia scandals there because they are part of the reason that the Catholic Church is dying in Germany. Their income already comes from the contributions of the very old and from their enormous property holdings. Almost nobody under the age of 35 gives them a single Euro. Their churches stand virtually empty during all but the holiest seasons. It may be different in Bavaria, but I can tell you from recent personal experience that this is the case in the Rhineland and in Berlin.

    • Rat-biter

      This doesn’t exactly bode well for the artificial respiration being attempted on the Church in Ireland.

  • Whether it’s a prudent arrangement for the Church or not, the [obligatory, State-enforced] tithe was never considered simony, and excommunication of apostates is not really problematic either. One might argue the situation should not exist in the first place, but is there really any doubt of the damnation of those who apostasize or deny Christ before Caesar merely to avoid paying a tax??

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Why shouldn’t a state enforced, obligatory tithe be regarded as simony? While Catholics have a duty to support the Church, does failure to perform that duty automatically result in them being barred from the sacraments? Moreover, I think it is debatable whether every case (or indeed most cases) of refusing to pay the Church tax constitute apostasy before Caesar. Life is much more complicated than the simplistic black and white boxes you are trying to force them into here.

      • Saying that there is a duty that, if not preformed, is mortally sinful or excommunicable…is not the same as “trading” the duty for grace or salvation.

        If we don’t go to Mass on Sunday that’s (objectively) a mortal sin. That doesn’t mean that I’m “trading” Mass attendance for salvation.

  • Paul Connors

    David Cruz-Uribe, SFO: “The Church in Germany has just enacted a decree barring any Catholic who fails to contribute to the Church from the sacraments.”


    In the original document, the German bishops point out that someone who formally declares to a competent public legal authority for any reason (“aus welchen Gründen”) that they are not Catholic, has in fact freely chosen to take a very serious step in the wrong direction: a step that has consequences. The bishops also point out that the failure to give any money at all to the Church (if that were the reason for such a declaration) is also a serious matter.

    But it is the formal declaration of not being a Catholic from which all the very negative consequences flow.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      You cannot decontexualize the decision to declare oneself “non-Catholic” on your taxes by categorically treating it as a formal declaration of not being a Catholic—apostasy, in other words. If the decision is to withhold funds to punish or to protest against actions taken by the bishops, while that may be problematic for other reasons, I do not think it necessarily constitutes apostasy. If it is sinful, it needs to be dealt with in the confines of the parish and the confessional, and not by blanket condemnations.

  • Sounds like simony to me. The bishops there should be ashamed.

  • I’m going to go in a different direction here. I don’t see this as a huge problem, probably because I don’t have any problem with confessional taxes. If we want to take subsidiarity seriously, this is what it looks like – in this case, the state making sure that the Church has enough “help” to fulfill its mission as a key mediating institution.

    • Jordan

      Morning’s Minion [September 25, 2012 11:56 pm]: If we want to take subsidiarity seriously, this is what it looks like – in this case, the state making sure that the Church has enough “help” to fulfill its mission as a key mediating institution.

      It’s important to consider the nature of the Catholic and Protestant social mediation in modern Germany. A “pure” or idealized subsidiarity views the Catholic Church both as a divinely mandated institution entrusted with the sacraments and as an organ of social justice (schools, foster care, hospitals, hospice care, universities, etc.) The postwar German social-democratic mixed market economy has, in many instances, supplanted many if not most of the Catholic and Protestant churches’ previous role as primary welfare providers. The German social market economy is a competitor to, and not a cooperator with, Catholic subsidiarity.

      As is noted in the press, and as David has pointed out, many German Catholics are opting to disaffiliate from the institutional Church because of their clerical abuse crisis. Certainly, the anger and disappointment of German Catholics over this scandal should never be discounted. And yet, German Catholics are able to disaffiliate themselves without much concern of the potential loss of state welfare benefits.

      In my view, the church tax is a vestige from a time when both German Catholicism and Protestantism exercised a much greater social and political influence than is now the case. For this reason, the German electorate should be permitted to vote on a reassignment of church tax revenues and also religious disestablishment. I suspect that many Germans, regardless of religious affiliation, would support a full secularization of German revenue given the marginalization of the social welfare influence of the churches.

    • Well, MM, you really DO take your “statism” to this ridiculous extent, don’t you? No American could possibly stomach this–and not just because of “separation of Church and State,” but also because many of us, in the Anglo-Saxon or English “conservative” tradition would see this as imperiling the CHURCH’S “prophetic role” in any give society. I can also tell you, from recent experience there, that the German Catholic Church does absoltutely NOTHING to “rock the boat” politically–they’re burrowed as far into the pockets of the ruling Christian Democratic Party as they can get!

    • Rat-biter

      “I don’t see this as a huge problem, probably because I don’t have any problem with confessional taxes.”


      ## This is not just a tax – it a tax, the paying of which has been made an essential condition for the reception of a sacrament, which is a spiritual good.

      If that is not simony – what is it ?

  • crystal

    What about people who don’t pay the tax not because they don’t consider themselves Catholic anymore but because they feel they can’t afford it? Do those who are poor and Catholic in Germany pay the tax? If not, does the church then not allow the poor the sacraments?

    • Jordan

      That’s a very important question. I did a little research how the church tax is levied. For the details, Dr. Jens Petersen offers an English-language introduction to the church tax on his website Informationsplattform zur Kirchensteuer (church tax information website).

      Dr. Petersen notes that the church tax for single taxpayers (8% — 9%) is a percentage of income tax paid and not a percentage of gross salary. Joint filers and families with children receive a partial deduction on the church tax. Interestingly, a couple in which one spouse is Catholic and the other Protestant have the option of splitting the church tax between the two confessions.

      Nowhere does Dr. Petersen state that the church tax is not levied on persons or families below a certain income level. I know nothing about German or EU tax law, but I suspect that as in the US and Canada persons below a certain income do not pay any income taxes and even receive tax rebates. Any market economy benefits by some form of negative tax, not only for the welfare of the poor but also because an overtaxed society cannot spend enough to stimulate the economy.

      One of the fundamental tenets of canon law is “the salvation of souls is the greatest law” (salus animarum suprema lex). I would say that even implicit simony, as is implied in a condemnation of the act of de-registering from the church tax (but not necessarily the refusal to pay the tax), is a break from this truth. Also, to deny pastoral care to any person, and especially persons who are poor materially or otherwise, is an affront to charity.

    • Hermann

      The “church tax” is measured according to the income tax one pays so pople with a very low or no income do nat pay it.


  • Frank M.

    I noticed in the story David linked, that church weddings are not covered by the ban on those who’ve “left” the Church for tax reasons, though the ban covers most other sacramental and pastoral services. It seems ironic that in Germany, “marriage” is primarily a State function. For tax purposes, government alone performs the relevant ceremony and decides who is married or not. In my parents’ day (and still, AFAIK), if you want to get married in the Church, you have to first get married by the state, and then the married couple goes to the church for a church wedding, typically on the same day or shortly thereafter. In my parents’ case, the State gave them a copy of Mein Kampf along with the marriage certificate.

    So the pattern is: State administers all the details of marriage for purposes of taxation, insurance and all the rest, then the Church blesses the union. Presumably the Church would refuse to bless a union which didn’t meet its standards (such as two men or someone still in a marriage the Church hasn’t annulled), and neither Church nor State are injured by this.

    Similarly, the State administers most of the details of Church membership for purposes of taxation, leaving only the actual baptism to the Church. I have no idea if the Church can or would reject a member’s Kirchensteuer on the basis of that person’s unsuitability for membership. Nor do I know how many Germans regard their Church membership as nothing more than a service they’ve paid for. It seems that by taking the money, the Church has handed to the State some degree of control of its membership. I can’t imagine what the State gets out of it; all the Church gets is tainted money.

    • The State gets the silence of the German Catholic hierarchy regarding a number of its dubious policies.

      • Rat-biter

        So much for being “prophetic” 🙁

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  • Rat-biter

    First: as always, an excellent and gracious article – on a very horrid subject at that.

    It’s good to see this being discussed here. It’s on the Cranmer weblog too, thanks to a poster at Enlightened Catholicism. NCRonline don’t seem to to have got onto it (yet ?) – what will be interesting is to see whether Edward Peters, Father Z or the NCRegister get on to it – and if so, what they (will ? may ?) say.

    If the answer to crystal’s last question is a “Yes”, then this is definitely simony. If the poor don’t have to pay – why should anyone else ? And if the German bishops are allowed to do this – why not the rest of the Catholic episcopate ? To demand payment for God’s grace, which is free, gratis & for nothing (for us sinners at least), is indescribable. And there is no justification or other reason for it – only excuses.

    One can see why the bishops don’t want ex-Catholics receiving the sacraments (intellectually inconsistent as that is with some of what of comes out of Rome these days); but bringing money into this is completely wrong:it’s immoral, anti-Christian, and unbelievably stupid. What are they going do next – sell pardons ? Traffic in indulgences ? What happened to Acts 8:

    20 Peter answered: “May your money perish with you, because you thought you could buy the gift of God with money!
    21 You have no part or share in this ministry, because your heart is not right before God. 22 Repent of this wickedness and pray to the Lord in the hope that he may forgive you for having such a thought in your heart.
    23 For I see that you are full of bitterness and captive to sin.”” ?

    As for the Church’s prophetic role, the Church needs to be prophetic, or die; but Rome already does a very good job of smothering or domesticating such a role, without needing to rely on the State to domesticate or stifle it. The same end is achieved by different forms of worldliness. To the great harm of the Church’s members.

    • Hermann

      What about peolple who opt out of the state “chuirch tax” system but go on giving to their parish, their diocese? Is the refusal to allow the state to intrude between me and the church I give my money to apostasy? I cannot see this. The church is letting the state define who has left it? Not really a good idea!


  • Rat-biter

    P.S: this does not make sense:

    “As reported by AFP and the AP, increasing numbers of Catholics are declaring on their tax forms that they are non-religious to get out of paying their Church tax. In response, the Church has decreed that beginning Monday, Catholics who do so are barred from the sacraments for “effectively leaving the Church.””

    ## It does not make sense, because the Church authorities can’t have it both ways: if the German bishops are correct (and it’s their business to be correct about such matters), it follows from their position that the changes made to make defection from the Church more difficult are not needed. But if those changes are what count, then they are seriously mistaken. So which position is correct ?

    The Church authorities are very silly if they think making people’s names impossible to remove from the rolls means those people haven’t gone elsewhere 🙁 The Archdiocese of Dublin was wiser:

    “The Holy See confirmed at the end of August that it was introducing changes to canon law and as a result it will no longer be possible to formally defect from the Catholic Church. This will not alter the fact that many people can defect from the Church, and continue to do so, albeit not through a formal process. This is a change that will affect the church throughout the world. The Archdiocese of Dublin plans to maintain a register to note the expressed desire of those who wish to defect. Details will be communicated to those involved in the process when they are finalised.
    Last year 229 people formally defected from the Church through the Archdiocese of Dublin. 312 have done so, so far this year.”

    This gadgetry badly needs an “Edit” function – BBCode is an excellent format for this kind of discussion.

  • Modern Germany is actually in many ways a “left-fascist” “think-inside-the-box” police state which specializes in constant surveillance. Want to know how this ridiculous law gets enforced and how the German Catholic Church cooperates with this kind of neo-fascist organisation of society–with nary a word of protest to the atheistic pseudo-socialists in charge of that repulsive society?

    Well, I’ll tell you, based on what German friends told me: If a Catholic (like myself, when I was living there–briefly) has checked the box that indicates “non-confessional” and then attends a Catholic mass and is seen to take communion in some German hamlet’s local cathedral or chapel, anyone who knows that he’s professedly “non-confessional” can report him to the local Rathaus, and he can be fined, and fined astronomically, if he repeats the offense.

    Talk about simony and Erastianism! This must be the ugliest form of “Christianity” on earth, and, believe me, the youth of Germany share my sentiment. I taught a whole lot of nominally Catholic youth during my brief two years in that drab and dreary country, and, I assure you, almost none of them would be caught dead inside a Catholic church.

    • Hermann

      Soory, but that is simply [BS]! There is no offence in doing as stated! If you were to go to the Rathaus (city hall) you would just get weird stares and be told not to waste the clerks time!
      And believe me there are a lot of young catholics here in Wuppertal, they are far from nominally catholic!


      [Shiesse, when translated into English, is a stronger obscenity than in German. DCU]

      • I’m only repeating what Germans told me themselves. And when I asked some of my students if they ever went to mass, they said only on Christmas and Easter.

    • gadria

      You are a sad sad man IMHO- needles to say I do not share your bizarre caricature of modern Germany. Sure church attendence is way down – perhaps for very good reasons.
      Rather than thinking that people are stupid could it be that they are actually on to something?

    • Rat-biter


      That sounds like an inversion of what Catholics – and other non-conformers – faced if they did not services in the Elizabethan Church.

      Sick 🙁

  • Liam

    What’s interesting is that Roman canon law in recent years moved in the opposite direction in order to make it more difficult for Catholics to declare themselves non-Catholic. Right hand, left hand issues….

    • Rat-biter

      Question is, how will that affect the stats in the various Catholic year books ? The Church looks pretty stupid – and untruthful – if it makes leaving the CC impossible so that people who are now some other kind of Christian, or none, are still counted as Catholics. Are the authorities threatened by the prospect of admitting that the CC is a smaller than their modes of counting make it ? And isn’t it better to face facts and be truthful, rather than not ? Why can’t the authorities say exactly why they have made this change ?


      “In late August 2010, the Holy See confirmed that it was no longer possible to defect *formally* [Wiki emphasis] from the Catholic Church.”

      ## Nice view of reality there 🙂 – it changes whenever a Vatican ukaz says it does. I bet God wishes He were that powerful. Fancy being able to re-create reality whenever one wants.

  • dominic1955

    I would like to see more information in English, but it seems to me that the German bishops are trying to hold people accountable. That said, like in most of Europe, too little, too late and in an odd way.

    I do not see this as simony. It would seem that if someone really is too poor to pay that extra church tax and went to their parish priest and set up something up with him (i.e. greatly lessened private contribution, volunteer work, some extra spiritual/temporal works of mercy etc.), they would not kick them out for this. That would be the responsible thing to do, considering this church tax isn’t anything new. All have a responsibility for the upkeep of the Church and Her ministers regardless of whether they are rich or poor. That upkeep can take different forms though depending on the situation.

    If folks check non-confessional just because they want to “protest” some scandal going on in the Church, then the bishops should kick them out. There are more mature and civil ways of expressing your concerns to the Hierarchy than “protesting”. If they want to act like spoiled children throwing a temper tantrum or those Occupy idiots trying to “speak truth to power”, then that is exactly what they deserve. First and foremost, the Catholic Church is the one true Church outside of which there is no salvation. No scandal, no bumbling of the human elements in the Church can possibly justify leaving. It makes absolutely no sense to put yourself outside or an enmity with it. Shake your fist and stamp your feet all you want at the Ark, the Deluge could care less.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      “If folks check non-confessional just because they want to “protest” some scandal going on in the Church, then the bishops should kick them out. ”

      Where charity and love prevail…..oh, never mind: wrong church.

      Seriously, your characterization of those electing to do this as “spoiled children throwing a temper tantrum” paints with too broad a brush and refuses to consider any side other than your own as legitimate. At least some of the people doing this are not leaving: they have chosen to express their discontent—protest—by withholding financial support.

      • dominic1955

        Caritas has nothing to do with being all touchy-feely. What did I say in my post? If someone has a LEGITIMATE issue with the tax, the Church in Germany isn’t going to excommunicate them if they want to contribute according to their state in life.

        Yes, I do not consider (and note I limited it by saying at the begining that I’d like to see more in English to get a fuller picture) it legitimate to elect not to identify yourself as Catholic to not have to pay the tax (with what I said above in mind) or because you want to “protest” something. Witholding funds from the Church is exactly what I called it, a temper tantrum. We all have a grave responsibility to support the Church. If we do not want to be Catholic, fine, that’s one’s free will to do so.

        How hard is it to understand? Grave duty to support the Church, that trumps any “discontent”.

    • Jordan

      dominic1955 [September 27, 2012 10:11 am]: If they want to act like spoiled children throwing a temper tantrum or those Occupy idiots trying to “speak truth to power”, then that is exactly what they deserve.

      “I have seen people behave badly with great morality and I note every day that integrity has no need of rules.” Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus

      I wonder if Camus here warns about the confessional compartmentalization and projection which is common in the United States. In America, one can identify positively as a Catholic, an evangelical, a Mormon etc. as if a strong correlation exists between religious confession, socioeconomic status, political positions, etc. The same cannot be said of Germany or even continental Europe. Identifying as an Catholic or Protestant in Germany does not correlate with religious identification in the United States and never will, given that American and German cultures and histories do not move with any synchrony. One who presumes that the American response to the clerical abuse crisis suffices to explain reactions in other cultures is not only amerocentric but also self-deceptive.

      If “integrity has no need of rules”, then Germans who renounce their fiscal affiliation with the Catholic Church might well be acting a manner consonant with the way in which German belief is evolving in concert with cultural trends. This phenomenon demonstrates an integrity which cannot be absolutely characterized by Catholic beliefs or doctrines.

  • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

    Please see the update to the article above.