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.