e-mail us
In Europe, ‘church taxes’ not unusual


As the European Network’s study of church finances unfolds, it will face a striking diversity in European church/state relations -- ranging from France’s strict Enlightenment-era separation of church and state to Germany’s generous “church tax.”

All 20 Catholic dioceses in Germany benefit from the Kirchensteuer, or “church tax,” which amounts to 8 or 9 percent of taxable income. Protestant, Orthodox and Jewish wage-earners also pay a church tax for their churches and synagogues.

In 1995, the latest figures available, the tax netted $4.7 billion for the German Catholic church. A similar church tax is also assessed in Austria and parts of Switzerland, though usually at lower rates.

Germany’s constitution assigns the power to assess the church tax to the churches themselves. State governments actually collect the tax only because the churches contract with them to do so. Each of the 16 state governments gets a share of the total collected, usually 3 or 4 percent, as payment for administering the tax.

Germany’s 28 million Catholics (out of a total population of 82 million) can avoid paying the tax only by formally leaving the church, a move that technically means they can no longer receive the sacraments.

The German government also allocates funds for schools, hospitals, day care centers and a wide variety of other social services delivered by the church. The government pays for the preservation of historic buildings, which includes many of the country’s parishes and cathedrals. Some states also make other allocations to the church -- for example, Bavaria pays the salaries of its bishops and members of cathedral chapters (the priests and deacons who serve a cathedral) directly out of the public treasury.

A church tax of sorts is also collected in Italy and Spain, though in both nations it takes the form of an optional checkoff. Spaniards (with Roman Catholics estimated to be 99 percent of a population of 39.2 million) can designate approximately 0.5 percent of their taxes to go either to the church or to government programs for the needy. Less than half of Spanish taxpayers opt for the church. In Italy taxpayers can designate 0.8 percent of their taxes to go to the church or to government programs, and there almost 89 percent choose the church.

In Belgium, where 75 percent of the population of 10.2 million are Catholic, there is no church tax, but the government provides direct grants to six denominations: Catholicism, Protestantism, Anglicanism, Judaism, Islam and a catchall category of “nondenominational.”

Sweden, where Lutheranism is the state church, also has a church tax; non-Lutherans pay what is known as a “dissenter’s tax.” Political leaders there, however, plan to disentangle church and state sometime after 2000. Finland collects a church tax for the Lutheran and Orthodox churches. Greece funds the Orthodox church directly, and in England salaries and pensions in the Anglican church are paid for out of revenue from extensive landholdings.

National Catholic Reporter, January 29, 1999