Bishops' Conference wants to save © Harald Oppitz (KNA)
Church taxes are bubbling up, many Catholic dioceses have high revenues. But the German Bishops' Conference has to save money and is cutting back on ministries and associations. Some find this short-sighted.
The Catholic bishops in Germany are struggling over the distribution of church finances. At a meeting that ended in Wurzburg on Tuesday, the 27 local bishops debated an austerity package for the "Association of German Dioceses" (VDD). Through this umbrella organization, the church finances its nationwide tasks, such as relief agencies and pastoral care abroad, but also many associations and projects.
Ultimately, it is a matter – similar to politics – of distribution between the federal and state level. But unlike the state, the federal level in the church has almost no power and very little money. The 27 dioceses are decisive. The German Bishops' Conference is merely a loose coordinating body.
Together, the 27 dioceses received six billion euros in church taxes from German Catholics in 2015 – more than ever before. The bishops transferred about 120 million euros to the VDD in Bonn. That's two percent. A few years ago it was four percent.
For the central office, this means saving. A good ten years ago, the bishops decided to reduce the VDD budget step by step at an early stage, with a view to a probable decline in church tax revenues at some point in the future. Many budget appropriations were reduced by two percent per year. In October 2015, a "VDD budget working group" was also established. It reviewed every item of expenditure. Since then, rumors of additional cuts have been making the rounds.
Now, among others, the president of the Central Committee of German Catholics (ZdK), Thomas Sternberg, sounded the alarm: "We observe with great concern that with strongly increased church tax revenues in the dioceses, the financial resources for the supra-diocesan tasks of the church are being further reduced." This retreat to the dioceses weakens the church and makes it less visible, he said.
Flexible handling of church tax
Today's handling of the church tax is not set in stone. Wilhelm Damberg, a church historian from Bochum, points out that the strong concentration on the dioceses only developed after the Second World War. "The central administration of the diocese of Munster, with 2 million Catholics, comprised only about 30 people until 1945," he reports. Today the figure is 400. It was not until 1950 that dioceses, rather than parishes, began collecting church taxes. The Second Vatican Council and the media have also contributed to the upgrading of the bishops.
Sternberg also recalled in the "Herder Korrespondenz" that the self-organization of German Catholicism used to be much more lay-based. "Due to the centralization of revenues, since 1950, despite church councils and diocesan church tax councils, the idea developed that the bishop himself was the financier of all buildings, organizations and activities based on church tax funds," he wrote. A misjudgement, according to Sternberg, which could become a problem not least in processes of parish dissolution.
Decided path will be continued
Sternberg hopes the balance will change under Pope Francis – toward bishops' conferences. Francis argues for more power for bishops' conferences. They should be understood "as subjects with concrete areas of competence". Then they would also have to be better equipped financially, says the ZdK president.
"The fact that church taxes are billed diocesan-wide is not God-given," he told the Catholic News Agency (KNA) on Tuesday. This vision of the future has made little difference to the current round of austerity measures.
As the Bishops' Conference announced on Tuesday, the "already decided path will be continued". For some institutions and projects, the subsidy "will be eliminated in whole or in part in the near future."The bishops have nevertheless taken note of the criticism of the austerity plans and want to react to it. They now profess that "hardships should be avoided as much as possible in the further revision process". With which positions a planned cut is nevertheless still taken back or mitigated, must be clarified in further negotiations.