Thursday, November 6, 2014

Thoughts on German Bishops and the Church Tax

Article: For German Bishops, Sacramental Mercy Has a Price

The Problem

Certain Catholic news sources have been talking about a new story—that isn’t really new. I personally wrote about it in 2012. What’s different about it is it’s no longer just the liberal Catholics. Now conservative Catholics are speaking about the story—and using bad logic in doing so.

The situation is uniquely German. Since the 1870s, Germany has deducted taxes from every citizen according to their religious belief—Protestant, Catholic or Jewish—and given it to the religious denominations. It’s not something I think should be done, but the churches have nothing to do with it. It’s going to happen no matter what the churches say. The problem is this: Some Catholics, in order to avoid paying the taxes, have legally declared themselves as belonging to no religion. The Church in Germany has responded by denying these people the sacraments, except for emergency situations.

The Assessment of Fallacies

The problem is, I do not think the accusations are just when it comes to the sense that the bishops should take no action. Rather, it seems to me that certain Catholics are using the unpopularity of the German bishops to make their own behavior look better . . . using rhetoric that plays off of emotions instead of the facts of the case. But in justly assessing something, that is exactly what we must not be led by.

The article starts out by mentioning Cardinal Kasper, saying:

As Cardinal Walter Kasper prepares to receive an award and give a speech at The Catholic University of America later today, some are accusing him and his episcopal colleagues of Germany of hypocrisy.

The critics point out that while Cardinal Kasper and most of his fellow German bishops have been leading the charge to allow those in “irregular” marital situations — those who are divorced and remarried — to receive Communion, they have simultaneously denied the sacraments, including even Confession, to those who opt out of paying Germany’s “church tax.”

Invoking Kasper is a good way to slant the article right off the bat. Hes unpopular with conservative Catholics, and invoking him is a good way to turn them against the situation being described. So introducing the article with the Cardinal is the Red Herring fallacy. Citing him is gratuitous. The article could be written without him. Moreover, invoking the German position on divorce and remarriage is an example of the tu quoque fallacy. Whether or not the sins of divorced and remarried Catholics are dealt with is irrelevant as to whether or not the bishops deal with the people who renounce their faith legally to avoid paying the Church tax.

In other words, just because the German Bishops were wrong on their views on divorce and remarriage, doesn’t mean they’re wrong on the issue of people who claim they’re not Catholic to avoid taxes.

Using slogans like “Pay to Pray” is an appeal to emotion and a straw man. That is simply not what this is about. The affair is over Catholics believing they can renounce the faith legally and not face the consequences. These are not innocent people being “picked on.” They did make a legal act renouncing their faith, and the question is to ask what is the appropriate response. If sanctions are justified, they have no cause to object.

The Church Teaching Says This Is Not The Same As Apostasy

Now, it is true that separation from the Church for legal purposes was decreed as not being the same thing as real apostasy. The exact quote is: 

2.  The substance of the act of the will must be the rupture of those bonds of communion – faith, sacraments, and pastoral governance – that permit the Faithful to receive the life of grace within the Church. This means that the formal act of defection must have more than a juridical-administrative character (the removal of one’s name from a Church membership registry maintained by the government in order to produce certain civil consequences), but be configured as a true separation from the constitutive elements of the life of the Church: it supposes, therefore, an act of apostasy, heresy or schism.

3.  The juridical-administrative act of abandoning the Church does not per se constitute a formal act of defection as understood in the Code, given that there could still be the will to remain in the communion of the faith.

That’s fair enough. Unless a person intends to break with the Church in fact, he can’t be charged with apostasy or a formal act of defection. But there’s a problem. There’s nothing in the document that says that the people do this suffer no penalty. It just says they do not fall under the category of choosing to leave the faith.

So, this document means we don’t call such Catholics apostates and don’t punish them like apostates. But that doesn’t mean they are free of penalty.

My Personal Opinion On the Subject

Personally, I am inclined to think (always recognizing the Pope as the one who makes the final decision, willing to submit if he decides in a manner different than this opinion) that even though this is not an act of apostasy, it is an act of scandal. The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines scandal as:

2284 Scandal is an attitude or behavior which leads another to do evil. The person who gives scandal becomes his neighbor’s tempter. He damages virtue and integrity; he may even draw his brother into spiritual death. Scandal is a grave offense if by deed or omission another is deliberately led into a grave offense. (2847)

2285 Scandal takes on a particular gravity by reason of the authority of those who cause it or the weakness of those who are scandalized. It prompted our Lord to utter this curse: “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.” Scandal is grave when given by those who by nature or office are obliged to teach and educate others. Jesus reproaches the scribes and Pharisees on this account: he likens them to wolves in sheep’s clothing. (1903)

2286 Scandal can be provoked by laws or institutions, by fashion or opinion. (1887; 2498)

Therefore, they are guilty of scandal who establish laws or social structures leading to the decline of morals and the corruption of religious practice, or to “social conditions that, intentionally or not, make Christian conduct and obedience to the Commandments difficult and practically impossible.” This is also true of business leaders who make rules encouraging fraud, teachers who provoke their children to anger,89 or manipulators of public opinion who turn it away from moral values.

2287 Anyone who uses the power at his disposal in such a way that it leads others to do wrong becomes guilty of scandal and responsible for the evil that he has directly or indirectly encouraged. “Temptations to sin are sure to come; but woe to him by whom they come!”

In terms of this incident, possible scandal is caused by giving the impression that they really are rejecting the faith in fact, not just as a legal fiction. That can cause doubt among the faithful and give the unbelievers something to point fingers at.

In Church history, even giving the appearance of renouncing the Catholic faith is a serious issue, even if it is done insincerely. For example, during the Roman Empire, Christians were given a choice of sacrificing to idols or death. Many Christians died for their faith. Some apostatized. But a third group (called libellatici) thought they could be clever. They managed to get certificates claiming they had sacrificed when they really did not. They thought they had been faithful . . . but the Church did not see it this way. This was a matter of scandal because, to anybody who saw it, it looked like the person was denying his or her faith. The Church required penance before they could be returned to the faith.

Even today, in the face of ISIS, we see people who are given a choice of death, paying the jizya tax or converting. Catholics have witnessed for their faith by choosing hardship and exile.

So I don’t think that the people who do this in Germany are doing right. Are the bishops being too harsh? Maybe. I would support an investigation into what should be done in these cases. I also think a friend of mine had the right idea. He offered the opinion that the Church in Germany should refuse the tax funds to prevent government intrusion into the life of the Church.

But the bishops do have the right to determine how to apply Catholic moral teaching and the Canon Law insofar as this determination does not go against Catholic teaching. So that’s the point of investigation: Is the bishops action in keeping or not in keeping with the Church teaching?

Of course, Pope Francis and his calls for finding a way to reconcile people to the Church is fitting here as well as with people in irregular marriage situations. Obviously the unrepentant can’t be treated like the repentant, but finding the best way to bring each individual back to the Church applies to the tax-cheat as well as the divorced and remarried. The sin has to be rejected, but the Church is called to find out how to help them do so.


But rhetoric seeking to add more dislike to the German bishops after their stand during the extraordinary synod is not just. The issue would be present regardless of what position the German bishops took on divorce and remarriage. We can’t assume, “They were wrong on marriage, therefore they are wrong on tax-dodging.” So let’s not judge them rashly here.

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