A church for the poor or a wealthy corporation? | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 01.10.2015
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A church for the poor or a wealthy corporation?

The richest Catholic diocese in Germany had a surplus of four billion euros at the end of 2014. Critics say this much wealth is not credible for the Church of Pope Francis, while others stress it is used for good causes.

Pope Francis has said that he champions a more austere Catholic Church. "How I would like a church that is poor and for the poor," he told journalists after his election to the papacy in 2013. But now that several dioceses in Germany have made their finances public, it's hard not to wonder how the wealth they possess fits in with Francis' wish for austerity.

So far, the list is topped by the diocese of Paderborn in western Germany. According to their financial report for 2014, published this week, the diocese has total assets of more than four billion euros; 279 million euros of that is tangible assets, most of it in property. Most of it, 3.6 billion euros, is financial assets such as fixed-interest securities.

Whether the Church owns buildings or stocks, four billion euros is an incredibly high number. What does the Paderborn diocese do with so much wealth?

High costs

"These means facilitate our daily pastoral care work and support Caritas aid expenditures, thus benefitting 1.6 million Catholics - but also those outside the Church - in our diocese," vicar Alfons Hardt said in a statement.

A young woman is reading to kindergarteners. (Photo: Uli Deck)

The Catholic Church runs several hundred kindergartens in the Paderborn diocese

4.8 million people live in the Paderborn diocese. 3,000 of them are directly employed by the Catholic Church, diocese press spokesman Ägidius Engel told DW.

"We have to provide security for our direct employees," Engel said. "That includes paying wages and pensions."

One factor, for example, is Catholic kindergartens, of which there are 500 in the Paderborn diocese. About 90 percent of the funding for them comes from the state, but the remaining 10 percent costs the diocese 15 million euros per year, Engel explains.

Another area where money is needed is renovations of the diocese's many buildings. Some 1.5 billion euros in securities are available should a kindergarten, a congregational meeting house or a church need fixing.

"This would give us a budget of 140,000 euros per building that we own, but renovating a steeple, for example, can quickly cost up to 1.5 million euros," spokesman Engel said.

'No need for this much wealth'

Political scientist Carsten Frerk is not willing to go along with the bishopric's line of reasoning.

Carsten Frerk. (Photo: Studio Evelin Frerk)

Frerk: the Catholic Church could do a lot more to help the poor

"I understand that they need to have reserves for contingencies, but I don't think they need that much money," he said in a DW interview.

Frerk, who has publicly spoken out against the Catholic as well as the Protestant Church several times, says he is appalled by the chasm between how Pope Francis presents himself and his Church and the way the Church actually acts when it comes to poverty.

"Sure, Francis is great with publicity when he goes and comforts refugees," Frerk said. "He emphasizes again and again that he and the Catholic Church 'stand with the poor' - but that doesn't help the poor at all!"

The political scientist says that the Catholics aren't a "poor church," but rather a global corporation running hospitals, hostels, hospices and more all over the world.

Especially with dioceses like Paderborn making their finances public now, "the Catholic Church doesn't seem very believable," Frerk said.

One important factor: international development aid

So it might not be "the poor church for the poor" that Francis was talking about, at least in western Germany. But the fact that the Catholic Church has a lot of money is not necessarily a bad thing, emphasizes Ludwig Ring-Eifel, editor-in-chief of the German "Catholic News Agency" (KNA).

He says that the Church actually needs this much money, because of all the important work it does. After all, "the Catholic Church is the second-largest employer in Germany, right after the state," Ring-Eifel told DW.

Pope Francis meeting refugees on the island of Lampedusa in 2013. (Photo: EPA/ALESSANDRA TARANTINO / POOL)

In 2013, Pope Francis visited the island of Lampedusa and spoke with refugees who had lost everything

German dioceses might be very wealthy, but the Catholic Church in Germany also spends a lot of money abroad, which sets it apart from its sister churches in other countries.

"The German Catholic Church spends the most money on help for the developing world," Ring-Eifel said. "So, a lot of the money goes to projects in poorer countries. The Church is wealthy, but strongly invests in development aid."

That, the editor-in-chief said, is surely something Francis would understand and not a reason for the pope to criticize the German Catholic Church - even though it's not a poor church for the poor.

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