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Play by the rules

Klaus Krämer / spSeptember 26, 2012

DW’s Klaus Krämer agrees with a German court ruling that those who don’t pay church taxes can no longer be Catholics. If you want to be a member of a community, he argues, you don’t just have rights, but obligations.

Klaus Krämer is DW's editor for religious affairsImage: DW

Germany's Catholic bishops currently meeting in Fulda are probably hugely relieved – at least the future of church taxes in the country is secure!

Can you opt out of church tax and still remain a Catholic? The Leipzig Federal Administrative Court says in a ruling – no. It's a decision that won't come as a surprise to experts who are well-versed in the topic and one that anyone with good common sense would agree with. If you're a member of a community, a club, a party or any other social group, you usually have two things – rights as well as obligations.

It's no different in the Church. Those who leave a group can't complain that they want to continue claiming benefits of membership or filling its posts.

The Freiburg “church rebel” Hartmut Zapp announced in 2007 that he was leaving the church as a “body corporate of public law” and has not been paying church tax since. Still, he continues to see himself as a religious member of the Catholic Church. As such, he wanted to continue claiming the full blessings of the Roman Catholic Church.

No partial exit from the Church

Zapp, a retired professor, had reason to hope he would be successful in court. The German episcopacy and the Vatican weren't officially in absolute agreement over the definition of church membership. But this approach of Zapp's has ceased to exist since last week. In a decree blessed by the Vatican, the German Bishops Conference made it clear – either you're a member of the Church with all rights and obligations including church tax – or you're not.

That probably played a role in the federal court's ruling on Wednesday. In a statement, the court said the state was obliged to collect church taxes from church members. Those who voluntarily leave the Church are no longer members of the Church in the eyes of the state, regardless of their motives for leaving the faith.

But the judges also remarked that how religious communities deal with their rebels is the Church's business and not the state's.

Beliefs more important than tax

So Hartmut Zapp is de facto no longer a member of the Roman Catholic Church since he left the Church. But that can't stop him from continuing to practice his Roman Catholic faith within the framework of remaining possibilities. And who knows – perhaps he can unofficially receive one of the seven sacraments, since individual priests sometimes give it out of a sense of pastoral responsibility without asking whether the worshipper is actually a member of the Church.

It's doubtful whether this ruling will end the discussion over whether church taxes are justified. The fact that billions will continue to be collected in religious tax doesn't just benefit the Church. The money is used to finance a huge range of social and charitable services and institutions in Germany and around the world. It also ends up helping people who don't belong to any church at all.

Much more important than the financial aspect is the fact that comprehensive Church membership means a fundamental recognition of a faith-based community. That's despite all the serious criticisms that can rightly be made of the Church as an institution.

It's only when clear limits are set that tough discussions and an atmosphere of constructive debate is possible. And both are sorely needed by the Catholic Church in the face of massive problems in many different areas.