German Catholics criticise sanctions for those who opt out of 'church tax'

Roman Catholic activists in Germany have criticised a decree that denies sacraments and religious burials to people who opt out of a "church tax".

Bishops issued the decree on Friday, warning Catholics who stop paying the tax they would be excluded from all religious activities, including working in a church, becoming a godparent or taking part in parish activities.

"'Pay and pray' is a completely wrong signal at the wrong time," the reformist movement We Are Church said on Monday. The group said the decree "shows the great fear of the German bishops and the Vatican about further serious losses in church tax revenue".

A conservative group called the Union of Associations, which is loyal to the pope, asked why Catholics who stopped paying the tax would be punished but those it called heretics could stay in its ranks.

"So sacraments are for sale – whoever pays the church tax can receive the sacraments," it said in a statement, saying the link the decree created "goes beyond the sale of indulgences that [Martin] Luther denounced" at the start of the Reformation.

German tax offices collect a religious tax worth 8-9% of the annual regular tax bill of registered Catholics, Protestants and Jews and channel it to those faiths. An official declaration that one is leaving the faith frees the citizen from this tax.

Defending the decree, bishops had earlier said they were spelling out the consequences of a worshipper choosing to leave the church to avoid paying. Some Catholics had tried to remain active in their parish despite officially quitting the church.

But "it's rubbish to assume one could leave the institutional church and remain a Catholic," said the secretary of the German Bishops Conference.

"Whoever leaves the church," Rev Hans Langendoerfer told a Catholic radio station in Cologne, "leaves it completely."

The annual total of Catholic church-leavers, usually around 120,000, rose to 181,193 two years ago as revelations of decades of sexual abuse of children by priests shamed the hierarchy and prompted an apology from German-born Pope Benedict XVI.

Church taxes brought in about €5bn (£4bn) for the Roman Catholic church and €4.3bn for the Protestant churches in 2010, according to official statistics. With such full coffers, the German Catholic church runs a large network of schools, hospitals and charity organisations at home and is one of the biggest contributors to the Vatican and to Catholic projects worldwide.

Some commentators suggested the bishops issued their decree on Friday to sidestep a looming legal case by a retired theology professor challenging the right of the Catholic church to excommunicate those who opt out of the tax.

The German bishops had long told Catholics they would be excommunicated from the Church if they officially declared they were leaving it. But the Vatican ruled in 2006 that a simple declaration to a tax office that one was leaving the church was not enough to justify excommunication, Rome's stiffest punishment. The church-leaver must also declare this to a priest, it said.

That prompted retired canon law professor Hartmut Zapp to file a legal case against the German church, saying it could not excommunicate him for leaving simply to avoid paying the tax if the Vatican did not agree he deserved that punishment.

After contradictory lower court rulings, Zapp's case will go on Wednesday before the Federal Administrative Court in Leipzig. A ruling in his favour could throw into doubt Germany's whole church tax system, which was introduced in the 19th century. The bishops' Friday decree, described as "excommunication lite" by the German media, could however undermine Zapp's case because the exclusions it listed were not described as a formal excommunication.

German bishops are due to open their autumn plenary meeting in Fulda on Tuesday and the issue is expected to play a part in the discussions over the following three days.