Thursday, September 22, 2011

Church and State: the Pope comes home

photo from

The Pope--who is from Bavaria--is going to be in Germany for three days, and will even be speaking in the Bundestag (congress) in Berlin. This is a bit controversial, because he's there as a political figure who is also a religious figure... Some of the representatives (about 100) are not attending the speech in parliament out of protest. Elke Ferner (SPD) had a good interview where she said that the parliament should be about dialogue and discussion, and obviously this will not be the case with this speech.  Very few foreign heads of start are invited to speak in front of the Bundestag. Nixon was the first in 1969, others include Nelson Mandela and Vladimir Putin.

Also, in Germany there is a strange relation between church/state. In Germany the churches get their money through a "Kirchensteuer" (church tax) that is automatically taken out of your income. When I registered, I also had to say whether I belong to the catholic or protestant church. I think usually you choose between Catholic / Protestant / Jewish / atheist (opt out). So far there is not an option for Muslims. (As a parallel, there is also still religion instruction in schools, where you can choose between Catholic or Protestant class, or opt out.) This means that churches in Germany don't have to actively try to get members like in the US, which also influences what churches do and what their communities are like. The churches get about 65-70% of their income from this tax, which is about 5-9% of someone's income.

Someone once said to me that a big difference between charity in the US and Germany is that in the US we don't pay as high of taxes, so it's more up to individuals to be engaged and support the charities they want to support.  In Germany they pay really high taxes, but they expect that this money is going to the right things. So paying a church tax is a way of supporting programs like "Brot für die Welt" that fight world hunger, or the German Red Cross and its programs. As a result, there is less volunteering and fundraising, and such things.

Addendum: Just saw the New York Times has a piece on this today: A Papal Homecoming to a Combative Germany


  1. We did hear a story on this as well today on NPR...mentioning the church and state issue.

  2. that's interesting. in Mali, people made that point to me about the U.S.--there, people depend on charity. Islam has a tenet for charity and a significant portion of one's income is to be given to the poor--but that's not something that's part of Western culture at all. We assume we are supporting economic growth with taxes for social programs. If we see a beggar, we assume they are a beggar because they are lazy and not finding work or help that they could have, and feel no obligation to pay them anything. In a different country, where there is no social support, people depend on the generosity of other people. I don't think that's quite right. I've had that argument with people before, though :)