german bishops – no church tax, no sacraments!

Today’s NCR Morning Briefing gave a link to the following Reuter’s story German bishops get tough on Catholics who opt out of church tax.

Here in North America, we are used to supporting our churches through the Sunday collection and other voluntary donations. We can choose how much to give, or whether to give at all.

I confess that I have used the power of the purse as a form of protest. Giving a meagre amount or even withholding our collection was the only way we could voice our frustrations; the only vote we had as lay folks in the pews. Paying for the costs of our parish and its ministries was one thing. Paying for the extravagant life-style of a pastor or the legal bills of abusers was another. But, no one was checking our donation status at the door or turning us away. No one was stopping us in the communion line and refusing us the sacrament because we weren’t financially supporting the institutional church.

Things are different in some European countries. If a person claims a religious affiliation, they are charged a church tax . This money is then forwarded to their religious organization. On the one hand, it means that those with no religious affiliation are not required to financially support religions with their tax money. On the other hand, it requires a public declaration of religious affiliation and a compulsory financial contribution. (According to official statistics, church taxes brought in about 5 billion euros for the Roman Catholic Church in 2010.)

There has been a mass exodus of angry and disillusioned Catholics from the church in Germany; as in many parts of the western world. Here, we can quietly sneak out the back door and head into a time of personal exile; often with no one noticing or (sadly) even caring. In Germany, these Catholics have to make a very public statement. By asking to be taken off the tax roll, they are essentially stating they are no longer members of the church.

The bishops of Germany are now cracking down. They have declared that those who do not pay church taxes will not have access to the sacraments, or religious burials. They cannot work in the church or its institutions or be active in church-sponsored associations such as charity groups or choirs. They cannot be godparents for Catholic children and must get a bishop’s permission to marry a Catholic in a church ceremony.

“This decree makes clear that one cannot partly leave the Church,” a statement from the bishops conference said. “It is not possible to separate the spiritual community of the Church from the institutional Church.”

For the German bishops, you are either in or out. And, being ‘in’ requires financial payment.

The Synod of Bishops are meeting next month in Rome to discuss the new evangelization; how to revitalize the Catholic faith in countries where many have left the church. The new evangelization requires open dialogue, compassion, a reading of the signs of the times, and reaching people where they are. It requires looking anew at how we preach the good news of Jesus. It requires a mutual desire for inner conversion, getting to the root of the spiritual dimensions of our faith.

To deny Catholics access to their church and her sacramental life because they refuse to financially support the institutional church does not encourage those who have left to return. The German bishops are presenting the institutional church as a heavy-handed bully focused on money. They need to ponder more deeply the concept of evangelization.

romney and the pharisee

Today’s gospel reading is the story of the woman ‘who was a sinner’. She crashed a Pharisee’s dinner party and began washing the feet of Jesus with her tears, and anointing them with fine oils. (Luke 7:36-50) Luke turns the spot-light onto the host, who cannot understand why Jesus would waste his time with this woman. Doesn’t he know who she is?

The Pharisees are portrayed in the gospels as self-righteous and judgmental souls. Their lives were focused on rules and regulations, easily measurable means of good and evil. Doctrinal blinders were screwed tightly onto their heads, blocking out the messy greyness of life. Grey is a nuisance, because it requires a radical paradigm shift from the much easier, black and white view of the world.

The leaked video of Mitt Romney addressing a $50,000 a plate GOP fundraiser have rightly sent out warning signals to voters, and have left Republican strategists scrambling into damage control mode. In the video, Romney characterized Obama supporters as,

There are 47% who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it.

The scary thing is that Romney is not apologizing for these words, even though commentators are pointing out the crass falseness of his statement. The 47% includes retired elders, who are now collecting the social security they have paid into all their working years. It includes the working poor, the under-employed and families raising children. It includes service women and men. AND, it includes millionaires with sufficient tax breaks to avoid paying taxes!

This video shows a man completely out of touch with the people that he wants to lead. Lead. Obviously not serve. Speaking to a room full of wealth, he projected an exclusivity and sense of entitlement that does not bode well for the common good…We are the rich and we have earned it. We did not and do not need anyone to help us. And, we do not want to help anyone else. Those who don’t pay taxes are lazy, dependent, victim-minded losers. And, we don’t need to waste our time with them.

The Pharisees were a self-righteous lot, too. They believed that they had earned God’s favor and looked down on those who had not attained their idea of holiness. They, themselves, were God’s chosen. The rest were unclean sinners. And they did not want to waste their time with them, either.

Doctrinal blinders or the blinders of wealth and privilege have no place in leadership. Yes we need doctrine, for it can provide a spiritual and moral foundation to our lives. And no, wealth in itself is not a sin. Money, when used wisely, can bring great good. But, we cannot be so focused on either that we forget to look outwards, beyond our cocoon of like-minded souls.

Leaders are called to serve all. Self-righteousness, sweeping judgments and exclusivity has no place in leadership.

violence, rioting, and loving your enemy

BBC News photo


BBC News – Anti-Islam film protests spread across Middle East.

Sometimes the daily scripture readings literally jump off the page in their timeliness and truth. Today’s gospel was from Luke 6:27-38,

Jesus said to his disciples: “To you who hear I say, love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.”

The unfolding protests and violence in the Middle East surrounding an insulting movie about the Prophet Mohammed shows how far we have yet to go to reach universal religious understanding and tolerance. News reporters are scrambling to get accurate details about the movie. The authorship is being questioned. Actors are claiming they were unaware of the final product; that lines were dubbed in after production editing.

I checked out clips from the movie on YouTube and it is truly amateurish in its production, making the claims of a five million dollar budget seem dubious indeed. As with many controversial works of art, it would have few viewers if it was not making head-lines around the world.

An article in The Vatican Insider outlines events in recent years that have prompted angry and often violent rioting from Muslims. As Christians, it is tempting to say that the violent responses are proof that love and tolerance are not at the core of Islam. This is not only simplistic, it is wrong. As with most religious violence and hatred, it is promulgated by fundamentalist extremists who skew the teachings of the faith to suit their own agendas. Muslims do it. Christians do it. Jews do it. Wars have been waged in the name of God for centuries. It is to our shame when the banner of faith is raised to rally souls to hatred.

Jesus knew well our human propensity to anger and bigotry. Enemy is a strong word. Yet, how often do we view the other not as a worthy opponent, but as an enemy? We see this in the current political battles in the US. We see it in the polarization within our church. Heck, we allow our own blood to boil at the slightest provocation. The person who cuts us off on the highway becomes the enemy of the moment!

Love your enemies. If these words were a universal philosophy, hate-filled propaganda would not exist. Insults and violence would not be countered with more insults and violence. Difference and disagreement would be an invitation to dialogue, not an endless cycle of anger and revenge.

Moments like this make you realize the futility of arguing over doctrine, theology and liturgical details. At the heart of our Christian faith is a person, the person of Jesus Christ. And his message is simple as can be.