US Catholic Faith in Real Life

What makes a "luxury bishop"? An established church in Germany

By Bryan Cones | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare
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While the travails of now-suspended "luxury bishop" Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst of Limburg are garnering headlines all over the world—a $20,000 bathtub?!—few journalists are raising the question of just how a bishop got access to so much money. The answer is the German "church tax" that funneled $6.5 billion to the German Catholic Church in 2011 and $7.1 billion in 2012; a similar sum goes to Protestant churches. But with belief on the decline in Deutschland, and 300,000 Germans exiting Germany's churches each year, church leaders are worried about their income. After all, when a German officially leaves the church, she will no longer have to pay the tax. German bishops have even gone so far as to warn German Catholics that if they stop paying the tax, they won't be able to be buried by the church or have their children baptized. How's that for evangelization?

The church tax issue is behind some of the outrage in Germany; luxury bishop Franz-Peter is using publicly collected funds for his lavish renovations, which only encourages the flood of Germans out the church door, taking their tax dollars with them. No wonder the president of the German bishops' conference, Robert Zollitsch, is all up in arms about LImburg's bishop.

These problems exist all over, of course, but the cozy relations between church and state created by the church tax make the van Elst situation a really big deal. But I wonder if the scandal would have been possible at all if not for the piles of money the church gets from the state. Even more I wonder if a church tax is any way to fund the ministry of God's people.

Journalists have suggested that van Elst's suspension has to do with Pope Francis' call for a simpler church, closer to the poor. I wonder if the transformation that Francis is calling for, however, requires not just disciplinary actions against financial abuse, but a complete rethinking of how the church runs financially—and where it gets its money. It seems that the case of luxury bishop may start undermining that arrangement.