The Catholic Church in Germany benefits from a policy called Kirchensteuer, or "church tax," in which 8% or 9% of a person's income tax goes to the church or other religious entity in which they have membership. To stop paying the church tax, Germans must formally declare to the government that they wish to leave their religion.
Now, a recent study from the University of Freiburg predicts that church membership in Germany, across the board among Christians, will fall by 49% between now and 2060. This means 49% fewer people will identify as Christian, and 49% fewer people will pay the church tax.
This estimate is based on current trends such as the low number of baptisms in Germany and the high number of adults who renounce their religious affiliation.
But another factor is Germany's population decline. Based on current rates, the researchers also predict that Germany's population will decline by 21% by 2060.
Catholic dioceses in Germany are said to be sitting on more than $31 billion.
Only one in 10 Catholics in Germany attends Mass every Sunday. Although Mass attendance is low, the country's church tax has enabled dioceses to continue reeling in money. A plummet in church tax revenue will be devastating in the long term for the finances of the Catholic Church in Germany.
A researcher from the study, Bernd Raffelhüschen, was recently interviewed by the Evangelical Church in Germany (Evangelische Kirche in Deutschland, or EKD). The professor told EKD, "What we all intuitively expected is also shown by our results: the number of members of the Evangelical Church will halve by about 2060."
News of this study comes about a month after a German bishop warned that, due to the mass exodus from the Church, the church tax will stop being a reliable source of revenue within 10 years.
Bishop Gregor Maria Hanke, head of the diocese of Eichstätt, said in an interview in late March, "We, the German bishops, urgently need to consider how to proceed with the church tax. I want this discussion because the Catholic Church, as well as the Protestant church, faces a large number of church departures every year."
"In 10 years at the latest," he said, "the church tax revenues will collapse."
The Eichstätt bishop, a Benedictine, pointed to the possibility of relying on free-will donations rather than a church tax.
According to German law, the Catholic Church has the right to refuse sacraments to those who do not pay the church tax. This practice has drawn criticism on numerous occasions, with many noting that those who do not pay the church tax are treated like they are excommunicated.
In October 2016, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI said during an interview,
I do not mean that there should not be an ecclesiastical tax, but the automatic excommunication of those who do not pay it, in my view, is not sustainable. ... This situation saddens me, this excess of money that yet again is not enough, and the bitterness that it generates, the sarcasm of the circles of intellectuals.
Archbishop Georg Gänswein, prefect to the papal household and papal secretary, offered similar criticism of the German church tax in July 2016, saying, "How does the Catholic Church in Germany react to someone leaving? By automatic expulsion from the community, in other words, excommunication! That is excessive, quite incomprehensible."
He also noted, "You can question dogma, no one is concerned about that, no one gets kicked out. Is the non-payment of the Church tax a bigger offense against the Faith than violations of the tenets of Faith?"
Some of the most notorious liberal bishops in the Church today hail from Germany.
Cardinal Walter Kasper, for instance, is bishop emeritus of the Rottenburg-Stuttgart diocese. Kasper spearheaded the push for giving Holy Communion to the divorced and civilly remarried at the 2014 and 2015 Synods on the Family.
Cardinal Reinhard Marx is archbishop of Munich and Freising and chairman of the German Bishops' Conference. Marx has frequently called for loosening Church teaching on sexual morality. Also, in the wake of the 2018 abuse scandals, Cdl. Marx opined that ending priestly celibacy needed to be discussed as a possible measure against clerical sex abuse.