In the western German town of Limburg, a lustrous compound strikes an uneasy contrast to the ancient Romanesque cathedral it neighbors. Both are owned by the Catholic Church of Germany and one is a venerable historical landmark, the other a blemish on a millennia-old institution.
Five years ago, it emerged that Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst, also known as the Bishop of Bling, spent €31 million ($43 million back then) restoring the 16th-century complex and erecting a sleek modernist residence. Its plush furnishings range from a designer bathtub (€15,000) to walk-in closets (€350,000), a heated-stone outdoor path (€19,000) and a koi aquarium (€213,000).
The current prelate refuses to live there. Talk has included turning the mansion into a refugee home or an addition to the local diocesan museum. Otherwise it’s nothing more than a monument to an increasingly secular German society’s misgivings about the church tax system.
If you live in Germany and you’ve ever been baptized, you’re considered a church taxpayer. The levy of 8 to 9 percent, depending on the state, is automatically deducted by the government off the income of all registered church members — regardless of how often people go to church. The arrangement was first legally mandated in a clause of the 1919 Weimar Constitution, which was transferred verbatim into the current constitution after World War II.
German citizens are required to sign state documents to formally leave a religious community and stop being taxed. Those who don’t pay cannot receive communion or other religious services, according to the German Bishops’ Conference. The church has even been known to look into expats’ home records to determine if they’ve been honest on tax declarations about being baptized or not.
That process clearly has benefits. A Handelsblatt investigation has revealed that the Catholic Church collected €6 billion ($7.1 billion) last year in taxes — a new record. Although more than 2.2 million Germans have formally deregistered from the church since 2000, the robust domestic economy has been a godsend. According to calculations by Handelsblatt, Germany’s 27 dioceses are sitting on a fortune of at least €26 billion, likely making it Europe’s wealthiest Catholic institution aside from the Vatican itself.
Where is the money? More than €15 billion is tied up in financial investments and €20 billion is marked as fixed assets and invested in equities or real estate, particularly in western Germany, donated by former nobility. There is also a generous fund for pensions, reserved for higher-ranking ecclesiastical dignitaries, to the tune of €5 billion, but that number could also be higher as several of the bishoprics’ business reports didn’t provide exact information.
The contrast between the wealth of the church and shortages in church-run hospitals is enraging to some. Recently, hospital staff in the state of Saarland went on strike to protest their working conditions. Tim Umhofer, a nurse at a clinic overseen by the Catholic church cares for 15 patients throughout the day by himself and is responsible for 30 patients on night shifts. He complains of little time to tend to the interpersonal needs of his seriously ill patients on the ward.
“We’re told to act like Christians but that isn’t possible because we don’t have enough staff in the hospital,” the nurse told Handelsblatt. He earns €3,000 per month before taxes.
The Trier diocese responsible for the clinic is one of Germany’s wealthiest religious communities, with assets of €1 billion. The diocese said that the nationwide nursing shortage is “not specifically a church problem” but rather is covered by government policy. Mr. Umhofer and his colleagues have written to parliamentarians and Trier’s bishop, Stephan Ackermann, asking them to visit the hospital to see the dire situation for themselves. They are still waiting for answers.
After the Bishop of Bling was suspended and sent back to the Vatican in 2013, the German Catholic Church promised to become more transparent. But like each priest has a personal interpretation of the Bible, each diocese has a different interpretation of transparency. Several don’t disclose their financial reports, or only make a few key figures public. Data is not collected centrally by the German Bishops’ Conference, although the institution promised this will change in 2018.
The story doesn’t end with taxes. The Catholic Church also benefits from state subsidies, such as compensation for expropriations dating back to 1803, when Napoleon ordered war reparations from German princes. Both the Catholic and Protestant churches also receive exclusive tax breaks not bestowed upon other religious groups in Germany.
Controversy continues over how that cash is spent. The church is Germany’s second-largest employer after the government, running numerous nurseries and schools along with one in three hospitals. Critics say more of the church’s wealth should be directed towards its workforce rather than preserving historic buildings.
The money remains under lock and key, even as the controversies rage on. Limburg’s Bishop of Bling benefited from a special off-the-books account accessible to many German bishops and their closest advisers. That diocesan nest egg is not taxed or reported. In 2013, Limburg said that its “bishop’s chair,” as it is known here, was worth €92.5 million.
Limburg’s diocese called on the errant bishop for damages, but in 2015 the Vatican decided against a canonical trial. Around that same time, Italian media reported that the clergyman was living in a penthouse in Rome’s central Piazza Navona district. A Limburg spokesperson would not comment on if Mr. Tebartz-van Elst was still receiving a monthly pension of €7,000 from his old jurisdiction in addition to the €3,000 stipend for his new Vatican posting.