Moses is back. His eyes look furious, his face is distorted in anger, he raises his hand in admonition. In front of the cathedral in Münster, North Rhine-Westphalia, he demands passersby to follow the eleventh commandment: “Thou shalt pay for your church congress yourselves,” the board next to him reads.
The bizarre performance of the three-meters-tall cardboard Moses last week in Münster was staged by the activist group “11th commandment.” The protesters are an alliance between the International League of Non-Religious and Atheists and the humanist Giordano Bruno Foundation. Their goal is to make sure that the Katholikentag, a massive Catholic congress scheduled for 2018, will not be subsidized by the city of Münster.
The oversized Moses had already made appearances at the cathedrals in Regensburg, Bavaria, and Leipzig in Saxony, protesting the subsidized religious festivals there too. David Farago, initiator of the campaign, said, “We feel treated unfairly because our tax money is used to pay for a Christian festival.”
The organizer of the congress, the Central Committee of German Catholics, is asking for €1.5 million from state coffers. Conflict over this subsidy has been lingering for months. Many take issue with the deeply indebted Münster forking out millions, while the Catholic Church sits on a fortune worth billions of euros.
The Church frequently bills German cities for its religious festivals – a Catholic congress averages between €8 and €10 million.
The city treasurer has €700 million ($872 million) of debt in his books, while the bishopric says its financial assets amounted to €2.4 million last year. Not included in this sum are the diocese’s real estate assets, lands and woodlands as well as yields from shares and inheritances.
The Church frequently bills German cities for its religious festivals – a Catholic congress averages between €8 and €10 million. The Protestant’s Church congress costs even more than €10 million. Generally, between one third and half of those expenses are covered from public coffers. The federal government contributes €400,000, the federal states provide between €3 million and €5 million, the cities up to €3 million.
The rest is covered by entrance fees, donations and subsidies by the Church and the Central Committee. The city of Mannheim, for example, provided €1.5 million for the 2012 congress, the state of Baden-Wurttemberg another €1.6 million. The Protestant festival in 2015 will be funded with €3.2 million by Stuttgart, Baden-Wurttemberg will top that off with another €5 million.
Supporters of the church subsidies claim that the congress improves the venue’s image and therefore benefits the city as well. But in terms of figures, Church congresses are a losing deal. The revenues of the hospitality sector cannot be counted as a profit because many hotels and restaurants don’t pay municipal taxes.
Many cities also dont bother to check the bill on the event. A spokeswoman of Regensburg in Bavaria said the city didn’t even gather data on profits and expenses for this year’s Catholic congress.
Not everyone likes to fly blind like that – especially not if money is in short supply already. In Leipzig, where the Catholic congress is set to be held for the 100th time in 2016, the amount of subsidies has been discussed fiercely.
Leipzig is another heavily indebted German city, currently being €700 million in the red. Opponents of the church subsidies furthermore criticize that only a little more than 4 percent of the city’s inhabitants profess to the Catholic faith. Nevertheless, the city council approved a €1 million subsidy in late September.
Even in the deeply Catholic state of Bavaria the Catholic congress evokes conflict. In the end, the city administration allocated only €1 million instead of €1.5 million as requested by the Central Committee of German Catholics.
Despite all the protests, the Catholic Church acts as if there was no opposition. The diocese invites the Central Committee to hold a Catholic congress in a vicinity at its own discretion – without even asking the respective city or state. Confronted with this fait accompli, cities are only left to react to the requests for millions of euros.
Anja Stehle is a trainee journalist at Handelsblatt. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org.