UPDATE September 27th.
Since writing the below yesterday, a lot of comment has been generated which greatly clarifies the situation. It would seem to me that there is a clear break of communion by those who "defect" or declare their intention to leave the Church. In which case it would seem that the bishops have the right/duty to inform the people of the consequences. It's not about the money but about the act of defection. There is, however, the problem of the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts specifically excluding the removal of one's name from a government maintained register in order to secure certain civil consequences (see below) as sufficient for procuring formal defection. I guess it would depend on the means required for such removal. If, for removal, one actually has to say "I wish to leave the Catholic Church", then one should be taken at one's word and face the consequences.
Please see Further Comment. Also of interest are: Jimmy Akin quoted in Further Comment, Sentire Cum Ecclesia, Ars Vivendi, the German Bishops Conference, comments of Dr Edward Peters.
As widely reported the German bishops have decreed that Catholics who "renounce" their membership of the Catholic Church so as to avoid paying the religious tax will not be able to receive the sacraments, act as godparents or have a Catholic funeral. Which sounds pretty severe. Is it legal in Catholic Church law?
Reports can be read at the BBC and Reuters. I'm not knowledgeable about why Germany operates a religious tax system. No doubt it has historical roots. The religious tax is about 8% of your overall tax bill, so if you pay 10,000 euro income tax, a further 800 euro will be added to your tax bill and go towards your church/religion of declared affiliation: Protestant, Catholic, Jewish... It is not an 8% income tax. Apparently over 180,000 Catholics "left" the Church in 2010 following the various scandals that have rocked the Church in Germany and elsewhere. Other religions have also experienced a fall in their tax-paying members. Apparently, many "left" as way of reducing their tax bill when income tax went up to cope with the effects of the reunification of East Germany with the rest of Germany in the early 1990's.
So, can the bishops deny baptised Catholics the sacraments because they do not pay the tax? Have Catholics who have decided to remove themselves from the civil religious register put themselves outside the Church? The media reports claim that the Vatican has approved the measure, but this does not mean the measure is beyond appeal. And I daresay it won't be long before someone appeals to Rome if they are denied the sacraments, or prohibited from being a godparent, or their relative is denied a funeral, simply on the basis that they are not registered in the State taxation system.
What does Canon Law have to say?
How is a Catholic defined?
Can. 96 By baptism one is incorporated into the Church of Christ and is constituted a person in it with the duties and rights which are proper to Christians in keeping with their condition, insofar as they are in ecclesiastical communion and unless a legitimately issued sanction stands in the way.So if one is baptized in the Catholic Church, or received into it after valid baptism in another Church or ecclesial community, one is joined with the Church in its visible structure, unless one breaks the bonds of faith, sacraments and/or governance. One has duties and rights. Does removal from the religious tax register constitute being no longer joined with the Church in its visible structure? As for the duty of supporting the Church, could one not claim that one is fulfilling this duty in ways other than paying the tax, e.g. by placing money in a collection etc? The Church has never stipulated a set sum of money that must be contributed for membership to continue.
Can. 205 Those baptized are fully in the communion of the Catholic Church on this earth who are joined with Christ in its visible structure by the bonds of the profession of faith, the sacraments, and ecclesiastical governance.
The rights/duties of Catholics as regards the Eucharist:
Can. 912 Any baptized person not prohibited by law can and must be admitted to holy communion.So a Catholic is presumed to have a right to receive holy communion. There are very strict conditions that must be met before a minister can refuse to give holy communion to a Catholic.
There is a special requirement for children:
Can. 913 #1. The administration of the Most Holy Eucharist to children requires that they have sufficient knowledge and careful preparation so that they understand the mystery of Christ according to their capacity and are able to receive the body of Christ with faith and devotion.So, the question arises: are Catholic children whose parents have removed themselves from the civil religious tax register prohibited from receiving the Eucharist? It would appear that the tenor of the Canons is quite to the contrary. Everything should be done - primarily by the parents of course (and here they must examine their consciences as primary educators of their children as to the consequences of removal from the religious tax register) but also by the pastors - to ensure that children with the use of reason receive the Eucharist at the earliest possible time.
Can. 914 It is primarily the duty of parents and those who take the place of parents, as well as the duty of pastors, to take care that children who have reached the use of reason are prepared properly and, after they have made sacramental confession, are refreshed with this divine food as soon as possible. It is for the pastor (parish priest) to exercise vigilance so that children who have not attained the use of reason or whom he judges are not sufficiently disposed do not approach holy communion.
An assessment must therefore be made as to the consequences for their children of parents removing themselves from the register. Does such an action conflict with their duty of educating their children in the Catholic faith? I'm not pretending to give a general answer to this question. I am simply posing it. Perhaps the German bishops' decree addresses this issue. I have not seen it.
Those who may not receive the Eucharist:
Can. 915 Those who have been excommunicated or interdicted after the imposition or declaration of the penalty and others obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to holy communion.This Canon refers to the external forum. The reports state that all talk of excommunication has been carefully avoided and, indeed, excommunication is a penalty that can only be imposed on one who has committed a crime in the Church. So those who have removed themselves from the religious tax register have not received either of these penalties. They are not being accused of having committed a canonical crime.
So, are they amongst those who obstinately persevere in manifest grave sin? It's certainly manifest in that it is a matter of public record. But is withholding the religious tax a grave sin?
Can. 916 A person who is conscious of grave sin is not to ... receive the body of the Lord without previous sacramental confession unless there is a grave reason and there is no opportunity to confess; in this case the person is to remember the obligation to make an act of perfect contrition which includes the resolution of confessing as soon as possible.This Canon refers to the internal forum of conscience, but again the question hinges on whether or not self-removal from the register is a grave sin.
Canon 844 concerns the discipline regarding administration and reception of the sacraments of penance, holy eucharist and anointing of the sick by/to members of other churches and ecclesial communities. But this canon would not be applicable since the people we are talking about are Catholics.
Does removal from the tax register constitute departure from the Church? It is possible to formally defect from the Church and there used to be consequences of such defection on the validity of marriage contracted outside the Church. These consequences were done away with by Pope Benedict but it is still possible to formally defect. And this must have consequences.
In a 2006 interpretation from the Pontifical Council for the Interpretation of Legislative Texts, the conditions for a successful formal defection are described in detail and may be read on its website. Of great relevance to our study is the following paragraph:
The substance of the act of the will must be the rupture of those bonds of communion – faith, sacraments, and pastoral governance – that permit the Faithful to receive the life of grace within the Church. This means that the formal act of defection must have more than a juridical-administrative character (the removal of one’s name from a Church membership registry maintained by the government in order to produce certain civil consequences), but be configured as a true separation from the constitutive elements of the life of the Church: it supposes, therefore, an act of apostasy, heresy or schism.It is to be noted that the removal of one's name from a tax register simply to avoid paying the religious tax is explicitly mentioned as not being sufficient for formal defection from the Catholic faith. One must have the intention of rupturing one's communion with the Church by an act of apostasy, heresy or schism. This would surely have to be verified in each individual case.
What about the concept of notoriously or publicly abandoning the faith, (which is not the same as the formal act of defection mentioned above)? Notorious or public defection from the Catholic Church has consequences such as: being unqualified to vote in any canonical elections for ecclesiastical offices (Can. 171 #1,4); automatic removal from any ecclesiastical offices held (Can. 194 #1,2); becoming unqualified for reception into public associations of the faithful (Can. 316 #1); their marriage in the Catholic Church would need the permission of the local ordinary (Can. 1071 #1,4) and when marrying a Catholic their marriage is subject to certain conditions that apply to mixed marriages i.e. they are treated in some way as non-Catholics (Can. 1071 #2) while still remaining subject to ecclesiastical law (Can. 11).
All the Christian faithful are obliged to maintain communion with the Church. (Can. 209 #1) and to notoriously or publicly abandon the faith is, I would guess, a grave sin, and so one guilty of such an act would doubtless fall within the category of those in manifest grave sin referred to in Can. 915 as well as falling under Can. 916. So they could be refused communion. But is removing one's name from the religious tax register such a notorious and public act of defection?
One notes that the German bishops' document states that those who have removed their names from the register must get the permission of their bishop before marrying a Catholic in a church ceremony. They therefore do indeed seem to be classifying these people as notorious and public defectors from the faith. (See my reference to Can. 1071 two paragraphs up.)
Among other things sponsors must
- have the aptitude and intention of fulling this function (in assisting an adult in Christian initiation or together with the parents an infant for baptism, and helping the baptized person to lead a Christian life and to fulfill faithfully the obligations inherent in baptism);
- be at least sixteen years old;
- be a Catholic who has been confirmed and has already received the Eucharist;
- be leading a life of faith in keeping with their function as sponsors;
- not be bound by any canonical penalty. (Cann. 872, 874)
Under these canons, it would have to be verified whether or not removal of one's name from the tax register constitutes a failure in living the life of faith in keeping with the function of sponsor. I cannot see that any of the other requirements are affected by this act.
The Canons dealing with denial of funeral rites are as follows:
Can. 1184 #1 Unless they gave some signs of repentance before death, the following must be deprived of ecclesiastical funerals:Can a general statement be made of those who have removed themselves from the religious tax register that they are notorious apostates, heretics or schismatics, or manifest sinners? I would find this hard to accept. It must surely be determined on an individual and case by case basis.
- 1 notorious apostates, heretics, and schismatics;
- 2 those who chose cremation of their bodes for reasons contrary to Christian faith;
- 3 other manifest sinners who cannot be granted ecclesiastical funerals without public scandal of the faithful.
#2 If any doubt occurs, the local ordinary is to be consulted, and his judgment followed.
Can. 1185 Any funeral Mass must also be denied a person who is excluded from ecclesiastical funerals.
But the bishops seem to be clear that these people do fall under one of the categories of Can. 1184 #1 for they state that
"If the person who left the Church shows no sign of repentance before death, a religious burial can be refused."As I must stress, I have not seen the decree nor any other documentation concerning this matter. But it would seem to me that the burden of proof is with the ecclesiastical authorities to verify that one who has removed his/her name from the religious tax register has in fact notoriously abandoned the faith or formally defected from the Church or is by some other means in manifest grave sin.
I await with interest the comments of Dr. Edward Peters who is obviously studying the matter closely. The reported position of the German bishops is that
"This decree makes clear that one cannot partly leave the Church.It is not possible to separate the spiritual community of the Church from the institutional Church."This is obviously a fair point, but I think a lot rests on the motives for the removal of one's name from the tax register. I think it would be difficult to uphold the requirement of being on a tax register for being considered a member of the "institutional Church". But I'm sure the bishops have good Canon Lawyers involved in this and that the Vatican has guided them. We shall have to wait and see. I find it perplexing and would agree with one commentator that it sends the wrong signal.