The €31-million bill for Franz-Tebartz Van-Elst’s residence, including €15,000 on a bath tub and €350,000 on built-in-wardrobes, has put the finances of the Catholic Church, much of which comes from taxpayers and state subsidies, into the spotlight.
Carsten Frerk, an outspoken critic of the Catholic Church in Germany, estimated its wealth at around €430 billion with about €140 billion of that in capital, the Frankfurter Allgemeine newspaper reported.
Frerk researched the church’s ledgers for a year for a book published in October 2010. But only a small part of the church’s finances are public and many of their records remain secret.
The opaqueness of the church’s finances was no surprise to Frerk. “For the big churches, transparency is very damaging to their business plan. Nobody wants to donate to a rich organization,” he said.
But some details of the church’s vast holdings and investments are publicly known.
Bild newspaper reported on Thursday the church was Germany’s second-biggest employer after the state, running everything from schools and kindergartens to Tellux, the TV company which makes the Tatort crime drama.
It also makes money from its breweries and selling mineral water called Adelholzener.
The church also owns ten banks, countless insurance businesses and 30 housing associations, Bild reported.
€5 billion collected in taxes
But the bulk of the current controversy is over the extent to which the church is financed by the public purse and what it then does with that money.
The church’s largest public form of income is the “church tax”, a system whereby taxpayers register their membership of a church or religious group, and a percentage of their tax goes to that church.
The tax dates back to the medieval tithes, a one-tenth share of goods collected by churches in the Middle Ages.
Anti-Church campaigner Peder Iblher told The Local there was little appetite among the country’s main parties to reform or scrap the “church tax”.
“All attempts to bring into question the church tax fall on deaf ears with conservatives, but also with large parts of the SPD,” he said.
Germans may avoid the tax by registering as having “left” the church, but it costs money to do so – in strongly-catholic Bavaria, opting out will set you back €31 in fees.
The Catholic Church collected €5.2 billion in church tax in 2013, a 15 percent increase on 2000. But in order to keep up with inflation, it would have needed an increase of 22 percent.
“In the long run, we’ll see a structural decline of the church tax, and churches need to consider that in their financial plans,” a spokesman for the diocese of Cologne told the Frankfurter Allgemeine.
But the church has no need to worry about bankruptcy, since it also receives a state subsidy every year, a throwback from a still-valid 1803 agreement between them and the government of the day.
The subsidies paid to the Catholic and Protestant churches out of the treasury this year hit a record high of €481 million, €6.6 million more than in 2012, reported the Humanist Union of Germany (HVD).
Alongside these benefits, the church enjoys exemption from corporation, trade, income and capital gains tax thanks to its status as an “organization of public rights.” Universities also have this status, but have their finances are partially controlled by the state, while the churches do not have this oversight.
But Franz-Tebartz Van-Elst’s spending, leading him to being dubbed the “bishop of bling”, appears too much for the politicians. Chancellor Angela Merkel warned this week the scandal was damaging the Catholic Church.
And a spokesperson for Merkel’s CDU party told the Frankfurter Allgemeine: “The churches should keep in mind the standards that apply across society, with regard to the use of their own money.”
But they added: “We should keep a sense of proportion here, and not just bring the entire state support for the church into question.”
The scandal has also led to some churches revealing the extent of their reserves. Cologne, the largest and reportedly richest diocese in Europe, said on Tuesday it had reserves of €166 million in 2012. The the small diocese of Trier had a reserve of €84 million, Reuters reported.
Tebartz-van Elst’s seat, in the small town of Limburg – with a population less than a thirtieth of Cologne’s – holds reserves of €100 million.
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