BERLIN—Germany’s Roman Catholics who refuse to pay a church tax faced controversial new restrictions from Monday, barring them from receiving the sacraments or becoming a godparent.
In a move decried by a progressive Catholic group, the German bishops’ conference last week issued a decree, saying it was “worried” about the Catholic Church’s dwindling numbers and wanted to stem the drop.
Confession, the Eucharist, confirmation in the Church or anointing of the sick – unless the patient’s life is in danger – are now out of bounds for anyone who leaves the Church, the decree, which took effect Monday, stated.
Becoming a godparent is also off limits, it said.
Germany has had a system in place since the 19th century asking residents to either officially declare their religion and pay a church tax, or to be classed as “non-religious.”
A change in status from being a member of a religion requires a formal procedure to “leave the Church,” as an increasing number of Germans have done, mostly from the Catholic Church but also from the Protestant faith.
The levy amounts to between eight and 10 percent of income tax, depending on where the person lives.
A report in April 2011 showed that pedophile priest scandals in Germany had contributed to a 40-percent rise in the number of Catholics leaving the Church a year earlier.
Since early 2010 and in common with other countries, Germany has been hit by revelations that hundreds of children were physically and sexually abused in institutions, all but a handful run by the Roman Catholic Church.
Although the new decree permits a religious marriage for anyone who has left the Church, it stipulates two conditions – an okay from the local religious authorities and a promise to keep the faith and uphold the religious education of any children in the Catholic faith.
However, the bishops’ decree said “if the person who has left the Church has not displayed any regret before their death, a religious burial may be refused.”
A progressive Catholic movement reacted angrily to the move.
“It’s a bad decree coming at a bad time,” the “We Are Church” (“Wir Sind Kirche”) group said in a statement.
“Instead of tackling the reasons for Church-leaving in large numbers, this bishops’ decree is a threat to the people of the Church and is not going to motivate people to remain loyal or to join the community of those who pay their church tax,” it said.
Germany’s population of nearly 82 million is about one third Catholic and one third Protestant.