I live in a small German village, not far from Frankfurt. Last week, a printed sign in big, bold red letters appeared on the doors of the local Catholic Church warning that people who cannot prove that they are vaccinated against COVID-19, recently recovered, or have had a negative test within twenty-four hours are not permitted to enter. During the one Sunday Mass – the only time the Church is open – a parish member stands at the entrance, acting as a kind of gate guard, verifying the electronic vaccine passport of all those who want to worship.
In a country where Church attendance in recent years has been anemic, at best, this latest blow may be fatal for the spiritual life of Germans. Yet the German bishops remain silent on state and local COVID-19 restrictions.
With the exception of last Easter, when the former Chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel, tried to cancel Easter as a COVID-19 protection measure – no kidding – there have been no reports in the German media of individual citizens or even Catholic prelates protesting government edicts as to whom the Church will serve during the pandemic. Merkel eventually allowed for Easter celebrations, but only after protests and pressure from German employers and merchants.
The comparison between the American response and that of the Germans to the regulation of church gatherings speaks volumes about the difference in the understanding of religious liberty in the two nations.
The U.S. reaction to government mandates on religious gatherings could not have been more starkly different. In April 2020, when state and local restrictions on church attendance were introduced to prevent the spread of COVID-19, a veritable storm of lawsuits arose, charging that such measures violated the First Amendment.
Battles over religious freedom were passionately fought both in the courtroom and on social media as organizations like the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and the Alliance Defending Freedom filed suits in federal court against governors who issued statewide orders to lockdown religious services. Public reaction was loud and swift. As a result, during this latest round of pandemic panic, U.S. Churches have mostly remained open; governors are reluctant to tangle with angry voters.
But unlike the United States, where the Establishment Clause of the Constitution forbids the federal government’s meddling in religious affairs, the German Constitution contains no such limit on state power. Officially, there is no state Church in Germany, but since 1919, the German government has collected a “church tax” (Kirchensteuer in German). The tax effectively makes the German church into a kind of state agency.
If an individual is officially registered as a Catholic or as a member of any other faith group, an additional 8-9 percent of income tax must be paid. The only way to avoid the tax is to make an official declaration renouncing religious membership. Once membership is renounced, an individual is no longer permitted to receive the sacraments or a Christian burial.
In 2020, this tax generated $7.75 billion for the German Catholic Church despite a record number of Catholics leaving the Church. In 2019, 272,771 people left – a significant increase from the 2018 figure of 216,078. Money, however, has bought silence and very little opposition from bishops (who receive a state salary) when government interferes in religious matters.
James Madison, our fourth president and the architect of the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, could have pointed to today’s Germany as an argument against state-funding of churches. Jay Cost, in his brilliant biography, James Madison; America’s First Politician, shows how the young Madison entered the arena of politics through the fight for religious liberty.
The Virginia Colony designated Anglicanism as the state religion and then proceeded to collect taxes to support this church. The unequal and sometimes abusive treatment of other religious denominations within the colony – by both government officials and the citizenry – appalled Madison. In his argument to the Virginia Assembly, he observed that state-sponsored churches “tend to great ignorance and corruption” because of the promotion of “pride, ignorance, and knavery among the priesthood” and “vice and wickedness among the laity.” Madison eventually convinced his fellow Virginians to get out of the business of funding churches. This experience at the state level underscored the need for the First Amendment to the U. S. Constitution.
It’s no surprise, given the differences in German law, that the infamous Synodal Way of the German Bishop’s Conference (with close involvement from particularly shrill laywomen) has veered toward a path of corruption (as Madison warned), trying to bless same-sex unions, the ordaining of women, and even the abolition of the priesthood. Meanwhile, evangelization – the core mission of the Church – has been almost entirely forgotten.
Repeated pleas from Pope Francis, urging the German bishops to focus on evangelization given the “growing erosion and deterioration of faith,” have fallen on deaf ears. In a 28-page letter addressed to the bishops, Pope Francis wrote: “Every time an ecclesial community has tried to get out of its problems alone, relying solely on its own strengths, methods, and intelligence, it has ended up multiplying and nurturing the evils it wanted to overcome.” Ironically, in response, the bishops have doubled down. Since 2019, when the pope wrote the letter, several bishops have publicly encouraged the blessing of same-sex unions. Yet the bishops as a body have remained silent about COVID-19 restrictions on worship.
Most of the Germans who remain in the pews are orthodox, faithful Catholics. They do not agree with the Synodal Way. For fear of reprisals from a non-racially integrated, religiously intolerant, rule-following German society, they remain silent. Whether these few believers – the last bastion of faithful Catholics in Germany – will comply with the COVID-19 entrance requirements at their local churches remains to be seen.
It is not historically idle or bigoted to ask what fills the void in a spiritually bereft Germany or for that matter of any other nation. But be thankful for the noise and rancor of a restless American polity – however troubling it may seem at the present moment. From the founding of our country until today, our continuing fight for religious liberty has consequences beyond America’s borders.
Photo: People awaiting COVID-19 vaccination at Cologne Cathedral on Christmas Eve, 2021. [REUTERS/Thilo Schmuelgen]
You may also enjoy:
Elizabeth A. Mitchell’s Vanishing in Plain Sight
Fr. Jerry J. Pokorsky’s A Pastor on the Vaccines