German church privileges, lampooned

The heute show is a satirical news show on German television, trying to be the German answer to the Daily Show, airing every Friday for half an hour.

The last show of course also talked about the papal visit to Germany, which just had ended. For this, Oliver Welke (OW), the host interacted with Albrecht Humboldt (AH), often playing  a conservative correspondent, akin to Steve Colbert. This time, he is the one-man church desk of the heute show, being housed in measly quarters.

There is a lot of banter between 15.30 and 19.30 in the video shown above, and I can’t get into too many details, but it’s worth watching if you understand German. Some highlights:

  • Oliver Welke plays the part of the agnostic/cultural Protestant in name only, and regrets that “experts regard the heute show as an atheistic show”.
  • Gratuitous joke about condoms, after which bishops are shown with plastic rain coats
  • Jokes about who elected the pope, with a hapless man on the street saying that he participated in an internet poll to elect the pope. This is also lampooning the absurd headlines “Wir sind Papst” (We’re pope) from the largest tabloid paper celebrating the fact that a German was elected pope.
  • OW: What was the upshot of this visit. AH: this is something only a godless heathen like you would say. It was a four day celebration of faith… yadda yadda… Later, AH: you can tell this joke to your friend Martin Luther, in hell…
  • Albrecht Humboldt lamenting that “we can’t burn Protestant like you on the stake any more”, and deploring that the pope praised Martin Luther instead of denouncing him for vandalism, for damaging the church door by nailing his 95 theses on it.

But the key part for me, was the last minute (starting from around 18.20), which I would like to transcribe here:

AH: Der Papst hat in Freiburg gesagt, die Kirche soll auf Privilegien verzichten.

The pope said in Freiburg the Church should relinquish its privileges.

OW: Wirklich? Wow, welche Privilegien denn? Dass der Staat für euch die Kirchensteuer eintreibt, dass eure Bischöfe vom Steuerzahler bezahlt werden, dass ihr Krankenschwestern feuern dürft, nur weil sie sich scheiden lassen?

Really? Wow, so tell me which privileges? The state collecting the church taxe for you, the salaries of bishops paid by the state, or being able to fire a nurses for just getting a divorce?

AH: Nein, die Privilegien doch nicht… Die anderen…

No, not those privileges… the others..

OW: Ach so..

I see

AH: die anderen, die jetzt der Papst noch nicht im Detail genannt hat, weil, weil weil (a lot of stammering), die weil er noch gar keine Zeit hat. Gott, das ist der Papst…

the others, which the pope didn’n mention in detail yet, because, because, because, because he didn’t have the time yet! God, he is the pope!

OW: Ich fasse mal kurz zusammen, der ganze Besuch war also nicht als eine große Show ohne große inhaltliche Relevanz.

So let me summarise, the entire visit was nothing more than a big show without any relevant meaning.

AH: Genauso wie diese Sendung.

Like this show.

Needless to say that Albrecht Humboldt’s church desk office woes get even worse…

Church privileges in Germany

Nice as it is that this show is criticising this, the facts mentioned are unfortunately true.

  • Tax collection: Any member of a state church in Germany gets the church tax deducted by the German tax authorities.  This amounts to 4.2b € a year for the Catholic Church and 3.7b € for the Evangelic Church (Lutheran/Reformed). For this, the various state tax authorities are compensated with 3% of the collected tax in average. A small price to pay in order for not having to collect those taxes by themselves.
  • Bishops’ salaries: this is a result of the secularisation at the beginning of the 19th century. The Princes of the Empire expropriated the vast land holdings the various bishoprics had held for centuries, so one of concessions made to the Vatican was the payment of the bishops’ salaries. This has been reaffirmed through the course of various treaties. For the Lutheran/Reformed side, the situation is more complicated, as the Evangelic Church is organised into several independent synods, each with its own set of treaties with the state governments concerned. Many guarantee payment of a fixed sum rather than payment of salaries.
  • Curtailment of workers’ right: despite all the progress in equal rights protection within the EU, the churches are allowed to discriminate against their workers based on religion. This means that a Catholic kindergarten may refuse to hire an atheist, or a Catholic hospital may fire a nurse after she gets a divorce. They may not refuse to accept non-Catholic children or non-Catholic patients, as the freedom to discriminate is only applicable to workers’s rights. This is based on Article 140 of German Basic Law, which is basically an incorporation of Art 137 III of the Constitution of the Weimar Republic. According to this article, employees of church-owned institutions have an obligation of loyalty towards the church, and it can be expected that they live in accordance with the churches’ religious and moral dogmas (“Übereinstimmung mit den kirchlichen Glaubens- und Moralvorstellungen”).
There are plenty of other privileges, but these are just three of them. Why is there no single party in German parliament trying to curtail this madness? As a political realist, I know this issue cannot be done away with overnight, but surely there are ways to at least make a start? Let’s look at the three issues again:
  • Tax collection: probably most of it is part of church treaties with the various state governments. However, these treaties are renegotiated from time to time, which would allow state governments to worsen the conditions under which tax collection occurs. Right now, state government charge between 2% and 4.5% of the collected amount, why not up this to 20%-30%? Many state governments are in financial crisis after all, and it’s not like the churches could threaten to move their churches overseas.
  • Bishops’ salaries: again, this is from treaties, in the case of the Vatican, directly from the beginning of the 19th century. It is ridiculous and embarrassing that the Vatican clings to privileges from Napoleonic times, this alone should be reason enough to end this. Moreover, paying the salaries of church functionaries directly is a state interference that should be avoided. Some Lutheran/Reformist churches have relinquished similar rights already in turn for a lump sum payment every year. Once you go to that mode, again when renegotiating church treaties, state governments could try to lower the sum.
  • Workers’ rights: this especially is an outrage, since church-run kindergartens and hospitals and the like receive huge subsidies from the state. The state should simply stop subsidies to institutions that discriminate, this is something they should be able to do without changing the constitution, but for which the politicians lack political will. However, even considering Art 140 of Basic Law, a lot has happened since 1919, Germany has joined the EU and various human rights treaties. As far as I can see, the right of churches to fire employees based on religion has been upheld by the Federal Labour Court, but it has not gone to the Constitutional Court yet. The European Court for Human Rights passed a verdict on a question related to this in September 2010, but that verdict remained inconclusive. It seems that constitutional complaints are the best way to challenge this type of discrimination.
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