Despite secularization, study finds ‘church taxes’ in Europe going strong

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ROME – Despite mounting secularism and changing demographics across Western Europe, most taxpayers on the Old Continent continue to pay some share of their income to their church, a new study using 15 countries by the Pew Research Center found.

A “church tax” is a tax imposed by the state on members of a religious congregation and generally returned to that congregation for either charitable or religious purposes, or both.

Being self-identified as a Christian is a main factor in the assessment of church taxes, the study released on April 30 said, meaning that as young people become less religiously affiliated, collections may decline.

Most adults in six of the countries surveyed where the law requires a mandatory church tax pay it, from 68 percent of the population in Sweden to 80 percent in Denmark, the study found.

Also, “large majorities” said that they are “not too” or “not at all” likely to stop paying it in the future.

It may seem odd to Americans accustomed to the U.S. concept of separation of church and state, but starting in the late 19th and 20th centuries, church taxes across Western Europe actually accelerated the disentangling of throne and altar as governments cut back their direct support of religious entities.

The church tax, usually amounting to less than 2 percent of taxable income, generally serves religious groups to cover costs of clergy salaries, maintenance and charitable work.

German states were among the first to implement the church tax in Europe, followed by Denmark, Sweden and Austria. This has helped make the German Catholic Church among the wealthiest in Europe by charging 9 percent of income tax. In 2017, Germany’s Catholic and Protestant churches collected more than $13 billion, about half their total revenue.

According to the Pew study, roughly seven in ten people pay the church tax in Germany, though government data asserts that only a quarter of the population pays it. The same discrepancy is found in Austria.

A famous 2012 case in Germany saw a retired professor of church law, Hartmut Zapp, argue in court that he could attend religious services without having to pay the church tax. The judge eventually sided with the local bishops’ conference, which claimed that those who deregister from the Church would not be eligible to receive sacraments such as confession and Holy Communion.

In its study of 15 states in Western Europe and almost 25,000 people, Pew attempted to gain insight into the attitudes toward church taxes in these countries and the civic and religious obligation that supports it.

Though in some countries “growing numbers of people have been opting out of the tax by formally deregistering from their churches,” the study said, “there does not appear to be a mass exodus.”

Between 8 percent of adults (as in Switzerland) and 20 percent (Finland) claim to have left their church tax system, the study found. In several countries, one-fifth or more of taxpayers stated that they are “somewhat” or “very” likely to opt out in the future.

Several possible reasons were brought forward as to why most taxpayers continue to pay the church tax.

“Staying on their church’s tax roster is the default status for people who are not sufficiently motivated to opt out,” the study said, suggesting that ignorance regarding the existence of the tax and excessive paperwork stand in the way of deregistering.

Another possibility is that “many Europeans feel a culturally ingrained obligation to support the common good with taxes,” the study said, and tend to view religious institutions as “public utilities” that work for the common good.

“Many self-reported payers say that churches and other religious institutions strengthen morality, bring people together and help the poor,” it read.

No correlations were found in the Pew study between secularization and the existence of a church tax. In fact, countries with the most rapid secularization – such as Belgium, Sweden, Norway and the Netherlands – do not have a church tax system.

“If anything, people in countries with a mandatory church tax are more likely to self-identify as Christian than are people in Western European countries that do not have any church tax system,” the study found.

“Christian identity much more than any other demographic indicator, goes hand in hand with whether a person pays the church tax or not,” it continued, regardless of whether they are Mass-goers.

Most people who have stopped paying church taxes in Western European countries are religiously unaffiliated, also called “nones,” the study found.

Another group that is less likely to pay a church tax are young people between 18-34, because they never payed it before and have no taxable income since they are for the most part students.

But the study also suggested that the growing lack of religious affiliation among young people may play an important role in whether they pay a Church tax today or will do so in the future.

“Churches in countries including Finland, Germany and Sweden have asserted that the number of church tax payers has declined,” the study said, adding that “it will probably continue to do so” due to “generational replacement.”

“Young people in Western Europe are less likely to have been baptized, and many are entering adulthood without a religious affiliation and without paying church taxes, replacing older generations of more heavily Christian church tax payers,” it continued.

In Denmark, Finland and Sweden young tax payers are more likely to say that they will opt out of the church tax, the study found.

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