Thursday, September 27, 2012

What Is Church?

Unlike the United States, Established Churches have long been a feature of European societies. Some states - the United Kingdom, Denmark, Iceland, and (until earlier this year) Norway - have official state Churches under some degree of direct government authority. Others have moved away from formal Establishment in that sense, but continue to provide financial support for one or more Churches through various types of "church taxes." Some version of this is the case in Austria, Denmark, Germany, Italy, Finland, Seden, and Switzerland. In the German case, the 1919 Weimar Constitution and its 1949 successor make provision for such a tax to be paid by Church members - both Catholics and Protestants - paid to the State and then passed on by the State to the Church of which the taxpayer is officially a member. In Germany, where this has long been people's customary way of supporting their Church, some 70% of the incomes of Churches come from these taxes. 
Since there is no officially Established Church in Germany, the taxes are paid only by those who are Church members. Those who are not members of any Church do not pay. German law allows one to remove oneself from one's Church (and hence from the Church's Tax rolls) by a formal act of legally declaring that one is leaving the Church.
This simple, easy-to-understand system is now in the news because of a 2007 lawsuit in which the plaintiff maintained he should be entitled to continue participating in Catholic Church activities (including receiving the Sacraments) despite having legally left the Catholic Church in order not to pay the tax. The Court's verdict came yesterday and sided with the Church. This came less than a week after the German Bishops had decreed that those who had formally left the Church were, as a result of that action, exactly what in fact they were legally claiming to be and had legally declared themselves to be - no longer members of the Church - and hence no longer eligible to participate as members in the Church's life. In the words of Freiburg's Archbishop Robert Zollitsch, President of the German Bishops' Conference, it is a question of "the credibility of the church's sacramental nature. One cannot be half a member or only partly a member. Either one belongs and commits, or one renounces this."
Needless to say, some voices - one is tempted to characterize them as "the usual suspects" - are now being raised in protest. Obviously a Church Tax is not the only way to support the Church, and perhaps it is not the ideal way. But that is really a separate issue - a legitimate subject for discussion, but one entirely separate from the principle at issue here. The central issue - as Archbishop Zollitsch clearly expressed it - is what it means to be a Church and a member of a Church.
One of the most problematic developments in contemporary language about Church is the use of the expression "Institutional Church" - which seems to me to be an ideologically inspired choice of words which implies or suggests that there is some other experience of Church apart from its communal life. Such a suggestion may well be very appealing in our hyper-individualistic society. But there is only one Church, which exists - as it is meant to - in the world. The Church is not some ethereal, "spiritual" bond which is only as serious or as frivolous as individuals care to make it at any particular moment in time. It is a real relationship spanning both space and time - uniting each local church with every other local church in the one Universal Church and each generation with every other generation of faithful. 
It was precisely this understanding of the Church as more than just an ad hoc association of individuals that so powerfully attracted a young Isaac Hecker to the Catholic Church in mid-19th-century America: “When, in 1843, I first read in the catechism of the Council of Trent the doctrine of the communion of saints, it went right home. It alone was to me a heavier weight on the Catholic side of the scales than the best historical argument which could be presented. … The body made alive by such truths ought to be of divine life and its origin traceable to a divine establishment: it ought to be the true church. The certainty of the distinctively Catholic doctrine of the union of God and men made the institution of the church by Christ exceedingly probable.” (“Dr. Brownson and Catholicity,” The Catholic World, November 1887).
The benefits of being part of the Church are many - benefits both short-term and long-term - benefits one is inclined to label "infinite." Not being willing to help pay the monthly bills seems like a poor reason - a cheap reason - to give all that up.

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