Pope Francis is in a tight spot amid ongoing debate over whether remarried Catholics should be admitted to holy communion. He has yet to commit himself to a side, and, as John Allen Jr. notes, whichever way he leans on the issue, he’s likely to alienate a group of people, in part because it has been hashed out so publicly:
Though it’s common for Catholics at the grassroots to slug it out like this, cardinals doing so in full public view is unusual. It reflects a sense that the stakes are high, for a couple of reasons.
For one, Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI took a clear stand on the issue. If Francis were to roll it back, it could send a signal that all papal edicts are only temporary, undercutting the ancient dictum that “Rome has spoken, the case is closed.”
For another, the dust-up over divorce and remarriage often functions as a proxy for more contentious matters, such as women priests or birth control. If a pope is willing to break with the past here, some hope and others fear, perhaps change will come elsewhere.
There may be a further reason. Germany’s Bishops have been among the most proactive in pushing for the change to the status quo (in which the Church considers these unions to be adulterous if the couple has not received an annulment of the prior marriage(s)). German Cardinal Walter Kasper is its primary spokesman and intellectual backer, and most German bishops are behind him. One reason the German bishops support the change is anxiety over a potential mass exodus. Cardinal Marx, the head of the German bishop’s conference, has said, “Civil divorce and remarriage often cause people to distance themselves from the church, or widen the distance they already felt before divorce.”
Yet Catholic scholar George Weigel, among others, has suggested that the desire to keep those people in the pews at the expense of undermining Church teaching is related to the tax money Catholics provide in Germany. There, the government taxes registered members of the country’s churches and distributes the money among them. The tax has recently become more controversial now that “German church members must pay an additional 8% to 9% of their gross annual income tax and capital gains tax bills to the church,” as the WSJ reported last year.
The tax has given rise to court cases concerning Germans’ right to leave their faith and stop paying the tax—and their ability to participate in the activities and worship of their faith if they didn’t pay the tax. The Catholic Church in Germany decided that those who quit paying the tax, which involves renouncing their membership in the church in an official way, could no longer receive the sacraments.
The impact has been dramatic. As the NYT reported in 2012, “The tax in Germany is blamed in part for driving about three million members from the ranks of the Roman Catholic Church over the past two decades, as disgruntled parishioners decided the payments were better spent on something else.”
German Bishops have responded to the emptying pews and dwindling coffers not, as you might guess, by seeking changes to the tax; they’re might even go to court to enforce it (h/t Jose Mena). Rather, if Weigel is right, they are pushing for liberalization in the hopes that it will keep people in the pews despite the tax—and keep the money rolling in.