Church considers charging apostates

A conservative politician has started a countrywide debate by suggesting that people should be ordered to pay a charge after leaving the Church.

Maximilian Hiegelsberger of the People’s Party (ÖVP) said earlier this week that Austrians who decided to cancel their membership in the Roman Catholic Church could be asked to transfer a certain sum to support the maintenance and renovation of churches and other buildings owned by the clergy.

Hiegelsberger, who heads the Upper Austrian Association of Farmers, argued that everyone benefited from cultural and social activities organised by the Church – regardless of whether they were Catholics or not. His appeal comes a few days ahead of the Austrian Catholic Church’s report about membership developments in 2010.

More people than ever before since 1938, the year Austria became part of the Nazis’ Third Reich Empire, left the Church in 2010 when 87,393 Austrians cancelled their memberships. Experts think that the Church’s obligatory fee on members was a major reason for the rise in exit figures. However, reports that teachers and carers working for boarding schools run by the Church sexually and physically abused children throughout the decades are also identified as a possible motivation.

St. Pölten Diocese Bishop Klaus Küng said today (Fri) he regarded Hiegelsberger’s suggestion as an “idea worth discussing”. Küng – who is in charge of the Conference of Bishops’ financial affairs – stressed that similar models found acclaim among people in Spain and Italy. Küng added that the question of a possible reform of the Austrian system of Church charges “is a non-urgent matter”.

Küng pointed out that the Roman Catholic Church might receive less money if people were offered to decide themselves to which extent they wanted to financially support them. Newspapers are speculating that members and former members of the Church may be given the opportunity to support state-owned and independent cultural organisations instead of the Church. Critics of the Catholic Church – which still plays an important role in social and political debates in Austria – appealed to lawmakers to reduce its privileges. They suggest that donations to different kinds of organisations should be made tax-deductible.

The Social Democrats (SPÖ) – who form a federal government coalition with the ÖVP – have not yet commented on the current discussion. ÖVP Vice Chancellor Michael Spindelegger said the idea of charging former members of the Catholic Church was worth to be kept in mind. The volume of the so-called church tax depends on members’ incomes. Unemployed people and those who earn very little are freed from making contributions. The fee influences the state budget indirectly. Contributions go directly to the Church which funds various events this way but also uses the money to pay heating and electricity bills.

The Republic of Austria spends around two billion Euros on the Roman Catholic Church a year in direct and indirect subsidies, according to reports. The Church benefits from extraordinary land tax regulations which save it from paying as much as individuals and private companies have to. Another controversial aspect raised by critics is that religious studies lecturers working at Austrian schools and universities are not paid by the Church but the state.

The membership cancellation figure for 2010 was 63 per cent higher than the one of 2009, the previous record year. It meant that the share Catholics took in the country dropped to 65.1 per cent. Nearly nine in 10 Austrians were part of the Roman Catholic Church in 1961. Charging members helped the Church to earnings of almost 394 million Euros last year.