Rich people go to church

Between faith and money : How rich are the big German churches

The bathtub of the Bishop of Limburg impressed the visitors. Several photos of her are currently appearing on the social network Instagram. In May, the diocese invited people to a special kind of tour twice. Interested parties were able to visit the bishop's house and were actively asked to upload their photos to Instagram. A brave decision. After all, the bathtub, fitness room and carp pond in Limburg stand for: waste and swank. Former Bishop Franz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst made so many special requests during the construction of the complex that the costs exploded - instead of six, 30 million euros were due. For the free-standing bathtub alone, 15,000 euros are said to have gone up. That cost Tebartz-van Elst his office. In Limburg, as in other dioceses, there has been a great deal of transparency since then. And yet, money and the church are still such a thing to this day.

Because even if many dioceses now allow insight into their balance sheets and disclose their assets - a final answer, how rich the German church actually is, will not be given anytime soon. The political scientist Carsten Frerk has tried a list. If you add it all up, the two big churches could have assets of 435 billion euros. “But that's only a rough estimate,” says Frerk. Because the organization of the churches is ramified - as is the responsibility for finances. In the Catholic Church there are 27 (arch) dioceses and 11,500 parishes, in the Evangelical Church there are 20 regional churches and 14,500 parishes. They are all independent, so they can decide on their own budgets. In addition, there are religious orders, diakonia and Caritas as well as other church institutions from old people's homes to hospitals.

The Archdiocese of Berlin has assets of 590 million euros

If dioceses and regional churches are now gradually presenting their figures, this represents just a fraction of the church's assets. Nevertheless, this fraction is also quite revealing. Because wealth is unevenly distributed in the Church as in society. The richest diocese in Germany is the Archdiocese of Munich-Freising with assets of 5.5 billion euros. Paderborn (4.2 billion euros) and Cologne (3.4 billion euros) are also among the rich dioceses. With 590 million euros, Berlin is in the middle - still ahead of Osnabrück, Hamburg and Speyer. Now a fortune of half a billion euros sounds like a lot for the Catholic Church in Berlin. But that is put into perspective when you look at what is behind it. According to the balance sheet for 2015, the Archdiocese of Berlin set aside almost half of its assets for pension payments to priests and civil servant teachers - because they do not receive a statutory pension, the church has to provide for their old age. Another 140 million euros are invested in property, plant and equipment, especially in real estate such as schools, educational institutions and administration buildings. The church has also set aside 35 million for the maintenance of places of worship. That means: The Archdiocese of Berlin has a large fortune, but cannot dispose of a large part of it.

For this very reason, the church cannot be compared with a stock corporation, says Heidrun Schnell, who heads the finance department of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD). “We do not distribute any profits to shareholders, nor do we benefit from tax depreciation. For us it is about securing the work of the church for the future. ”As with the Catholics, the Protestants have not yet had a complete overview of how many regional churches and parishes together have. Schnell warns, however, not to overestimate the Church's fortunes. “The church is very rich, but only rich in stones,” she says. "Most of the places of worship are not for sale, but their upkeep and maintenance costs a lot."

The Berlin Cathedral costs millions annually

The best example is the Berlin Cathedral. Six million euros are incurred there annually for repair work, personnel, heating, musicians, security forces and provisions. However, only 200,000 euros are made available for this from church taxes and donations. The rest has to be earned, which is also the reason why you pay admission to the Berlin Cathedral. "If the community had to finance the cathedral on its own, we could only open ten days a year," says spokeswoman Svenja Pelzel.

Also because of this financial burden, the church buildings are valued as low as possible in the books of the congregations. The Berlin Cathedral is currently worth 195 million euros on paper. Unlike the Cologne Cathedral, for example, which is only given a memorial value of 27 euros: one euro for the building and 26 euros for the plot of land on which it stands. The reason for this enormous difference: large church buildings are written off over 200 years and the Cologne Cathedral is much older than its Berlin counterpart.

The churches collect more church taxes

The church's assets are one thing. The other is their income. The large churches regularly receive money from several sources. Christians pay the church tax. The churches collected almost 12 billion euros in this way in 2015 - more than ever before. Because the amount of church tax depends on income, the churches benefited from rising wages and low unemployment - so much that it even overcompensated for leaving the church. The salaries of the pastors and parish work are financed from this income. The churches receive state subsidies for other social tasks such as running kindergartens, hospitals or schools. But these are by no means the only services the state has given the churches.

Both the Catholic and Protestant churches still receive annual compensation for expropriations in the 18th and 19th centuries. At that time, in the course of secularization, church properties went to the state. In return, the princes agreed to take care of the churches. In 1919 these state services were enshrined in the Weimar Constitution, and later they found their way into the Basic Law. This year alone, 524 million euros will flow from the state to the churches as compensation. All taxpayers have to pay for this - not just church members. Sven Lüders, Managing Director of the Humanist Union, thinks this is no longer appropriate. "That contradicts the state's requirement of neutrality," he says.

The state services cause controversy

The churches would be quite ready to forego state benefits. A spokesman for the German Bishops' Conference says: "The Church will not ignore a far-reaching solution if it is balanced." But that is exactly where the problem lies. In the event that state services are discontinued, the churches demand a one-off payment - we are talking about 20 to 40 annual installments. In view of this enormous sum, most politicians prefer to leave everything as it is. It was only in March that the parliamentary group of the Left in the Bundestag applied for a commission of experts to be set up in the Federal Ministry of Finance to examine state payments to the churches. The Union and the SPD have refused.

- In an earlier version of this article it was stated that the Berlin Cathedral costs 600 million euros a year. In fact only are 6 Million Euros. This is offset by grants of 200,000 euros - 97 percent of the financial requirement must therefore be generated.

Now new: We give you 4 weeks of Tagesspiegel Plus! To home page