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An inside look at faith-based social services in Germany An inside look at faith-based social services in Germany

From birth to death many Germans depend on social services that are paid for by the taxpayer, but run by the church. These church institutions, both Catholic and Protestant, operate in accordance with their own religious laws and they affect both employees and clients. These stories about ordinary Germans show what it means to live in the shadow of religious laws. To keep their jobs many must endure interference in their private lives.

An inside look at “faith-based” social services in Germany  

By Muriel Fraser, 2004

“Having a religious organization become a state contractor, in essence
becoming an arm of the state, creates an untenable situation on all sides. The lines
of church and state become not just blurred, but erased.” — Waymon Hudson


It’s a fascinating experiment to shower special-interest groups with the taxpayers’ money and see how they run social services. However, the British and the Americans hardly need to repeat this in order to find out what will happen. The Germans have already done the whole thing for us. If we want to see how faith-based social services really work, we can take a look at the situation there.

In Germany the churches run many of the hospitals, kindergartens, schools, universities, advice clinics, homes for children and youth, sheltered workshops for the handicapped, social agencies, nursing homes and day-care centres for young and old. These are largely publicly funded, (it's been estimated that the churches contribute less than 10%), and in some areas of the country church institutions may be the major, or even the only service providers. This gives the churches the power to discriminate against job applicants from business managers to part-time child minders.

Here is the way it is stated on current positions-available adverts. These are from the website of the German Catholic social service organisation, Caritas. The job offer for a business manager suggests politely, that “your profile” should indicate “a positive attitude to the tasks and aims of Caritas”. The job offer for a part-time child minder, on the other hand, states more frankly, “We expect active membership in the Catholic Church”.

What do these harmless-sounding adverts mean in terms of people’s lives? To find out how religious discrimination can affect ordinary Germans, I collected stories, some of them from people who were visibly frightened to talk about this.

♦  One woman worked as a clinical psychologist for a Church-run clinic. This meant that she had to remain a Church member, even though she didn’t believe a word of it. It was only when she was finally in a position to set up her own private practice that she dared to leave the Church. And in Germany church membership does not come cheap: it now amounts to between eight and nine percent of the taxable income. Since church tax is coordinated with the Inland Revenue, the church knew how much she earned from all sources and tithed her accordingly. This tithe is collected by the Government as part of her income tax. If she didn’t pay her church tax, the state would charge her with tax evasion.

And when the psychologist finally set up private practice and was free from religious job pressure, she still had to pay the government an “administrative fee” for the privilege of formally leaving the Church. This varies locally, but can be as much as 50 Euros. This fee would not prevent someone from leaving if he stood to gain by no longer paying church tax, but it does appear designed to help the church hold people who are too poor to pay taxes. A student, for instance, would be out-of-pocket due to this fee if he were to leave the church.

So how had she got herself into this expensive arrangement in the first place? Actually, she hadn’t done anything at all. It was her parents who had arranged for her to be baptised. That’s what had made her into a Church member. Yes, really — a sacrament placed her in a tax category, even though it was a ceremony of which she has no memory and one performed without her consent.

♦  Another story concerns a plasterer who did stucco work on his own and had felt that, as an independent tradesman, he should have no trouble leaving the Church. However, when he put in a bid to do repair work on a building owned by the Church, he was quietly told that he didn’t have a hope of getting the job — unless, of course, he once again became a member.  In other words, to get work from the Church, he would have to pay the 9 per cent church tax. In return for giving him the business the Church was effectively demanding a kickback.

♦  And the financial skulduggery isn’t confined to awarding contracts. The Church is a profit-making institution, not a public service, and therefore it tries in every way possible to cut corners. One method became clear when I was chatting with a neighbour in the bedsit next door. He was a social worker who dealt patiently with difficult young people. But he always did his paperwork at home, never at the office. It turned out that while the Church was charging the tax-payers for his office, it was actually a purely spiritual office: in other words, it didn’t exist on the physical plane.

♦  A far worse case of cost-cutting became clear when I visited a former neighbour who had moved into a Church-run care home. Like all faith-based social services, this care home was almost completely subsidised by the taxpayers. I found the poor woman living in a room too small for any personal touches — and one that she was forced to share with a roommate who was both blind and demented. There was no common room for her to sit in, no TV and not even handrails along the walls to steady her steps. Outside her door, in the windowless hall, was a table with six kitchen chairs. There she took her meals and spent her day looking at the wall. (Like many Bavarian women of her generation she’d never been taught how to read.) The daily Mass was the only break. German prisoners have it better than this — but, of course, the prisons are state-run, so there the Church doesn’t siphon off the funds.

♦  Another aspect of faith-based social services was illustrated by a kindergarten teacher. She told me that she was excluded — unofficially, of course — from getting a job in the Church-run kindergarten in her home town. And, naturally, there were no others. Instead she was forced to commute miles every day to a town where no one knew her guilty secret. For although she was a good Catholic herself, she refused to force her teenage daughter to go to Mass against her will. Especially in smaller places, the whole family carries the blame for the behaviour of any of its members. This is what they mean when they speak of “the honour of the family”. And it is the faith-based social services that enable the churches to penalise people for their relatives’ behaviour.

  A further example of the pressure exerted through their relatives is the case of a widowed friend with a handicapped son. He’s a hard-working lad who attempts to make up through sheer effort for the fact that the doctor bungled his birth. But hard as he tries, he still lurches when he walks and will always remain far too trusting to ever live on his own. This, of course, will likely mean that he will work in a Church-run sheltered workshop and later, when his mother is no longer there to care for him, live in a Church-run residential home.

As she confided to me “No one is going to say outright that he was refused because his family aren’t good Catholics, and it’s true that some non-Catholics have been accepted. But what happens if there’s a shortage of places and a long waiting list. Who gets chosen then? For his sake I simply cannot leave the Church.”

This is why several times a year an atheist can be found purchasing a “Mass for the poor souls”, which is supposed to help her relatives, over whom the Church apparently has some say — still. But it isn’t dead relatives that she’s trying to save: it’s her poor vulnerable son who may someday need Church approval in order to gain access to services that are paid for by the state.

Is it a coincidence that Christian charity tends to focus on the weakest members of a family, the ill and the handicapped? This certainly allows them to control the rest of the family and to get a handle on their healthy, independent relatives.

♦  Further suspicions were raised by a conversation I had with someone who works in Church-run flea market. He told me about the nefarious dodges of the competition. He professed to be shocked at the behaviour of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, who go into Catholic nursing homes and try to make converts in order to get bequests. With indignation he said: “The residents should leave their money to the church that takes care of them.” Naturally he forgot to add: “at the taxpayers’ expense”.

 So here’s another benefit the Church reaps by concentrating on those in distress. No one is put under pressure to make bequests to a state-run nursing home, but a faith-based institution can glide smoothly from being a care provider in this life to a protector in the next one. Most residents will have been well indoctrinated — and even those who were once more independent-minded can become confused and frightened when they are dying. The taxpayers foot the bill and the churches get the bequests.

Church-run social services can prey on almost anyone, whether you’re a plasterer or a psychologist. However, it is the most vulnerable people, such as the handicapped and the dying, who find themselves at greatest risk from all that faith-based charity.


“”Church-run home for the aged goes to court for an inheritance”, Süddeutsche Zeitung, 6 February 1996.

“How far can German churches discriminate against 2.5 million employees?” August 2010, Concordat Watch.

“Europe tells German churches to respect employees’ private lives”, September 2010,  Concordat Watch.

Dr. Matthias Mahlman, in “The German principle of ‘church autonomy’ ”, 23 June 2004, Concordat Watch.

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