One of the more foreseeable effects of the current world-wide economic crisis is that it is feeding into the ravine of anti-Catholic bias, stirring up indignant demands and renewing myths about tax-exemption and non-existent privileges for the Church. These demands and myths are often accompanied by mischaracterizations, half-truths, distortions, or outright slander, which usually portray the hierarchy, from the pope on down, as greedy and self-serving.
This is happening with respect to Italy, where the latest concordat—signed in 1984 to regulate the relationship between Church and state—stipulates that the Catholic Church be accorded a share of a total eight parts per thousand of the nation’s yearly intake from income taxes, based on the choices filed by individual taxpayers. This eight per thousand is also shared by the five other religious denominations that Italy currently recognizes: Evangelicals, Hebrew Communities, Lutherans, Waldensiens, and the Assemblies of God. But talks are also well under way, and in some cases preliminary agreements for recognition have already been signed, with Buddhists, Hindus, Orthodox Christians, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists, the Church of the Latter Rain, and Pentecostals.
In Italy, however—cradle of Catholicism that it is—the lion’s share of the funds goes to the Catholic Church, a fact that a small minority of militant anti-Catholics find infuriating.
These funds—together, of course, with donations from the rest of the world—are what enable the Church to send missionaries out to the Third World and, increasingly, from the Third World back to the secularized old countries of Europe, sorely in need of re-evangelization. In recent years they have also enabled the Catholic Church to make the voice of Christian principles and humanity heard in the UN, on contentious issues such as abortion, overpopulation, and gender; not as just one among many religious denominations, but as a powerful entity to be reckoned with, backed by the weight of well over a billion Catholics worldwide. What could be more infuriating?
There are instigators today, as there were 150 years ago, who hope to at last get the Italian people to rebel, and hopefully even evict the Church from the land, by harping on the issue of exploitation, trying to instill a victim mentality. It isn’t working, but organizers are making inroads, especially among young people, by speaking out from positions within the Church, so as to create the best smoke-screen of all—confusion—and thus obscure any and all truth.
Despite the fact that the money allotted to the Catholic Church represents the enduring indemnity given to it as recompense for the tremendous confiscations of the Italian Risorgimento—which the other beneficiaries had nothing to do with—there are still aggressive anti-Catholic campaigns that attack the Church’s claim to the eight per thousand and praise, say, the Waldensians for not using the money for religious purposes.
As to taxation, the Catholic Church is on the same footing as all other non-profit entities and does pay taxes on whatever for-profit activity it may run. This is the same concept as in the United States, where no ambiguity can be attached to the tax-exempt status of parishes and religious communities, coming under the 501(c)(3) provisions of the tax code like any other non-profit organization—including non-religious organizations like American Atheists. Nonetheless, propaganda and press campaigns routinely surface calling for the Church to pay what it already pays, or even demanding an end to the extra-territorial nature of the Vatican state.
Together with militant propaganda, there are also forms of harassment, which do not make headlines. The township of Bologna, for example, has been showing its “red” anti-clerical colors by targeting the cloistered nuns who inhabit vast monasteries in dwindling numbers, with huge garbage taxes, calculated not per-capita but on the basis of how big a house one lives in. City bureaucrats have made free to barge into the cloistered areas and measure every inch, and have demanded that the sisters pay according to the same standard as army barracks, which is five times the fee imposed on religious institutes.
As a result, the Augustinian nuns have been slapped with a bill for €220,000 [almost $300,000], in fines and back payments, the Carmelites with a “mere” €50,000 [$67,000], and the Poor Clares, who had always regularly paid more than €1000 [$1,300] a year, but who inhabit the largest monastery, with €270,000 [$360,000].
How are these women to pay, seeing as they have dedicated their lives to prayer and taken vows of poverty? Well, the administration is being benevolent; the sisters have been accorded discounts and are allowed to pay in simple yearly installments of 10,000€ [$13,000] each.
Italians, and anyone abroad who will listen, are told that the fact that the concordat between the Church and the state was signed in 1929 by Fascist dictator Benito Mussolini casts a shadow over the Church. What critics don’t mention is that this agreement was confirmed by the constitutional convention that drew up the republican constitution in 1948, in a vote that had the approval of the Communists, and that it has since been superseded by a new agreement, signed in 1984 by Socialist Prime Minister Bettino Craxi and the Church under Pope John Paul II.
Italians are also told they are the only ones who have a concordat between Church and state—the only ones to pass on a part of the taxpayer’s money to the Church, and the only ones to provide religion classes in school, on demand. On the contrary: the truth of the matter is that many countries have stipulated concordats with the Catholic Church. The number is so high that the concordats signed since 1950 alone fill two volumes of Msgr. Martin Agar’s Collection of Concordats (L.E.V.), totalling more than 1,300 pages.
Concordats are bilateral treaties freely entered into by at least two subjects. In many countries, however, laws on religious freedom serve to curb freedom, limiting and regulating it. In Vietnam, for example, in 2005, under the pretence of “helping” communities to organize themselves well, a law on religious freedom was passed that required the Catholic Church to ask state permission for even the slightest of moves. From the admission of seminarians, to the establishment of new dioceses and the appointment of bishops, everything is subject to review—and, hopefully, gracious “concession”—by the state. So much for freedom.
After Vatican Council II, it was thought that concordats had had their day. But then, to everyone’s surprise, Pope Paul VI settled a record number of 30 such agreements (more than both his predecessors put together), including new concordats with three Asian countries, four African ones, and six South American ones. After him, John Paul II renewed the existing agreements with Italy, Spain, and Germany, revived relations that had been cut off by the Communist regimes in Poland, Latvia, and Lithuania, and also signed new treaties with Albania and Estonia.
The concordats show that there are many countries that contribute to the support of the Church, including countries whose predominant culture is not Catholic. The systems most similar to the Italian one are the ones in Spain and Hungary, which give seven per thousand and one per thousand, respectively, to recognized religions. Other countries give sums to the national bishops’ conferences; this happens, for example, in Croatia. Still others cover certain expenses such as the restoration of Church buildings and articles; this applies in Slovakia and Poland, where the Church was given back property that had been seized by the Communist regimes.
In France only the dioceses of Metz and Strasburg have concordats. These date back to Napoleon, who, surprisingly, placed the support of the clergy totally on the shoulders of the state. In the rest of the country there is no concordat and no financial support for religions. However, the French government does support—either entirely or partially—private schools, the vast majority of which are Catholic.
Northern European countries are often praised by those who consider the Protestant Reformation a sort of watershed moment for progress. Yet the UK, Sweden, and Denmark, all of which have no concordat with the Catholic Church, actually have Christian state religions (Anglicanism in the UK and Lutheranism in Sweden and Denmark), as does Greece, whose state religion is Greek Orthodoxy. No concordat exists in secularist Netherlands, a constitutional monarchy where Catholics are 5 million out of a population of 16.4 million. Here too, as in France, Catholic schools are financed, receiving from the government the same financial treatment as public schools and allowed to refuse admission to a student in the event that his parents (or he himself, if of age) do not show respect for the moral values promoted by the school.
According to the concordats stipulated in Germany and parts of Switzerland, these governments agree to act as a collector for the recognized churches, imposing a tax on those who profess the Catholic faith or any other faith, and distributing the amounts to the different destinations. The same goes for Catholic Austria.
A case all by itself is Belgium, the headquarters of the European Union. Belgium has no concordat, but this has nothing to do with its highly secularized society. On the contrary, it goes to show how observant the country used to be, so much so that a concordat was considered superfluous. The Belgian Constitution, the oldest constitution on the continent, dating back to 1833, stipulates that the state must provide for the support of the ministers of the six “admitted” religions. A few years ago, however, the Belgian Constitution was reformed and an equivalence drawn between churches and “philosophical and non-confessional organizations.” This language was inserted (with the same stubborn determination with which any and all other references to the historical roots of Europe were avoided) into the documents of European officialdom: the Treaty of Amsterdam (1997), the European Constitution (which was actually rejected by referenda in France and in the Netherlands), and the Treaty of Lisbon (2007). The unsettling upshot is that today Belgium, besides supporting parish priests and pastors, officially gives a sum to minsters of Freemasonry as well.
Concordats have long been an integral part of Church/state relations, particularly in Europe. The increasing animosity toward such agreements demonstrated by politicians and the media—and accompanying misinformation campaigns—are just another sign of the creeping secularism that is coming to characterize European nations.