While church attendees dwindle in Germany, questions have arisen once again over the controversial state-imposed church tax – and whether it's time for the country's bishops to address concerns around it.

"We are in a time when more and more people realize that the financial apparatus Church works well, that the facade is optimal but what is behind it? Where is the true faith?" asked Martin Lohmann, Catholic publicist, author and spokesperson of the advocacy group Christian Action in Germany.

"While we have a decreasing of Church membership," he told CNA on Feb. 9, "on the other side we have a raising of Church tax."  

When Germans register as Catholic, Protestant, or Jewish on their tax forms, the government automatically collects an income tax from them which amounts to 8 or 9 percent of their total income tax, or 3-4 percent of their salary.

The "church tax" is given to the religious communities, rather than those communities collecting a tithe. The Church uses its funds to help run its parishes, schools, hospitals, and welfare projects.

"But when we pose the question today in 2015, then we have to ask ourselves if the tax is still just and fair: is it just, since only Church members pay the tax? The question is pressing," Lohmann said.

Many Germans have de-registered in recent years, so as to avoid paying the additional tax. The number of persons declaring their departure from the Church has been substantial – in 2010, the figure was more than 180,000.

The number of de-registrations has been heightened this year, as the church tax is now being withheld from capital gains, as well as from salary.

Many of those who have de-registered from the Church on the German government's forms continue to practice the faith, and have de-registered to avoid the tax altogether, or to support the Church with private tithes.

In response, the German bishops – who each earn an average salary of 7,000 Euro per month (some up to 14,000 Euro along with free housing and cars, according to Lohmann) – issued a decree in September 2012 calling such departure "a serious lapse" and listing a number of ways they are barred from participating in the life of the Church.

The decree specified that those who do not pay the church tax cannot receive the sacraments of Confession, Communion, Confirmation, or Anointing of the Sick, except when in danger of death; cannot hold ecclesial office or perform functions within the Church; cannot be a godparent or sponsor; cannot be a member of diocesan or parish councils; and cannot be members of public associations of the Church.

If those who de-registered show no sign of repentance before their death, they can even be refused a religious burial.

And while these penalties have been described as "de facto excommunication," the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts, wrote in a March 13, 2006 document that opting out of taxes in a civil situation was not the same as renouncing the faith, and thus excommunication did not apply to such persons.

"I know enough people who cannot understand how a distancing oneself from the tax is necessarily connected with an exclusion from salvation," Lohmann said.

What's more, he said, "only 10 percent of the Catholics and even less Protestants go to Church on Sunday. In the view of the administration they are all considered 'good faithful' nevertheless, since they pay diligently."

Lohmann added that the bishop's conference treats non-tax payers as dissidents and that former pope Benedict XVI's effort to resolve this remained thwarted.

"From Rome there was an attempt to solve this structural schizophrenia between finances and exclusion from the sacraments under Benedict XVI but it was in vain."

In the interview-book "Salt of the Earth," published 1994, then-Cardinal Ratzinger already mentioned criticism of the system as it was.

Lohmann himself contributed to a book about Church tax in 1993 and tried to impartially comment on it in the face of what he perceived as anti-Catholic opposition. "I contributed to the book back then because enemies of the Church had attacked her with this argument, there was no guarantee that fairness ruled the discussion."

But now he believes that the tax issue has lead to an underlying problem with understanding what the Church is and what it means to be a member of it.

"Is it necessary that a general vicariate in Germany is blessed with million – and billion – Euro sized budgets? Is this automatism useful for the spearing spreading of the faith?"

"The Second Vatican Council taught an Ecclesiology that was not dependent on finances. I think that the implausibly high income of the Church has shifted how she sees herself."

Lohmann also thinks that the financial interconnectedness of Church and state has stifled the voice of the country's bishops on social and moral issues.  

"Because of the decades-long connection of Church and State taxation system, financial offices etc. there is dependence," he said. "The last years and decades there is a fear from the side of the bishops to proclaim the truth in social-political topics since they want to avoid a hostile reaction from the parties."

Lohmann added that the Church loses financially if it upholds less popular teachings on divorce and contraception. Preaching about that means losing "paying customers" – he said –  and "softening" these teachings means more money for the Church.

As long as this is the case, the Church, in Lohmann's view, "will remain limited and not-free, darkened, and in a state without courage to proclaim the truth."

However, Lohmann doesn't think the tax should be "abolished wholesale" – the Church "needs money for her projects and for her evangelization, that should be a given."

But, he says money should not rule of the contents of faith, social doctrine or mercy. "Mercy can never be a question of money. It is not the question of the budget of a diocese but of the heart!"

"Faith is more than money; faith needs money, but faith is more than money. That the materially richest Church on earth is spiritually the poorest one is very telling," he said. "The Church tax is a topic that the Church would be well off to discuss instead of trying to discard it."