Austrian church eyes funds from its flock

Faced with falling membership, the Catholic Church is taking more aggressive measures to collect fees from the faithful.

    Austrian church eyes funds from its flock
    Percentage of Austrians belonging to the Catholic Church is at the lowest level in decades [AFP/Getty Images]

    Graz, Austria - For the past month, Catholics around the world have had their eyes on Rome, where the Vatican recently picked the first non-European pope in more than a millenium.

    The excitement surrounding the new pope has, for a time, overshadowed the problem of falling membership that the Catholic Church is facing across much of Europe.

    Landlocked Austria has historically been one of the staunchest Catholic countries in Europe. But today, just 64 percent of Austrians are registered church members - the lowest level in decades, and down from 88 percent in 1951.

    The falling membership has prompted the church in Austria to take aggressive steps to collect the 1.1 percent of personal income that its flock is required to give each year. In many European countries, church membership fees are collected by the government. But in Austria, the Catholic Church has the right to directly levy and collect fees from its members.

    So far, the church has proven quite efficient at recouping revenue: despite fewer members, the amount of money collected has increased by more than 20 percent since 2000, to 388m euros ($504m) in 2010.

    Googling the flock

    "We get information from the internet and telephone books - the internet is very important for us. Any kind of open-source information."

    - Josef Weiss, Catholic Church's collecton department 

    But some say the church's measures, which can include using Google to find personal information on its members, are overly intrusive.

    Josef Weiss, who heads the Catholic Church's collection department in the diocese of Vienna, says: "We get no information from the government. We have our membership file and that is it."

    With no official income records to draw on, the Austrian church has to rely on its members' honesty to pay the proper fee. But the church also has the right to gather intelligence from sources in the public domain.

    "We get information from the internet and telephone books - the internet is very important for us. Any kind of open-source information," Weiss says. Members' Facebook or Twitter pages are also fair game to help estimate their income.

    Some Catholics find these methods, and the face-to-face inquisition that often goes with the church's income collection, unsettling. Few know exactly what information the church gets, or how it comes by the rest.

    A spokesperson for Austria's Data Protection Commission said it has not registered any concerns about how the church collects information. Yet some are suspicious it might be employing underhand techniques.

    A dentist, who asked that his name not be used, said a church official called him on a mobile phone number known only to a handful of people, and the official hung up when asked where he got it. He says he believes the church has access to telecom records.

    When asked about the incident, Weiss says the phone number must have been on a document posted on the internet or used to call the church.

    Many Austrian Catholics are reluctant to speak out openly on the topic. One woman, a few months after returning from decades overseas, found a church bill made out in the married name she adopted while abroad. The woman, who also declined to give her name, says she had left the church before leaving the country.

    And one musician said his income statement was challenged by a church official who had assembled a list of gigs he recently played.

    Less lenient attitude
    Weiss defends how the church collects its income. "There is data protection law in Austria, and we operate very closely to this," he says, insisting the church does not buy any third-party data.

    Ultimately, says Weiss, the church is flexible. "In each diocese there is a minimum contribution of 90 euros a year. If you cannot pay that, then we might suggest 40 euros then and, OK, let's make a deal." Few complain, he says.

    "There is no way of saying how many people have been successfully intimidated into paying before the matter went to court."

    - Christoph Baumgarten, pro-secular activist

    But those who decide they want to leave the church can expect a less lenient attitude. They receive letters and phone calls reminding them they will not be able to get married in church, or have a child baptised. Local priests are said to sometimes pin a list of names of people leaving on a noticeboard or read it out during a service, although the church tells its priests not to.

    Legal action is also on the table. The church took 30,000 people to court in 2011, up 25 percent from 2010, says Christoph Baumgarten, a pro-secular activist who has co-authored a book, God's Work and our Fees, on Austrian church finance.

    About a quarter of those taken to court had money seized - almost all were leaving the church. "There is no way of saying how many people have been successfully intimidated into paying before the matter went to court," Baumgarten says.

    Baumgarten says he was sued for back fees amounting to 474 euros ($608) when he left the Catholic Church. "I never consented to joining it in the first place. It was my parents that made that decision for me at an age where I could not possibly have objected to it."

    Yet although the church fee is a regular grumble, few serious efforts are working to change it. One reason may be that tax records suggest if incomes were determined more precisely, Austrians would have to pay far more to the church than they do now.

    Meanwhile, controversial clerical appointments and sex scandals have contributed to the church's decline in Austria. About 58,000 Austrians left the church in 2011, the most recent year for which data is available, although the rate of decline appears to be slowing.

    Church leadership has not helped: In January 2009, for instance, former Pope Benedict XVI lifted the excommunication of Bishop Richard Williamson, a Holocaust denier.

    The same month, Gerhard Maria Wagner, an auxiliary bishop in Linz, said Hurricane Katrina was divine retribution for the sins of homosexuals and abortionists in New Orleans. Wagner later stepped down, but not without first adding to an already high level of disillusionment.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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