The perils of power

What have Stalin, the Pope and the chief executive of a large bank got in common? The answer to that is power. We have talked about this subject before, and today I want to look at what the psychologists have to say. It is important to understand the psychological effects – even damage – which the possession of power can cause. In doing so, we may understand our masters better and, more importantly, ourselves – should we come to own power.

The first characteristic which I note is that power and loneliness are inseparable. When Churchill and Stalin held their awkward meetings during the war, we might think that no two people were further separated than these two. In fact they had more in common with each other than either had with any of their countrymen. An often repeated, but apocryphal tale of the last word of advice given to a bishop (or a pope) before consecration is “Congratulations. From now on you will always eat well, and you will never hear the truth again.”

A further characteristic is that power obliges us to review the values which we bring to decisions.  Good leaders must have a strong, even ruthless, focus on their key objectives. They dare not let too much pity get in the way. We may have the luxury of judging Churchill in his explicit strategy of bombing civilians, or Truman and Hiroshima, or Stalin and slave labour. They did not. They had a chessboard. They had pieces. And they had a game to win. The psychologists call this the dehumanisation of power.

We may want the powerful to resist that tendency, but it could be important that they do not. A surgeon can appear to be polite and full of human care. But the moment these feelings are allowed to rule his head, the patient is in danger. A sentimental surgeon is the patient’s enemy. Similarly a sentimental business leader who, for instance, fails to lay off workers in time to save the business is no one’s friend.

There is an additional temptation here. A leader will be impotent if he allows himself to believe that he is not the best person for the job. (Indeed the leader who doubts his own competence can become prone to bully boy behaviour.) Thus one of his objectives is to ensure that he retains power. To do this he may take questionable steps. And this need may increase with the passage of time. A leader must necessarily absorb a great deal of stress, and this can wear down his resilience to temptation. While power is by nature a burden, its possession becomes the only reward he has; it can block out the ideals which he brought into office, and demand decisions which he would otherwise have repudiated. He can become increasingly callous and increasingly withdrawn from human values.

In our innocence we expect those in power to be scrupulous in their moral standards; we judge any faults with particular condemnation. I only need to mention some topical examples: MPs living off expenses, senior members of the Revenue sitting on the boards of tax avoidance companies, banks conning their customers within a whisker of fraud, politicians willing to do a favour for a friend – the list is long. But we should not be surprised. Personal corruption is the occupational hazard of those whose power puts them above the rules. Recent research tells us that power can bring about a separation between public judgment and private behaviour. The result can make the powerful harsh judges of others while being indulgent with their own standards. The outcome is likely to be hypocrisy.

This September an analysis of 42 American presidents was published. (link below) It is no surprise that successful presidents shared many, unappealing, characteristics with psychopaths, but in varying degrees. Fearless social dominance, self-centered impulsivity, superficial charm, guiltlessness, callousness, dishonesty and immunity to anxiety were listed.

These considerations may help us to analyse structures in the Church. If you wanted to create potential corruption you would set up a power caste which was permanent, invulnerable and armed with mighty sanctions. History shows that you would get it – from defensive cover ups to Vatileaks and Maciel Degollado. And, unless ways can be found to solve this, will continue to do so.

Clerical paedophilia, which is indeed a corruption of power, points us to another source of corruption: power which comes without status. This is the territory of the naturally inferior who find in power some consolation for their limitations. In the secular world we think immediately of the petty public servant, or policemen, even care home staff. While they are very much a minority in such groups, their toxic effect is disproportionate to their numbers.

The possession of power clearly constitutes an occasion of sin. Its effective exercise is likely to require the numbing of our natural human feelings for those we lead. And it is a great stimulator of self-delusion. With the passage of time both characteristics tend to increase. No wonder Octavian was accompanied on a Triumph by a slave who whispered, “You are not a god.”

But the slave whispered, he did not shout. That would never do because there is a mystique about power which speaks to our natural human instinct of obedience to authority. Lose that mystique, become the hail fellow well met to those whom you command, and only the strongest of us can maintain authority. Ask any schoolteacher who seeks popularity ahead of respect.


Study of 42 presidents at

About Quentin

Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
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66 Responses to The perils of power

  1. Vincent says:

    I read Quentin’s post on power. I turn to my Times and I find that Catholics in Germany who refuse to pay the mandatory church tax will be excluded from Communion, Confession and religious burial – the equivalent of excommunication without that word being used. The decree is approved by the Pope and comes into effect this Sunday. Here is a link to the story

    Do I need to say more?

  2. tim says:

    Well, I expect there are two sides to this, so let’s hope to hear the other side (that I’m not capable of giving it does’t mean there isn’t one). Does the ‘mandatory’ tax apply solely to Catholics or to all Christian denominations?

  3. Brian Hamill says:

    The blog which follows on the basic article in the link above certainly gives one side of the picture. What will be interesting is to see if Rome feels the need or the obligation to put its side of the story to the world at large. The article refers to this decree as the culmination of a long wrangle on the issue, so presumably somewhere there is information on how this wrangle has developed to this critical point. Can anyone give us some guidance here?
    On a more general note one of the more destructive aspects of the spiritual power within the Church is that the ‘powers that be’ do not seem to regard themselves as accountable to the Church at large. This is in contrast with the all-powerful Creator-God, who made himself accountable to us his creatures to the extent of sending his Son to explain and manifest the ways of God to man.

    • Vincent says:

      A problem which I see here is that the Church, at its birth and for many centuries later, was active in a society which took some kind of totalitarian power for granted. Our modern ideas of a shared listening and communicating society would have seemed very odd at the time. Yet Scripture gives us the picture of the vine and the branches or the mystical body in which everyone plays a part. Somehow lay society, at least in the West, has made a better job of developing caring institutions, in which the different offices respect each other, than the Church has. Is it significant that areas where the Church is growing — such as the Americas and Africa are often marked by poverty and lack of education?

  4. Mike Horsnall says:

    “…..This is what is called YNOMIS. Work it out!….”
    Que ?

  5. Horace says:

    Simony is the act of paying for sacraments and consequently for holy offices or for positions in the hierarchy of a church. (Wikipedia).

  6. tim says:

    There is a duty to support the Church according to one’s means. Exactly what this means is less clear, and has to be worked out in particular cases. In Germany, there is a particular public tradition of order and respect for officialdom (rather different from that in UK). This has resulted (I suppose) in a requirement whereby a special tax is payable by church supporters for church expenses. Presumably this tax is graduated according to ability to pay. Is this unreasonable? If not, should failure to respect it simply be ignored?

    Answer: maybe not, but denial of the sacraments seems a pretty drastic step. I wonder about classifying it as simony, more usually associated with the sale of offices. Is a ‘mass offering’ simony? (but that’s voluntary).
    It would be good to hear from someone who knows something about this, rather mere speculation, which is all I have to offer.

  7. Vincent says:

    Horace gives us the definition of simony. Its usual sense is the act of buying spiritual gifts. Simon Magus (Acts chapter 8) was condemned for just this ‘wickedness’. In the case here the Church in Germany is refusing spiritual gifts unless they are paid for. So it’s ‘backwards simony’. The Church has a monopoly of the sacraments but she does not have these as a bargaining counter. To use them as such is to equate God’s gifts to cash and is an abuse of their sacred status. She is perfectly entitled to go to law to recover what she is legally entitle to, if she wishes.

    In a way I am sorry I raised this incidental issue. Quentin has raised other more important issues. For instance, Churchill and Stalin may both have been leaders bu one was concerned with protecting freedom and the other was concerned with building a totalitarian empire fuelled by slave labour. Does the overall motive of the leader make a difference?

  8. tim says:

    More generally, Quentin’s article is very fair and balanced. Power (like money, which is in fact a special case of it) is widely, if very unequally, distributed. Those who possess it (at all levels) have the duty to exercise it responsibly, fairly, and not to abdicate it. Temptations against this are enormous, and of various kinds, varying from the conviction that one has all the answers and a duty to impose them, to the opposite, that it’s all very difficult, and best not to interfere. Either may be disastrous in a particular case. So how specifically is the Church to deal with such problems? We are not a democracy, and cannot become one. We need to train people at all levels in the responsibilities of power, and in the special temptations which power involves. We must appoint people of good will (saints would be good), competent and honest . We must also keep an eye on what they do, in case they go off the rails. More openness (but not absolute transparency) is needed. But too close a level of supervision or control could be as bad as none. In many cases power imposes the obligation to act, promptly and correctly – Quentin’s surgeon is an example. ‘Defensive medicine’ is not the solution in every case. I fear (maybe unjustly) that too many civil servants are guided by the need to avoid any action that could possibly be criticised, justly or not. So here are no solutions, just a restatement of the problem.

    • Peter D. Wilson says:

      Saints wouldn’t necessarily be good in positions of power. Saint Magnus (joint earl of Orkney, early 12th century) was notably pious but trustingly sailed into a trap set by his vicious cousin Hakon, who had him murdered. Hakon thereafter ruled alone and was highly regarded for his way of doing so: it was, of course, a Norse society in which extreme violence was commonplace and largely tolerated if not actually expected.

      Rather nearer our own time, Henry VI was deeply religious, but his weakness led to the Wars of the Roses. Maybe a measure of ruthlessness is necessary, and the consequent benefits to the body of those ruled should be set against any defaults of personal morality in the ruler.

      • tim says:

        I agree it’s not sufficient to be a saint. You need also to be a good administrator. But a saint will put first things first. And I’m not happy about moral trade-offs – for both moral and practical reasons.

  9. Geordie says:

    Vincent help. Just can’t work it out.
    “This is what is called YNOMIS. Work it out!….”

  10. John Nolan says:

    The Pope doesn’t have power, he has authority, and this authority is not sui generis; it is the authority of the Petrine office, and to equate it with secular power structures is to miss the point. No-one is compelled to subscribe to Catholic doctrine. If the secular power (which can enforce anything it chooses) regards it as conducive to the well-being of society that all citizens subscribe (at least outwardly) to the doctrine of the Church, then it can do so. It would not be likely to happen now, but in early modern times it was generally accepted. From the Church’s point of view, which looks first and foremost at the saving of souls, “quantitative judgements don’t apply” as Guy Crouchback was firmly reminded by his father.

    • Horace says:

      I agree with Jon Nolan’s first sentence above.

      Apropos the German question – in order to avoid paying the ‘Church Tax’ a person has to sign a declaration stating their ‘formal withdrawal from the Church’.
      The German bishops, very reasonably, say that it is impossible to withdraw from the Church while remaining a part of the Catholic community.
      Whether this should be classified as simony (forwards or backwards) is debatable but the requirement is political rather than directly the responsibility of the Church.

      Finally I don’t understand Quentin’s “A surgeon can appear to be polite and full of human care. But the moment these feelings are allowed to rule his head, the patient is in danger.”

      I have known quite a few surgeons and as far as I can know they were generally “polite and full of human care “.
      See, for example, Valentine Logue
      ( ). A last sentence of this biography says “he was not a cold man but rather a shy one” and I would agree – if he was attending an opera or concert in the evening he would always telephone during an interval to enquire after the welfare of a patient that he had recently operated upon, returning late at night if there were any worries.

      • Quentin says:

        I am not suggesting for a moment that surgeons don’t care. It is because they care that they have to make evidenced based decisions rather than emotionally triggered decisions. If you watched Gareth Malone building up a choir of hospital staff you would have seen the surgeon in the group explain how he had to keep his emotions under strict control so that he could do the best job.

        Do you think Pius XII didn’t care about the Jews? It must have been agonising for him to decide whether or not to condemn the Nazi regime. Such a difficult decision that no one, even with hindsight, can tell which was right. Yet he is still criticised by people who have never taken a tough leadership decision in their lives for “not caring”.

    • Vincent says:

      That’s an interesting thought, John – but it’s wrong.

      Taking the Church first as a temporal organisation it is a huge and complex one across the world. It is larger than many multinational companies.
      The pope is the chief executive officer. He is indeed expected to work with his bishops but a history of nominating trouble free bishops means that they work with him. You only need to look at the recent case of Bishop William Morris. He was able to have Morris relieved of duty without having to go through anything we would describe as due process. (I am not saying whether it was merited or not I am saying that the pope did it, through his offices, because he had the power.)

      As a spiritual organisation the Church has the greatest of powers. Which dictator would not envy a power to bind and loose and have it ipso facto countersigned in Heaven?

      I am not suggesting that he holds such powers unlawfully (the medieval attempts to be accepted as the principal ruler of the known world are now no more than shameful and ludicrous history). He has the power lawfully and so he carries it with the authority of his office, just as mutatis mutandis any CEO, lawfully appointed, does. But he is just a man and he has the psychological temperament of a man.

      We all ought to love the Church – but the Church as it is, warts and all.

      • John Nolan says:

        The Morris case only goes to show how reluctant the Pope is to use his ‘power’ (for want of a better word). When a cabinet minister or football manager loses his job no-one talks about ‘due process’, a term which properly belongs to the criminal law. Employment law attempts to ensure that people do not lose their livelihood without good reason. Morris was given an enormous amount of slack (some twelve years’ worth) by his superiors and it is surprising he was not removed earlier. A formal degradation (which I suppose would count as ‘due process’) was not resorted to – perhaps it should have been.

        Regarding the medieval papacy, the Dictatus Papae of Pope St Gregory VII (1073-1085) was indeed far-reaching in its claims, and yet Gregory is rightly seen as one of the great reforming popes. Urban II at the Council of Clermont summed up his legacy. The Church, he declared, “shall be Catholic, chaste and free; Catholic in the faith and fellowship of the saints, chaste from all contagion of evil, and free from secular power”. Shameful? Ludicrous? I think not.

      • Quentin says:

        “The Church shall be Catholic, chaste and free”. Well not entirely free, I think. It was Urban II’s Council of Melfi (1089) which ruled that the wives of the clergy should become slaves. A characteristic of power is the ease with which one can fool oneself.

  11. Geordie says:

    John Nolan,
    Popes and the clergy have had power in the worldly sense and they have been corrupted by it. They still have power in the spiritual sense are are corrupted by this. Power is not only about the physical enforcement of one’s will.
    The Church in Germany is abusing its power. It has no right to withdraw the sacraments because some members of the flock do not agree with their system of collecting money. This behaviour brings shame on the Church and gives amunition to our enemies, who have had enough mud to sling at us in recent years. Young people in particular are scandalised such events.

  12. John Nolan says:

    I agree with you to a certain extent. The church tax in Germany does ensure that churches (both Catholic and Evangelical) are well looked after as far as the fabric is concerned, but it is a state rather than a church obligation, and although an individual has the right to opt out as far as a particular denomination is concerned, he cannot do so simply in order to save money, which is simply diverted to other (charitable) ends. The German bishops are not notably conservative, and since such a fiscal system is not normative in other parts of Europe nor in North America, I would be inclined to reserve judgement until I am in possession of all the facts.

    Cardinal Richelieu had considerable secular political power, and Louis XVI’s last Controller-General before the Revolution was the Archbishop of Toulouse, Lomenie de Brienne; neither of these prelates was notable for his deployment of power in spiritual matters. To suggest that bishops or popes are corrupted by power to the extent of distorting the spiritual dimension of their mission is a serious allegation, and I don’t think one can argue as a Catholic that this is an inevitable consequence of their holding office. This said, I am speaking as a Catholic, and I am aware that many commentators on this blog are not neccessarily of the same persuasion.

    • Mike Horsnall says:

      “…To suggest that bishops or popes are corrupted by power to the extent of distorting the spiritual dimension of their mission is a serious allegation, and I don’t think one can argue as a Catholic that this is an inevitable consequence of their holding office….”

      I would agree with this. It is dangerous to glibly assert what will or will not happen to a persons soul under the pressure of temptation. To assume that all simply become corrupt is to say that grace is insufficient upon the earth and that the saving work of God is, in every case, made void by the promise of secular power….

  13. Iona says:

    I rather think that the Church in Germany has had its hands tied by the (secular) government, – but can’t remember the details.

  14. Iona says:

    Two passing thoughts:

    An often repeated, but apocryphal tale of the last word of advice given to a bishop (or a pope) before consecration is “Congratulations. From now on you will always eat well, and you will never hear the truth again.”
    Except, perhaps, in the confessional?

    No wonder Octavian was accompanied on a Triumph by a slave who whispered, “You are not a god.”
    And King David had Nathan, with his story about the “one little ewe lamb”.

    • John Nolan says:

      And the burning of flax at the papal coronation with the words “sic transit gloria mundi”, a custom which is (no doubt temporarily) in abeyance.

      • Brian Hamill says:

        Just to note that you use the usual word ‘coronation’ for a pope’s ‘induction’. This is a word from the secular world. So is ‘gloriously reigning’ and episcopal ‘throne’. The pope also has the title Pontifex Maximus, which was a purely polico/religious title, once held by Julius Caesar, the genocidal (to the Gauls), Roman dictator. I have often wondered what would Andrew’s reaction to being invited by Peter, his brother, to ‘kiss his toe in reverence’. I fancy the Andrew’s toe would have been employed on another part of Peter’s anatomy!

  15. Geordie says:

    Power, whether it be due to money, or status, or connections, or occupation, is always attractive. As an occasion of sin, it makes sin attractive. If you have power you feel less vunerable. Power makes you feel secure. In reality this is an illusion. The more power you have, the more dangerous life is; you have more enemies who are envious of your position.
    However, God bestows legitimate power on certain people and we have a duty to respect them and they have a duty to respect the people under their authority. Those in power need to pray and they need our prayers.

  16. Iona says:

    Apparently (information courtesy of my PP, after this morning’s Mass) Catholics in Germany are required by the government (not by the Church) to pay church tax in order to support the infrastructure, which was nationalised by Bismarck. The only way they can get out of paying the church tax is by signing a form saying they repudiate their membership of the Church. Of course, once they have signed such a form they are effectively non-Catholics and can’t be given Holy Communion any more than any other non-Catholic. The same applies to other Churches, e.g. Lutheran, and possibly even to Mosques.

    • Rahner says:

      “once they have signed such a form they are effectively non-Catholics…”
      What do you mean by “effectively” and can you support your comments with reference to the relevant provisions of Canon Law?

      • tim says:

        If Iona’s PP has it right, the signatories have formally renounced membership of the Catholic Church. Is the Church not to take that seriously? To assume it has been done purely for financial reasons, and not out of a sincere change of heart, seems quite unjustified, and not to respect the integrity of those making the declaration. Once the declaration has been made, it should be respected until repented of and withdrawn. I don’t know what Canon Law has to say on the subject, but I am not prepared to assume that the law is an ass (in this context, at least).

      • Rahner says:

        This note was published by the Diocese of Dublin in 2010:
        “The Holy See confirmed at the end of August that it was introducing changes to canon law and as a result it will no longer be possible to formally defect from the Catholic Church. This will not alter the fact that many people can defect from the Church, and continue to do so, albeit not through a formal process. This is a change that will affect the church throughout the world.”

      • Iona says:

        Rahner – my PP is a Canon Lawyer, so I imagine he knows what he’s talking about, but I can ask him if you like. “Effectively”, however, was my word, not his.

  17. Iona says:

    To go back to the subject of Quentin’s post, I have just read the following:

    “Muawiya personified the wisdom and patience of the Arab sheikh: ‘I apply not my sword when my lash suffices, nor my lash when my tongue suffices. And even if but one hair is binding me to my fellow men, I don’t let it break. When they pull, I loosen, if they loosen I pull’…. Muawiya, the creator of Arab monarchy and the first of the Umayyad dynasty, is a much-neglected paragon of how absolute power does not have to corrupt absolutely.”

    (It’s in “Jerusalem the biography” by Simon Sebag Montefiore)

  18. John Nolan says:

    Of course ‘power’, cognate with the French ‘pouvoir’ (Latin ‘potestas’) can simply mean capacity or ability: “But as many as received Him, to them gave He power to become the sons of God”. Nothing here to suggest that this power is the power of compulsion or coercion. Gregory the Great styled himself ‘servus servorum Dei’, and popes have used this ever since. You can say this is a case of someone in a position of power fooling himself (cf Quentin’s comment above), or you can say, as Protestants do, that it is cynical and rank hypocrisy. Spiritual power can be manifested by a peniless hermit, who thereby acquires authority; the authority of popes and bishops is derived from the apostles who derived theirs from Our Lord himself. Using secular power models as an excuse for repudiating the authority of the Church, as many so-called catholics do, smacks of intellectual dishonesty.

  19. tim says:

    Rahner, thanks for that reply. It certainly looks like an answer to my point. I am surprised, as I would have thought that it was outside the power of the Church to prevent people defecting formally (just as it’s out of the power of the Government to change the nature of marriage). They can of course refuse to recognise any defection, formal or otherwise. However, if that’s what they’ve done, it doesn’t seem to be consistent with the action taken in Germany. Iona, can your PP shed any further light on all this?

    • Rahner says:

      I think that one reason why formal defection is not possible is that baptism, which brings about membership of the Body of Christ, cannot be annulled or reversed.

      • mike Horsnall says:

        Yes, this would most likely be the issue, membership of the Body of Christ is not a political statement but an eternal fact.

      • Iona says:

        Probably what we need is the exact wording of the declaration which German Catholics have to make if they are “leaving” the Church in order not to have to pay the church tax.

      • tim says:

        That seems entirely reasonable. A valid baptism is irreversible, and confers Church membership. However, that’s not the end of the matter. Catholics lapse – some through idleness or from external pressures, others because they adopt new beliefs and discard what they come to see as ‘superstition’. They may remain members of the Church though baptism, but they certainly do not regard themselves as such. Nor are they the only ones in this position. Many people are baptised not using the formal rites of the Catholic Church, but nevertheless validly: using water, the name of the Trinity, and ‘intending to do what the Church does’. I suspect this applies to many Anglicans. God knows who is validly baptised and who isn’t, but in many cases the rest of us don’t. So there are people who are formally members of the Church, but are unaware of it, and don’t admit it. Materially they are not Catholics (I’m not at all sure that this usage is correct, but I hope that what I mean is clear). The question is how the Church is to treat those who do not accept the responsibilities of Church membership. A validly baptised Anglican is a member of the Church but does not regard herself as one. If she should wish to take part in the life of the Catholic Church, she will have to subscribe formally to its doctrines and confess her past sins. Now if a German national ‘signs off’ from the Church tax, that (presumably) is a solemn declaration of intention to cease material membership of the Church. That is (on the face of it) a serious sin (like St Peter denying Our Lord), and the Church (I say) should not admit a person who has made such a declaration to the sacraments until it is repented of.

      • Quentin says:

        Tim, let me put you a case.

        I am a devout German Catholic — hairshirt and daily Communion. However I am duly scandalised when I consider that my contribution is paying the damages for the extensive child abuse committed by priests and hidden by bishops. They are so rich that it barely worries them at all. Moreover I have come to believe that it is wrong for the Church to be in receipt of substantial automatic contributions. It insulates them from the consequence of their actions and from their sacred duties. As a matter of conscience I will no longer subscribe to this, but I will donate an equivalent amount directly to Church charities of first class reputation. I will not publicise this last point since the Gospel enjoins me to do good in secret.

        Am I in a state of Grace? Have I renounced my Baptism? Have I been disloyal to the Church Christ founded? And who is to judge my motives?

      • Rahner says:

        “if a German national ‘signs off’ from the Church tax, that (presumably) is a solemn declaration of intention to cease material membership of the Church.”

        Is this “declaration” recognised by canon law?
        And why should the contingent tax arrangements in one country determine access to the sacraments? Will a German non tax payer be admitted to the sacraments in France or the UK?
        I imagine most Germans will simply (and rightly) ignore this piece of Episcopal nonsense.

      • Peter D. Wilson says:

        Rahner – I should hardly call it “episcopal nonsense” to take seriously a church member’s formal declaration of apostasy.

      • Rahner says:

        “I should hardly call it “episcopal nonsense” to take seriously a church member’s formal declaration of apostasy.”
        But in what sense is it “formal”??

      • Peter D. Wilson says:

        Rahner – “In what sense is it formal?” – as an affirmation in an official document.
        Are you suggesting that an assertion of fact made in one context has no standing in any other on which it has a bearing? Or have I misunderstood something?

      • Rahner says:

        Peter D Wilson
        I refer to earlier posts on the impossibility of formal defection from the Church. You refer to apostasy. I don’t know if the German bishops use this term, but according to Canon 751 apostasy is the total repudiation of the Christian faith.
        It does not seem reasonable to me to claim that a refusal to pay via the tax constitutes a total repudiation of the faith.

      • Peter D. Wilson says:

        Rahner at 7:35 – As there is no suggestion that the cancelled tax contribution should be transferred to another denomination, I think you are making a distinction without a difference.

  20. Singalong says:

    I think that what might affect most of us more personally, is our own experiences, even if, as Quentin says, our realm is no more than the family hearth.

    The exercise of power within the family has enormous repercussions on families and individuals. Parents inevitably have great power over their children, and can use it for good or ill. The nature of this power changes gradually, but quite rapidly as the children grow, and it is often difficult to judge the boundaries between the different stages, of insistence, command, pressure at various levels, persuasion, influence, encouragement. There is no accepted model now for the role of parent in this regard, which makes it a minefield, as does the proliferation of easy access to information and the viewing of every possible variety of behaviours and lifestyles.

    There is also the balance of power between the parents, in the marriage or partnership, which has a profound effect on the development of their children, and again the possibilities now are wide open, and can vary from well balanced, to dominating, and bullying, with easy divorce or splitting up the almost inevitable solution.

    Power struggles among siblings are very common too, and presumably play a role in preparing children for the wider world, making the question of intervention often a very hard judgement to make.

  21. Iona says:

    According to my PP, in Germany members of the Roman Catholic, German Protestant, Lutheran and Jewish churches all have to pay church tax, which amounts to 8% or 9% of the annual income tax liability, depending on the district of residence, and is a deductible expense for income tax purposes.

    If someone who has previously been a member of one of those bodies renounces his/her membership, s/he is no longer liable for tax. This renunciation has to be carried out in a way capable of being regarded as valid by the tax authorities. I haven’t managed to track down the exact wording, maybe it’s only available in German, which i do not speak. Of course, if someone renounces his/her faith, there are obvious consequences sacramentally, and this is what the German bishops have highlighted.

    In the early years of the Church, Christians accepted martyrdom rather than donate a pinch of incense towards the worship of the Roman Emperor.

  22. Singalong says:

    There is a similar arrangement in Switzerland, and information is directed to the local church in a very organised and efficient system so that those declaring themselves and contributing are made known, and can be offered such things as classes for children. I do not know how flexible it is, but would hope that anyone who cannot afford the levy or who has conscientious objections could discuss this locally and reach an acceptable solution.

  23. Singalong says:

    There is an article in the online Catholic Herald this morning about the situation in Germany with a very interesting Comment.

    Finally! At last, I can take a deep breath of GREAT RELIEF! We have recently been informed that iN Denmark, where we are living, 70 %(!!!) of the parishioners in several parishes, the vast majority being Polish and/or of Polish origin, are not paying any tax whatsoever, or contributing in any way economically! While other catholics, in no way better off than most of these non contributing “catholics”, are carrying all the weight, gladly and freely. All right, love your neighbour, but, please, this is nothing but a roaring scandal! It is a mockery towards the contributing catholics. The Church prouds itself of always standing up fot the Truth, and rightly so, but what about the issue of non contributing “catholics”?! as soon as one tries to address this scandalous issue, most people look embarrassed, not because they would be such marvellously good catholics, but simply because they never, ever dare to speak up on anything, except when it comes to discussing with great earnest and interest the coffee gatherings after Sunday Mass. (Where, by the way, I have never, ever, heard one single catholic talking about anything spiritual, and, sad to say, the priests do not differ, sad to say. They seem just as delighted in taking part of meaningless chattering. As converts to the glorious catholic Church, this has deeply saddened and disappointed us.)
    And in Spain, we have read that hundreds of thousands of “catholics” without a twinkling of the eye borrow 3.000 euro to pay for all the pomp around the confirmation of their children, to impress their friends and neighbours; while many of the same”catholics” without shame, or so it seems, put maybe some small coin in the collection box on Sunadays. And I am NOT talking of the widow in the Gospel, who spent her last coin, all that she had left. That is a completely different thing. “But how do you know who is really poor or not”, I can already hear the accusations. Well, just look at peoples cars, observe their habits, and- the usually very expensive and fancy mobiles! I see them in the hands of almost everyone! I usually buy a mobile for around 25 euro and I am doing fine with an ordinary mobile like that!
    I cannot tell you how much I appreciate Bishop Zollitsch and this decision; just IMAGINE what S:t Paul would have said about “catholics” who openly and proudlly refuse to pay any tax to the Church!! All the while many of those “catholics” apparently do not feel the least ashamed of this instead, shamelessly taking advantage of the various services the Church offers; as if one could cheat God! There are far too many hypocrites out there and far too few faithful catholics who dare to speak up on this smameful attitude.

    • Quentin says:

      This is indeed interesting. Perhaps it would be better seen in context at This starts with a balanced account of the situation. And at the time I read it, the piece you quoted followed three comments which appear to disapprove of the German Church’s attitude.
      PS Since I posted this, I see that the Catholic Herald link above has received many interesting contributions, including a detailed one from an Irish Catholic who appears to have a good understanding of the system.

      • tim says:

        Thanks for the link, Quentin. The Irishman’s comment is indeed illuminating, and one can certainly sympathise with someone who is suddenly exposed to a foreign system of law which seems to him deeply unreasonable. However, when I reread his post and got to the words ” like a fool I told the truth”, he lost me.

  24. Iona says:

    And another link, just sent to me by my PP,
    explains how it is that the Church in Germany finds itself in this position, and why it cannot readily get out of it.

    • tim says:

      Iona, many thanks for that – which answers a number of questions. In particular, it makes it clear that the tax is hardly punitive to those on modest incomes. In particular, it was interesting to learn that the figure of 8 or 9% that has been quoted is not a percentage of income, but of one’s tax bill. It would be good to see the exact wording of the declaration that is required to avoid it. I have been taking the view that whatever the exact words it must be an unacceptable breach of one’s duty to give the the Church moral as well as financial support – but my wife feels this is not necessarily so (she says “More could perfectly well have taken the Oath of Supremacy if offered it in the form ‘Henry VIII is Head of the Church in England – but purely for financial purposes!'”)

    • Quentin says:

      Iona, I do think that this puts the question into context. Perhaps anyone of good sense who has studied this explanation would say: I can understand how this came about so I will pay what is required. However I think that it’s a bad system in principle, and the Church should be setting about putting it on to a voluntary basis. Apart from anything else, just at this time in particular, it is horrendous public relations. (In fact it might be good if a large German Catholic pressure group agreed that they would pay for a further year, but cease if real progress in dismantling the system has not taken place by that time.

      • tim says:

        Quentin, it is tempting to agree with all of that. It is certainly bad public relations – on the other hand, I am nervous of doing (or refraining from) anything primarily on the basis of how it will look. My other concern is whether we are right to tell German Catholics how to run their affairs, or whether it isn’t better to leave it to them to sort out what suits them and their countrymen. I am influenced by a parallel situation in reverse. We are (probably) about to have for the first time a unitary European patent, adjudicated by a pan-European Court. As a result of German insistence, this Court will adopt throughout Europe a system currently applicable only in Germany and Austria (where it is claimed to work well) But much of the rest of Europe regards it as inequitable and unjust – and resents it.

      • Quentin says:

        Tim, you may be reassured about doing something, or not doing something, on the basis of how it will look. The precedent is in 1Cor 8, where St Paul warns against the scandal that may be caused by eating food previously offered to idols, even though there is nothing wrong as such in doing so. Indeed the burden of comments on the German Church shows that many have in fact been scandalised by the link between the Sacraments and cash.

  25. tim says:

    Quentin, thank you for your question (September 26, 2012 at 5:52 pm) which is entirely fair and may shed light on the problem. May we call your hypothetical German Klaus Schmidt (as I prefer not to attribute his position to you personally)? Klaus has come to the conclusion that the German church is seriously corrupt, and that it is his duty to stop supporting it financially. I hope this is objectively incorrect, but whether it is or not is not the main point – Klaus has reached this conclusion after serious consideration and prayer, and is bound to act on it. The question is, how is he to act?
    The German Government provides a method for ceasing to pay the tax – a legal declaration that is (I suppose) binding in civil law that one is no longer a member of the Church. Is it legitimate for Klaus to make such a declaration? My view is No – it is apostasy. It may well not be wise for the German State to require this declaration, but it does, as a condition of giving up paying the tax. It cannot be considered a ‘mere formality’ – any more than St Thomas More subscribing to the Act of Supremacy would have been a ‘mere formality’. My view is that Klaus should remain a member of the Church, pay the tax and redouble his efforts to ensure that what he pays is put to good use – or, alternatively, to emigrate. This may be asking rather a lot of him, but then conscientious practice of one’s religion (as the martyrs show us) is not always easy.

    The point here – I say – is not the money (you make this clear in Klaus’s case, and I think you will give the Church the same credit), but the false declaration.

    You ask a number of questions about Klaus (and I assume here that he has now made the false declaration): 1. Is he in a state of grace? 2. Has he renounced his Baptism? 3. Has he been disloyal to the Church Christ founded? 4. Who is to judge his motives? These are not easy to answer, and I’m not sure I should even try – but here are some uninformed speculations.

    1. I don’t know. I assume on the basis of what you say that he can’t see that what he has done is wrong, in which case presumably Yes? But maybe he is committing the sin of Pride.
    2. No. That (if possible at all) must require a specific intention, which he lacks.
    3. Yes. On what basis would you answer this No? Either that the Church in Germany has behaved so badly that it is no longer to be regarded as part of the Catholic Church – or that true loyalty to the Church Christ founded specifically requires one to reject the German church? Can either of those reasonably be maintained? I think one must answer this Yes – (you may go on to say, But his motives justify this disloyalty, or the situation requires it)
    4. This is the really difficult one, and I’m not sure that I can answer it. I respond with another question – is it sufficient to judge his motives? What about his actions? Can impeccable motives justify seriously wrong actions? (If Yes, be prepared for a list from me of horrendous actions committed by people who apparently conscientiously thought they were justified by their motives). I am inclined to contend that the Church is under an obligation to judge the actions of its members, in the first place (‘binding and loosing’) but taking into account their motivations when these are known (as in the confessional). We normally deduce people’s motives from what they do – and the Church has been recently been criticised for taking more account of motives than of actions. In particular, in the abuse scandals, the actions of superiors in concealing abuses were no doubt in at least some cases undertaken from impeccable motives (mercy to an apparently repentant sinner, avoidance of scandal) – are those actions now to be justified solely on the basis of their motives, ignoring the evils to which they led?

    Of course, some may take the view that the statement that Klaus makes to the German Government is a pure formality, not to be taken seriously for any other purpose. I cannot. Leaving apostasy aside, it is fraudulent. I would compare it with the statements made by so many MPs recently in connection with their expenses. They knew they were underpaid – they felt entitled – they were encouraged by the attitude of officials – what did it matter if they exaggerated a bit?

    • Quentin says:

      We have I think looked before at this question of following one’s conscience into an objectively wrong action. In the case of my fictional example I am assuming that Klaus is humble enough to be open to making a mistake and sincere enough to have really considered which choice in more in accordance with the Gospel. And of course he must not have read Iona’s last post, or found he could not accept the message.

    • Rahner says:

      “It cannot be considered a ‘mere formality’ – any more than St Thomas More subscribing to the Act of Supremacy would have been a ‘mere formality’”

      This seems to me to a quite bizarre comparison…..

  26. Iona says:

    Rahner – how come?

    • tim says:

      Could we agree on ‘slightly exaggerated’ (provided it’s understood that this is to be understood literally rather than ironically)?

  27. Iona says:

    Our PP felt strongly enough about the way the German church tax is being reported to include the following in Sunday’s Newsletter:

    The key point is that the German bishops are not saying as the secular press puts it that “unless you pay the tax you will not receive the sacraments”. … In order to avoid paying the tax, some people have made an act of formal renunciation of their membership of the Church. … There are inevitable consequences. Archbishop Robert Zollitsch says “At issue is the credibility of the Church’s sacramental nature. One cannot be half a member or only partly a member. Either one belongs and commits – or one renounces this”.

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