The Church in Norway and Germany should keep their distance from the state

Church statistics are to be treated with great caution. This magazine recently reported that the Catholic Church in Norway has been growing by leaps and bounds.

To a large extent this is broadly true. At the Reformation, Catholicism was totally extirpated in Norway, and it was very slow in coming back. As recently as 1971, there were fewer than 10,000 Catholics in the entire country. Now there are about ten times that number.

Just recently, the Church has opened a new Cathedral in Trondheim, dedicated to Saint Olav, at the consecration of which the Pope was represented by our very own Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor.

A little trip around the Cathedral website gives you a snapshot of Catholic life in Norway. The Cathedral clergy are either Polish or Norwegian converts from Lutheranism. Mass is celebrated in Norwegian, Latin, Tagalog, Polish and Tamil, though there is no Mass in Spanish “for the time being”.

The Church in Norway has recently run into trouble over the subventions it receives from the state, and has reportedly been found guilty of inflating the number of adherents in order to gain more money. The Trondheim website explains the background to the matter:

“In Norway, the state pays all religious organisations a fixed sum for each registered member. This contribution is a type of church tax to help the organisation in their spiritual and social work for their members. Catholics arriving in Norway are therefore asked to officially register with their local Church to ensure that the Church receives this financial contribution. In recent years the number of immigrants from Catholic countries has been numerous, and Oslo Catholic Diocese has registered individuals they assumed were Catholics without asking them personally.”

The Guardian has a report on the matter here.

It is pretty embarrassing for the Church to be accused of fraud and playing the system for its own advantage. Clearly the Church will have to proceed carefully in future if it is to avoid breaking the law again, and that will mean being careful to understand what exactly it is that the law requires.

But the real question many will ask is why the Norwegian state pays this grant to religious bodies in the first place. After all, in most countries, the Church is purely self-financing, though it may get, as in Britain, certain advantages in the form of charitable status and grants for the maintenance of historic buildings.

But why have a Church tax, either on the German model, or the Norwegian model? Why not rely on the faithful putting their hands in their pockets, and, if they haven’t got deep pockets, why not just be a poor Church?

To ask these questions is not to get in a dig at our Norwegian brethren, who probably need the money and understandably wanted to maximise the grant from the state, as we all would in similar circumstances. But it is to ask a question that applies to the Church in all countries, namely, what is the relationship between Church and State?

Too close a relationship between the Church and State can be disastrous, as the Church recognises. This is what underlies concerns about the current situation in China. As readers of this magazine will know, many have justified fears that the Chinese government, officially communist and atheist, may soon be granted a recognised role in the appointment of bishops.

I for one would not want to have anything to do with a bishop appointed by the Chinese government; the concept of an atheist and communist government appointing bishops is simply absurd. Catholic monarchs appointed bishops in days gone by, but they were largely devout men and women. The Chinese cannot pretend to be so.

As for the situation in Norway, if this were to bring the current arrangement into disrepute and lead to its abolition, this might not be a disaster. The Church would then be free of such a tie to the state; and as Norway is still a missionary territory in so many ways, it could rely on contributions channeled through the Church’s missionary agencies.