The church in Austria is allowed by law to require a financial contribution from its members, the Kirchenbeitrag, popularly known as church tax – though it is not technically a tax.
According to the Catholic Church in Austria, more than 75 per cent of its income in the country comes from this contribution, which is used to cover church material and personnel requirements. The institution says that the contribution will also provide services in pastoral care, social affairs, and monument preservation.
Last year, the Catholic Church in Austria reported a decline in membership, according to data published in January. The church said the number of registered Catholics in Austria fell by 1.6 percent in 2021, with more than 72,000 people formally leaving the institution in the year.
However, financial figures from the year before show a slight increase in income from Church contribution, which totalled € 484 million in 2020, compared to € 481 million in 2019.
Who needs to pay the church tax?
All adult Catholics who reside in Austria are subject to contributions, and similar rules also apply to Protestant churches.
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A Christian person is someone who has received one of the basic sacraments, so any baptised person would need to pay the church tax. That includes foreigners baptised abroad, even if they have not taken other sacraments, practised the religion, or were baptised in infancy.
The religious data is given to churches by the municipalities based on registration information.
Usually, the church will collect information when someone declares their religion on their Meldezettel (the residence registration form). However, the contribution offices may also use available public information, such as data from the parishes about baptisms, wedding ceremonies, or newspaper reports.
There are a few exceptions to the payment obligation, including for students, who need to inform the church contribution office yearly about their income situation. Other exceptions are people receiving social payments (childcare allowance or unemployment benefit, for example) or on civil or basic military service.
The situation can get tricky in the case of married couples when only one of them has an income, or only one of them is a Catholic.
How much does it cost?
According to the Catholic Church, “being a Christian is not a private matter” and “requires solidarity with the Church” to cover the basic costs of pastoral care.
The institution says that no one would be asked for “anything unreasonable”.
The usual fee is less than 1.1% of the annual taxable income, considering each person’s income and financial burdens. The payments can be claimed for up to € 400 per person for tax purposes.
The contribution is usually due at the end of each quarter but can be paid monthly, semi-annually, or yearly. People subject to the grant will get a mailed letter with payment information, and there are discounts for early payments.
In some cases, they might be deducted directly from pay.
Since churches don’t have access to tax information, they will estimate contributions based on available data, including profession and marital status, unless you provide them with information about income and expenses.
In certain situations (single-parent households or families with children), it is possible to request discounts.
What is the legal basis for the church contribution?
The church mentions several regulations that allow it to ask its members for contributions, including centuries-old canons.
In Austria, the primary legal basis is in a 1939 law, the Church Contribution Act, amended in 1945 and incorporated into the country’s legal system, allowing for contributions.
The 1939 law removed a state subsidy to the church and instead created a church tax system with private payments to the religious institutions. According to the Vienna Archdiocese, the law was created by the Nazi regime to “make a devastating blow to the church in Austria” by removing its main source of funding, the state payments.
After the war, the old subsidies could not be reintroduced, mainly for budgetary issues, so the “church tax” was incorporated into the Austrian legal system in 1945.
What happens if I don’t pay the contribution?
People who don’t pay the contributions are also not allowed to use the services of the churches, including sacraments like baptism, wedding, first communion, and confirmation.
The church can also claim amounts due, and the sums can accumulate. The institution will sue for the charges, so ignoring the payment slips is not advisable.
You can avoid payment if you fall into the exceptions, including being a student. But other than that, the only way to stop paying the mandatory contribution is by leaving the church.
Generally, you need to send a form (available with the institution) requesting to leave the church. However, the documents and processes can be slightly different depending on the situation, so it’s worth checking the website or calling the authorities currently billing you.
By leaving the church or deregistering with the church, you also are giving up the right to participate in sacraments. So you wouldn’t be allowed to be godparent in baptism, for example.
Kirchenbeitrag – church contribution
Volljährig – of age
Wohnsitz – place of residence
Einkünfte – income
And the seven sacraments:
Taufe – baptism
Eucharistie – eucharist
Firmung – confirmation
Ehe – marriage
Buße – reconciliation
Weihe – holy orders
Krankensalbung – anointing of the sick