ALCALA DE HENARES, Spain – Cash-strapped officials in Europe are looking for a way to ease their financial burden by upending centuries of tradition and seeking to tap one of the last untouched sources of wealth: the Catholic Church.
Thousands of public officials who have seen the financial crisis hit their budgets are chipping away at the tax breaks and privileges the church has enjoyed for centuries.
But the church is facing its own money troubles. Offerings from parishioners have nosedived, and it has been accused of using shady bank accounts and hiding suspect transactions.
Now, along come officials like Ricardo Rubio.
Rubio, a city council member in Alcala, is leading an effort to impose a tax on all church property in Alcala used for non-religious purposes. The financial effect on the Catholic Church could be devastating. As one of the largest landowners in Spain – with holdings that include schools, homes, parks, sports fields and restaurants – the church could owe up to 3 billion euros in taxes each year.
We want to make a statement that the costs of the crisis should be borne equally by every person and institution, said Rubio, a 36-year-old former accountant in his first term in office.
Similar efforts that target church coffers or powers are under way in neighboring countries.
In Italy, Prime Minister Mario Monti has called for a tax on church properties or on those portions of properties that have a commercial purpose. In Ireland, the minister of education is fighting to end church control of many of the countrys primary schools, and the government has slashed in half the grants it gives poor families for first communions.
Once an untouchable institution in some parts of Europe, the Catholic Church has come under fire for its government subsidies at a time when the continents economies are faltering and the population is subject to painful cuts in jobs, benefits and pensions.
Political groups have seized on the crisis as an opportunity to open up a larger debate about whether it is time to unwind some of the deals struck generations ago between church and state in predominantly Catholic countries in Europe.
The separation of church and state is the big issue here, said Charles Zech, director of the Center for the Study of Church Management at Villanova University, which focuses on the Catholic Churchs finances.
The Vatican and representatives of the church – Cardinal Antonio Maria Rouco in Spain and Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco in Italy, who head the council of bishops in their respective countries – have released statements saying they intend to comply with all laws.
But they have declined to comment further except to emphasize that current norms recognize the social value of church activities.
Efforts to pare down its financial privileges could not have come at a worse time for the Catholic Church, which is experiencing money troubles despite its great wealth.
With most of its assets tied up in buildings and artwork, the church has faced a cash-flow problem in recent years. Contributions have fallen dramatically in the wake of the global economic downturn. The clergy abuse scandal cost the church hundreds of millions in settlement costs, further eroding cash reserves.