The Church and the State

The relationship between the church and the state in the Federal Republic of Germany is based on the constitutional principle of the strict legal and organizational separation. However, the fact that the constitution requires the state to take a neutral stance on ideology does not mean that it is indifferent to religion or that it rejects any value orientation. Rather its neutrality is realized in a positive way in a diverse varied network of relations, with cooperation taking place in various fields of common interest.

"Sternsinger" from the Pontifical Missionary Childhood of Germany meet Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin (photo: KNA).

This means that the German view of partnership between church and state differs both from the principle of mutual independence with an emphasis on separation (as in France and the USA) and from the model of a privileged church (as in Great Britain, Sweden and Greece).

Germany’s constitution recognises the principle of subsidiarity and thus the duty of the state not only to tolerate free forces in society but actively to support their development.

Legislation known as „state church law“ governs the detailed mutual rights and obligations between state and church in Germany. In the case of the Catholic Church, it mainly consists of concordats, i.e. treaties between the relevant state agencies and the Vatican.

The state demonstrates its respect for the social significance of the churches and their work towards the common good by giving them the status of corporate bodies under public law. By upholding the basic right of religious freedom, Germany safeguards the freedom of the churches and other religious communities to conduct their own affairs independently in adherence to the laws which apply to society as a whole. An example of this is the churches’ administrative and labour rules, which, within the context of general labour law, take account of the particular spiritual nature of the services provided by the churches and which have developed their own model of staff representation in line with the churches’ right of self-determination. As expressly stipulated by the constitution, the churches confer their offices „without the participation of the state“. This does not mean that, when a new local bishop is appointed, the Land government may not be asked whether there are any „political concerns“ about the intended candidate. This concordat-based process should not be understood as a political veto but as an expression of willingness to cooperate with a specific individual.

Cooperation between church and state is particularly intensive in the field of social services, an area in which the church has a particular focus of its Christian mission to the world and its care for the whole person. Here, the state gives priority to the independent agencies, and thus also to the churches, in line with the well-tried principle of subsidiarity, according to which government should only act when society’s own forces, such as churches, are unable to offer social services.

Further fields of cooperation between church and state include religious instruction in public schools: this is subject to supervision by the state, whilst the churches are responsible for the content of what is taught. Other areas are the theological faculties at state universities and at educational institutions run by the churches, whose courses and qualifications are recognised by the state. The state guarantees pastoral care from the churches for soldiers, in public hospitals and prisons. It organises and finances the pastoral care integrated into the Federal Armed Forces, although how the actual care is provided remains the responsibility of the churches. In hospitals and prisons the state ensures unrestricted access for pastoral workers from the churches and provides appropriate facilities. In the television and radio channels organised under public law, the law-makers take account of the legitimate interests of the church by involving it in the supervision of programmes by relevant social groups. In recent decades, development aid has become another field of cooperation. The state gives some of its funding for development cooperation to church aid agencies, as they are generally able to work more effectively and in a greater spirit of partnership on the spot than government organisations.

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