Q — Simony is defined as sacrilege that consists in buying and selling what is spiritual in return for what is temporal. Thus, isn’t the German hierarchy’s denial of sacraments to those who do not pay their church tax in fact simony?

A — I must admit right away that I am not privy to any official statement issued by the Roman Catholic Episcopal Conference in Germany on this issue of the payment of the church tax. So, I should be careful what I say since I am not in command of all of the facts. However, one may attempt to say two things in response to the question. First, something about what simony means. The term is derived from Simon Magus (see Acts 8:18-24), and refers to the purchase or sale of spiritual things. The Council of Chalcedon in 451, for example, forbade ordination for money. There was a fair amount of ecclesiastical preferment in the Middle Ages for money and this was condemned, again by way of example, by the Third Lateran Council in 1179. The basic point about simony is provided by the Catechism of the Catholic Church in paragraph 2121: “It is impossible to appropriate to oneself spiritual goods and behave toward them as their owner or master, for they have their source in God.” Second, although I have no informed position on the German situation, it does not seem to me to be simony. Why not? The church is not selling spiritual things for money. Obviously, as with any voluntary institution, the church cannot exist and cannot provide its ministries without money. It has always been part of the Roman Catholic tradition that the financial support of the church should be taken very seriously. What the German bishops seem to me to be suggesting is that there is a lack of integrity on the part of a person who wishes to avail him/herself of the church’s ministries without making any financial contribution to the upkeep of the church that provides those ministries. So, it seems to me not so much a denial of the sacraments as an invitation to take seriously the witness and the ministries of the church. That seems very reasonable to me.