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 used for non-religious purposes. The financial impact 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 underway 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 country’s primary schools, and the government has slashed in half the grants it gives poor families for first Communions. More than half the city councils in Britain have eliminated state subsidies for transportation to faith-based schools, leading to a precipitous drop in enrollment.
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 continent’s 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 Church’s finances.
In response to the controversy, 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.