ALCALA DE HENARES, Spain — Cash-strapped officials in Europe are looking for a way to ease their financial burden by 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 various tax breaks and privileges the church has enjoyed for centuries.
One of them is Ricardo Rubio, a city council member in Alcala, who is leading an effort to impose a tax on all church property used for nonreligious purposes.
If imposed nationwide, 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, 36.
In Italy, Prime Minister Mario Monti has called for a tax on church properties or on those portions of properties with a commercial purpose. In Ireland, the minister of education is fighting to end church control of many of the country's primary schools. 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.
(Closer to home, the St. Petersburg City Council last week rejected Mayor Bill Foster's proposed fire readiness fee, which as originally proposed would have been levied on churches. That provision was later removed.)
In Europe, political groups have seized on the economic 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 Vatican and representatives of the church — Cardinal Antonio Maria Rouco in Spain and Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco in Italy — have released statements saying they intend to comply with all laws. But they decline 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. The net worth of the Vatican and the Catholic Church dioceses is difficult to estimate, but it is thought to be astronomical. The Vatican's treasure of gold alone is thought to be worth several billion dollars. But with most of its assets tied up in buildings and artwork, the church has faced a cash-flow problem in recent years. further eroding cash reserves.
Spain's prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, has called proposals to impose property taxes "irresponsible." The church, he said, deserves the exemptions because it serves a "very important social function."
Meanwhile, at least 100 cities in Spain have passed resolutions supporting municipal taxes on the church. In Buenavista del Norte in the Canary Islands, Mayor Antonio Gonzales Fuertes says he is trying to collect 6,000 euros — about $7,750 — from the church for a rental villa and a banana farm it operates. Fuertes would like to use the money for programs that have been cut, such as children's recreation programs.