The Central Roman Catholic Conference of Switzerland (RKZ), which brings together the cantonal ecclesiastical corporations, and the Reformed Evangelical Church of Switzerland (EERS) have commissioned the consulting firm Ecoplan to study the medium-term future of church finances.
The 93-page report, titled “The Future of Church Funding, Evaluation and Analysis,” was presented at the plenary assembly of the RKZ on March 25-26, 2022. The study shows that before long, Catholics and Reformed will no longer be in the majority.
The latter are more strongly affected by the decline in the number of their followers. This is why the question of their medium and long-term financing is of concern to the Churches of Switzerland.
Emphasis is placed on the evolution of the members and on that of income from the ecclesiastical taxes of natural persons. But the researchers at Ecoplan AG also wanted to know what developments to expect regarding church corporate tax and government contributions.
Indeed, the political acceptance and legitimacy of church tax for companies (legal persons) and state contributions depend on the number of members. If the number of people claiming no confessional affiliation and other religions increases, the legitimacy of the church tax decreases.
Regarding the evolution of the number of members, the research team first looked at the recent past, from 2010 to 2018. It appears that the numbers have been decreasing for the Evangelical Reformed Church since 2010, and for the Roman Catholic Church since the mid-2010s.
The different evolution according to the age group also plays a role. In both denominations the 15-24 and 25-44 age groups have decreased, while the over 65s have increased. The age group of 45 to 64 years presents a differentiated evolution. While they have observed an increase until 2015 for the Roman Catholic Church, the number of faithful in this age group has been decreasing since 2010 for the Reformed.
The decline in the number is expected to continue over the next few decades. According to the study's projections, the number of Catholics over the age of 15 will decrease from more than 2.5 million in the mid-2010s to around 1.74 million in 2045. The Reformed Church will decrease from 1.8 million members in 2010 to about 970,000 in 2045.
The data show a trend towards massive aging and a clear decrease in the proportion of the two major denominations to the total population. According to the projection, Catholics and Reformed will represent less than half of the population in 2025.
A reduction in the number of members leads to a reduction in the ecclesiastical taxes of natural persons. On the Catholic side, taxes are expected to fall by a sixth, from about 701 million Swiss francs in 2017 to about 600 million in 2045, and on the Reform side, from about 630 million Swiss francs to about 460 million.
For the time being, the reduction in the number of members in the cantonal churches of the two denominations has not yet had any effect on church tax receipts. The reason is the behavior according to the different age groups.
The incomes and therefore the taxes of people over 45 have increased in recent years. The decline in the number of younger members was thus compensated. This compensation effect will diminish in the future. For Catholics, the decline in church taxes will still be moderate in the 2020s and will only accelerate beginning in 2030.
It is particularly difficult to anticipate the evolution of church tax for legal persons. Corporate revenues are quite volatile, as they depend on economic growth. There can also be big differences between the cantons. Finally, it should be noted that some cantons do not levy church taxes on companies.
Political discussions are also a source of uncertainty. In several cantons, there are regular attempts to abolish this tax. To take this risk into account, the study assumes a reduction in the tax rate from 2033.
The report estimates that the ecclesiastical tax for corporate bodies of the Roman Catholic Church will drop from around 190 million Swiss francs in 2017 to around 160 million in 2045. The decrease in the number of members can then no longer be offset by corporate taxes.
For the Evangelical Reformed Church, revenues will decrease from approximately 130 million Swiss francs in 2017 to 111 million in 2045.
In French-speaking Switzerland, only the cantons of Fribourg and Jura take part in the church tax system. In the cantons of Geneva and Neuchâtel governed by the separation between Church and States, the faithful make voluntary contributions.
In the canton of Vaud, where there is no church tax, it is the canton itself that pays a global contribution to the churches. And in the Valais, it is the municipalities that contribute to the financing of the parishes and the canton contributes to the bishopric of Sion.