German Catholics have reacted with fury to a new decree denying sacraments and religious burials to people who opt out of a "church tax".
The decree, issued by German bishops, came into force yesterday.
Under the new rules, Catholics who stop paying the tax will be excluded from all religious activities, including becoming a godparent, working in a church job, or taking part in parish activities.
"'Pay and pray' is a completely wrong signal at the wrong time," the reformist movement We Are Church said.
"The decree shows the great fear of the German bishops and the Vatican about further serious losses in church tax revenue."
A conservative group called the Union of Associations Loyal to the Pope asked why Catholics who stopped paying the tax would be punished but those it called heretics could stay within its ranks.
"So sacraments are for sale -- whoever pays the church tax can receive the sacraments," it said in a statement, saying the link the decree created "goes beyond the sale of indulgences that (Martin) Luther denoun-ced" at the start of the Reformation.
German tax offices collect a religious tax worth 8-9pc of the annual regular tax bill of registered Catholics, Protestants and Jews and channel it to those faiths.
An official declaration that one is leaving the faith frees the citizen from this tax.
Defending the decree, bishops had earlier said they were spelling out the consequences of a worshipper choosing to leave the church to avoid paying.
Some Catholics had tried to remain active in their parish despite officially quitting the church.
But "it's rubbish to assume one could leave the institutional church and remain a Catholic", said the secretary of the German Bishops Conference.
"Whoever leaves the church," Rev Hans Langendoerfer told the Catholic radio station in Cologne, "leaves it completely."
The annual total of Catholic church leavers, usually around 120,000, rose to 181,193 two years ago as revelations about decades of sexual abuse of children by priests shamed the hierarchy and prompted an apology from German-born Pope Benedict.
Church taxes brought in about €5bn for the Roman Catholic Church and €4.3bn for the Protestant churches in 2010, according to official statistics.
With such full coffers, the German church runs a large network of schools, hospitals and charity organisations at home and is one of the biggest contributors to the Vatican and to Catholic projects worldwide.
The German bishops are due to open their autumn plenary meeting in Fulda today and the issue is expected to play a part in the discussions over the following three days.