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Christians, Pay Your Taxes!

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Aug 13, 2007

I had to smile at Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi’s complaint that Church leaders don’t speak out frequently enough against tax evasion. He never hears sermons about this at Mass. Yet, Prodi claims, hundreds of thousands of Italian taxpayers understate their income every year.

Prodi’s concern notwithstanding, it is hardly the Church’s responsibility to facilitate the collection of taxes by the State. Christian morality recognizes an obligation to accept legitimate civil authority and comply with its demands insofar as it is possible to do so, and insofar as these demands do not contravene the laws of God. But apart from this general obligation, the vast majority of interactions between a State and its citizens are matters of positive law which are themselves morally neutral.

For example, a speed limit has no intrinsic moral character, and it is not intrinsically immoral to disobey it. Some situations may decidedly favor exceeding it, and in other situations it may be largely irrelevant. While the citizen has a general obligation to accept the dispositions of legitimate civil authority, the degree of precision with which speed limits are kept depends not only on the letter of the law but also on history, culture, custom, enforcement patterns and extenuating circumstances. This is true of all positive law.

Moreover, just as there can be conditions (albeit probably rare) under which one is actually obliged to speed, there can be conditions under which it is immoral to pay a particular tax or under which it is at least moral to evade taxation as much as possible. In extreme cases, the legitimacy of certain laws and even of entire regimes can be questioned. After all, the Church’s social teaching also upholds a right of resistance to unjust laws, including unjust exactions. In these matters, the citizen is morally bound to rely on a properly formed conscience, but within these broader moral lines he may also discover legitimate ways to consult his own interests.

For all these reasons, it is only prudent for the Church to refrain from comment concerning most of the arrangements made between the State and its citizens. She is right to reserve her fire for causes possessing a clear and specific moral character. Indeed, there would be something unseemly about the Church’s use of her moral authority to constantly urge the faithful to be punctilious in their observance of every civil law. The Church rightly accords the State its sphere of legitimate secularity, within which it must forge what bonds it can with its citizens.

As a purely practical matter, one might also ask what planet Romano Prodi is from if he expects Italian citizens (or any citizens the world over) to love and cherish priests who harangue them to pay their taxes. I really don’t want to push this too far. Suffice it to say again that when I read of the Prime Minister’s complaint, I had to smile.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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