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Does the Church Serve the State?


Rev. Robert Sirico

The secular world and the Christian world agree that religion and the state should be separate. It’s better this way for all concerned. It keeps the social peace. It prevents entanglements that can corrupt the faith. And these spheres have different jobs to do, and each can uphold its job better when they tend to matters that are their own respective responsibilities.

And yet there are times when mixing does occur, with the predictable result of social division and doctrinal confusion. I’m thinking in particular here of a case in Italy, where the Italian prime minister demanded that the church assist in task of collecting taxes via propaganda from the pulpit.

“A third of Italians heavily evade taxes,“ Romano Prodi told an interviewer. He continued: “To change this mindset, it’s up to everyone, starting with the teachers, to do their part ... the church included.“

Now, this strikes me as an unjust demand. It’s true that the church teaches that just taxes should be paid. It is a sin not to. But what constitutes a just tax? That is a question of applied doctrine for which there is no universal answer.

For a state to take some 40 percent of national income in taxes is not exceptional these days. In some circles I’ve heard it said that the state should not demand more than the church, namely 10 percent. I’m drawn to that ideal, even if I’m not sure it should be upheld as a hard and fast principle.

In the nineteenth century, a state that took 10 percent would be considered to be out of control. In the middles ages, a monarch who demanded that much would be risking his life. There is imprudence pushing such a rule, if only because it leads the state to believe that it can and should take at least that much and do whatever it wants to with the money.

The quantity taken can have an impact on matters of justice but so can issues of how the money is spent. What if the state spends all its money on unjust wars and eugenics? There is no justice in that, and so, while paying one’s taxes might or might not be prudent, the justice associated with the action is no longer a foregone conclusion.

Certainly it is not for the state to say what does or does not constitute a moral obligation to pay a tax in any particular historical context. It if were solely up to the state, all taxes in all times and all places would be morally binding. But for the church it is a different matter. Certainly individual pastors must observe these situations on a case-by-case basis.

The justice of taxation can also be impacted by the method of taxation. What if food and clothing and medicine were taxed more highly than luxury goods? That certainly wouldn’t accord with a plain sense of justice. Taxes that hit the poor disproportionately hard are morally objectionable, but so are those that seek to expropriate people solely for their financial successes. Taxing residents while penalizing foreigners is objectionable but so is taxing foreigners while subsidizing residents.

If the state wants to attempt to enforce this, that’s the business of the state. If the religious people find no objection, that’s fine too. But to demand that the church participate in telling people that it is their religious duty to pay or else they will pay an eternal price, that’s a violation of the separation of church and state, and contrary to the freedom that should be enjoyed by both spheres.