So, what’s your favorite day of the year? Christmas or Easter perhaps? How about St. Patrick’s Day or Mother’s Day? Okay, admit it . . . it’s April 15th, Tax Day. And it’s right around the corner so get ready to party!
I don’t think I’ve ever written about taxes before, but as Tax Day this year approaches it might be a fitting topic. What does our Christian Faith say about taxes?
Jesus himself didn’t have too much to say about taxes. We think of the scene in the Gospels when the Pharisees, trying to trap our Lord, asked him if it was lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar. You know the famous response: “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God.” (Mt. 22: 21) How many times has that phrase been quoted and interpreted, used and misused!
And then there’s the intriguing episode found in Matthew’s Gospel when the tax collectors asked Peter if Jesus was paying the temple tax. Jesus’ response is wonderfully capricious. While Jesus hints that he might be exempt from the tax, to avoid giving scandal he tells St. Peter: “Go to the sea, drop in a hook, and take the first fish that comes up. Open its mouth and you will find a coin worth twice the temple tax. Give that to them for me and for you.” (Mt 17: 27)
Would that we could find money so easily to pay our taxes!
St. Paul, in the Letter to the Romans, explains that we are bound to pay taxes out of respect for political authorities who are “ministers of God.” (Now there’s a topic for discussion!) “Pay to all their dues, taxes to whom taxes are due, and toll to whom toll is due,” St. Paul writes. (Rom 13: 6-7)
The question of paying taxes, the present-day relationship between God and Caesar, hits pretty close to home sometimes. I’ve found that every time I make a statement about a public issue – religious freedom, immigration, abortion, same-sex marriage, for example – the insightful people who post comments on various blogs will invariably say something like, “Hey Tobin, why don’t you shut up? When you start paying taxes then you can tell us what to do!”
The fact is that bishops and diocesan priests, like all citizens, do pay income tax. I pay income tax according to standard tax tables and I pay sales tax for personal items and services I purchase. Now, my taxes, based on my income, are relatively modest. I’ll never have to worry about the increased taxes President Obama wants to impose on the wealthy. Nonetheless, I am a tax-paying citizen and I certainly have the right to speak out on public issues.
And what about the Church paying taxes?
Well, the Catholic Church, like other faith communities, is a non-profit organization. Typically the Church, like other religious bodies and community-based non-profits, does not pay taxes as other corporations do.
That arrangement, well-established in law and history, is based on two factors I suppose. The first is that as a non-profit organization, our income is limited, based almost completely on the free will donations of our members. We don’t have the authority, nor the desire, to impose a tax on individual “citizens” of the Church. Nor is the Church regularly supported by subsidies from the federal government as sometimes happens in other countries around the world.
The second reason for the tax-exempt status is that the Catholic Church, like other churches and non-profits, in lieu of paying taxes provides very substantial and important public services that benefit the entire community.
When the Church gets involved in public debates, and lobbies for particular points-of-view, opponents invariably say that our “tax free status” should be taken away. And what would happen should that ever come to pass?
Well, the resources of the Church would be severely strained and our services would be devastated. Schools and homeless shelters would close; soup kitchens and food pantries would be eliminated; nursing homes, senior citizens centers and child care services would cease. All of these services, by the way, are available to Catholics and non-Catholics alike; the Church serves the community. If the Church were to cease its public ministry, the burden of providing these services would fall to the public sector, almost always at a much higher cost to tax payers.
In short, for the well-being of the community, you really don’t want to take away the tax free status of churches and other non-profits.
Admittedly, the relationship between God and Caesar, the church and state, can be pretty complicated and can pose serious moral dilemmas for conscientious tax payers. For example, I really hate the fact that some portion of my federal taxes is used to provide free contraception and abortions for others. It’s sinful and it bothers my conscience. But as Christian citizens our entanglement with the world is unavoidable and the options we have are limited.
I remember a zealous young priest on the seminary faculty in the 1960s who was adamantly opposed to the Vietnam War. In protest, he wrote in bold print across his income tax return that he was only paying half of his taxes so that he wouldn’t be subsidizing the immoral war in Vietnam. The problem, however, was that he miscalculated his tax obligation and ended-up receiving a refund.
Oh well, they say that the only two things in life that are certain are death and taxes. Although I’ll continue to pay the taxes I owe, I think I prefer death. I’d rather entrust my future to God than my fortune to the federal government.