Ecce, advénit publicánus!«Is it lawful to pay tribute unto Caesar?»
«Show me the coin of the tribute.» And they offered him a penny.
«Ostendite mihi nomisma census» at illi obtulerunt ei denarium.
—Matthew 22: 19
Even before Vatican II, but particularly since, Church documents have often contained the economic fallacy that the wealth needed to serve the needs of the poor was somehow created through the intervention of governments. At worst, the wealth of society would just be redistributed to the deserving poor with no net loss—optimally, the wisdom of government would cause even greater total wealth to be created. The fallacy is five-fold:
Even without seeing an advance copy of the forthcoming encyclical on tax evasion, we can predict, with almost "papal" infallibility, that this economic fallacy will be at its foundation.
Nonetheless, governments do perform essential services unlikely (but not impossibly) to be provided by the private sector. Clearly, the cost of these services must be paid for by society. Societies have raised funds for these services through a variety of different taxes—on imports, on exports, on investment income, on personal wages, on sales, on property, on luxury goods, on a per capita basis—and even by donations and volunteer labor.
state has a right (of legal, not commutative justice, q.v.) to impose
moderate taxes on its subjects, and they are bound to pay their reasonable share
of such taxes, not merely as payment for services rendered but as an obligatory
contribution to the maintenance of the civil society Most theologians hold that
indirect taxes (e.g. customs and excise) are purely penal (see LAW,
PENAL), unless the civil authority has made clear its intention to bind the
conscience; hence smuggling is not sinful in itself, unless engaged in on
so large a scale as to constitute a menace to good government. Many hold
the same view of direct taxes (e.g. income-taxes, rates), provided that
the citizen contributes in some way a moderate sum towards the state's expenses,
but "there is no possible excuse for studied evasion of taxes.... No
countenance can be given to fraud, deceit or lying in the matter of income-tax
returns (Davis, Moral Theology, Vol. II). So to make false
returns or declarations is sinful; but a reasonable sum may be deducted to
allow for immoderate exactions on the part of the civil authority. To
expose one's self to the probable danger of incurring very heavy penalties by
omitting to pay just taxes would be a sin against prudence if not against
justice. The Church has the right to tax her subjects, and the faithful
are bound to contribute to the material support of religion where this is not
already otherwise provided for; however the Church rarely, if ever,
imposes determinate taxes (but cf, cathedraticum).
There is a tacit assumption in this that the government of the state is legitimate, and its laws generally moral. Together with Saint Thomas we can say that "all laws, insofar as they partake of right reason, are derived from the eternal law". Government thus derives legitimacy by governing according to the laws of God, expressed in universally known natural law. He recognizes that rulers are imperfect and that they will sometimes stray from the divine law. Their rule remains legitimate unless their departure from the divine law becomes an oppressive burden on the people. (S.Theol. Ia IIæ, Q93, a3 Q95, a2)
Thus, by and large, the legitimate state is one that sets out to follow the natural law in theory and in practice. Even where the state is pagan, it must honor God as well as He can be known through human reason; it must strongly promote family stability and marital fidelity; it must strongly discourage lying, cheating, stealing, beating, murdering and such like behavior—among its subjects, toward its subjects, from its subjects, and with respect to foreigners. It must require good behavior for no society can survive without it. In brief, everyone in a legitimate state—ruler, subject, outsider—is expected to keep the Commandments to the best of his ability.
A few concrete examples are in order. Note that they apply to the Vatican, as Church and as a state, at least as well as they apply to civil societies.
The Roman Republic and its Cæsar, to whom Christ declared the rendering of tribute lawful, were indeed firm rulers, sometimes harsh. From Cæsar Augustus to Marcus Aurelius (27 BC - 180 AD), the Empire enjoyed a relative peace and prosperity heretofore unknown in the ancient world. Subject peoples were generally free to practice their religion and customs; were relatively free from invasion: benefited from a publicly known, uniform, and consistently applied set of laws; and enjoyed a general period of prosperity and culture. There were, of course, exceptions—some of them terrible, including the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Civilization has had two-thousand years to learn from the mistakes of the Romans and those who followed them. It would seem that before the Holy Father concerns himself with collecting more taxes from the peoples of the world, he ought to concern himself with admonishing the various governments of the world that they must rule in accord with God's law—the government based in the Vatican not excepted.
Postscript: Is it my imagination, or does the Gospel passage not suggest that taxes were rendered to Cæsar at a rather low rate, compared with today's? A penny? A denarius? Even when adjusted for government caused inflation and currency debasement?
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Additional material in
connection with Attwater's definition of Taxation, linked from above.
An annual contribution to the support of a diocesan bishop, payable from all
churches or benefices under his jurisdiction; in countries where there are
no proper benefices (e.g., England [and the USA]) the amount payable, and
by whom, is a matter of local legislation generally dealt with in diocesan
ii. More frequently the term is limited to legal and distributive justice
[on the one hand], which refer respectively to what is due from us to the state,
and from the state to us; and [on the other hand] to commutative justice,
which inclines one to give another his due as a man irrespective of who he
is. Thus to infringe another's rights by damage to his property, theft,
calumny, detraction, adultery, etc., is to sin against justice (cf.,
PENAL i. A positive law which is not binding under pain of sin, but
only under pain of the penalty attached. The state has the power to make
laws that bind in conscience and the infringement of civil laws often involves
the transgression of a moral precept, in which case such laws are binding in
conscience for that reason. Otherwise they may be presumed purely penal,
unless the civil authority makes clear it intention of binding the citizen's
conscience. This is considering the matter strictly from the point of view
of sin, and is not to be construed as an irresponsible encouragement or
condonation of law-breaking; all citizens should scrupulously obey the
just laws of their country. It is a very probable opinion and one
supported by the authority of Blackstone that the positive laws of Great Britain
are purely penal (cf.,