Charles Curran, in a Spring 1985 article published in The Journal of Religious Ethics (Volume 13, Number 1), wrote that despite the Roman Catholic theological tradition’s long and consistent interest in questions of justice, that interest has never been extended to articulate a sustained, in-depth, and systematic treatment on what constitutes a just system of taxation. This would include the articulation of principles concerning who should pay tax and at what level, and how the revenues raised ought to be spent by the state. Thirty-eight years later, this remains the case in Roman Catholic ethical circles in the United States. Journal articles by Catholic ethicists about this topic are very few. The most recent books that have been published focusing exclusively on taxation from a Roman Catholic ethical perspective are two in number. The first is Render to Caesar? The Morality of Taxation written by Dennis J. Yu, a Filipino priest and member of the Priestly Society of Holy Cross who published his work in 2016 through St. Paul’s in his home country. The second is Robert G. Kennedy, a professor in the Department of Catholic Studies at the University of St Thomas in Minnesota who published his 2018 book Justice in Taxation through the Acton Institute.
The reasons Catholics have not produced more scholarship on this topic are threefold. First, while taxation is a perennial concern of U.S. Catholics to the point that it was a major motivator for the American Revolution, it did not hit home for most citizens until the passage of the 16th Amendment in 1913 which allowed government at every level to institute an income tax. Prior to that, the Federal Government received the bulk of its revenue from custom and excise taxes. (Historians argue that the 16th Amendment was a preparatory step for the institution of Prohibition under the 18th Amendment because a significant portion of excise tax revenue came from the sale of alcoholic beverages.) Curran correctly points out that the income tax made the question of the distribution of the revenues by government more acute, a fact confirmed by how most contemporary debates about taxation revolve around that particular tax levied by every level of government: Federal, state, and local. Second, Curran observed that the manualist tradition made moral debates about taxation narrowly focused on specific topics: the moral obligation to pay tax and the penalty for failing to do so. Third, taxation in Catholic ethical thought was usually a part of larger debates concerning about the nature of the state, government, and policies enacted into law. The exceptions to that last point are also revealing. Curran points out that when Catholics made taxation a predominant issue, two specific themes came to the fore: the tax-exempt status of the Catholic Church and its ministries and the nonpayment of taxes as a form of protest against government policies. Usually, the latter took the form of U.S. citizens who disagreed with our country’s foreign and military policies withholding a percentage of their tax payments to the government in direct proportion to the revenues used to support our nation’s military budget.
Despite the paucity of scholarship surrounding taxation, the modern Catholic ethical tradition does not lack for knowledge and wisdom on the subject. Curran, and Robert Kennedy in a March 28, 2018 Acton Commentary distilling his own book’s essential arguments, both articulate the outlines of a Catholic consensus on taxation. Catholics agree that taxation is necessary to sustain the state because it is needed to help individuals fulfill their potential, order our common life and assist our attaining the common good. Taxation comes under the requirement of legal justice as part of each individual’s obligation to sustain the common good. This means that taxes, contrary to some contemporary right-wing views, are not intrinsically confiscatory. Private property rights are recognized in Catholic thought as a good, but are limited by what John Paul II called a “social mortgage” where such rights are limited by the legitimate needs of society to attain the common good. Therefore, the state has a legitimate claim on some of our property in the form of taxation to fulfill those needs. Finally, all Catholics agree that taxation should be progressive. In other words, it is based on a person’s ability to pay precisely because they can bear more of the burden in helping their neighbor attain the common good for all. On the other hand, the state’s claim on our property here has limits. Taxation cannot be confiscatory, with the state taking more than it needs. Nor can taxation be burdensome to the point that is denies individuals and families sufficient material means to lead their lives, nor saps money from civil society and its institutions undermining their performing their proper roles in attaining the common good.
When U.S. Catholics debate taxation, it centers around the degree of the state’s ability to tax, what amount of tax should be levied, how it distributes the revenue, the role of the state to help the poor as distinguished from private charity, with all of those questions linked to the larger question of its power and scope of the state to govern our society and what goods it should seek to attain for its citizens. It is here that Catholic debates around taxation, unfortunately, appear to reflect our secular political biases and commitments instead of being rooted in a command of our own Catholic intellectual tradition. For example, Curran unambiguously states that government has a legitimate role to help the poor. He underscores that point by arguing that aid to the poor must be a priority for the state’s spending of tax revenue because charity is limited in its effectiveness in helping the poor. On the other hand, Kennedy argues that Catholic social teaching never argues for a large government, that taxation should not be a means to redistribute wealth, and wants any government role in helping the poor and vulnerable to be balanced by the work of the Church and other non-governmental institutions that make up civil society.
When Americans debate issues such as the scope, power, and purpose of the state at any level, its relationship with the larger civil society, and the wisdom of individual programs administered by the state, the raising and spending of tax revenue predominates in those debates. Taxation is the gateway issue. How many times have we heard a politician or activist argue against a government program by stating “We cannot afford it?”, or argue for that same program by arguing for the shifting of tax revenue from elsewhere in the government budget, or argue that the program ought to be paid for with a new levy on the wealthy or commercial enterprises on the grounds that they can pay that levy or are accused of not paying their fair share of tax? Even the traditional tax exemption of the Church and her ministries has come under pressure. For example, Catholic universities and their secular counterparts are often one of the larger employers in a community, but their non-profit status takes valuable property off the tax rolls. Communities have pressured universities to help shoulder the burden of paying for essential services like police, fire, local infrastructure and utilities.
Curran’s still-valid observation that the Catholic ethical tradition has not had a sustained discussion nor produced a substantial body of scholarship on just taxation has cost us a place in contemporary debates on issues important to us concerning the nature, power, and scope of government and the state. A constructive debate amongst Catholics, including Catholic ethicists that made taxation a direct focus of our ethical work, instead of a secondary topic of debates about related topics, such a rhetorical shift would put us squarely in the scrum of perennial cultural and political issues being debated in the United States today about the proper roles of government and the state in relationship to civil society and the individual.
Curran, Charles E. “Just Taxation in the Roman Catholic Tradition.” Journal of Religious Ethics 13, no. 1 (Spring 1985): 113-133.
Kennedy, Robert G. Justice in Taxation. Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty, 2018.
—. “Catholic Social Teaching and Tax Justice.” Acton Institute, March 28, 2018, https://www.acton.org/pub/commentary/2018/03/28/catholic-social-teaching-and-tax-justice
Yu, Dennis J. Render to Caesar? The Morality of Taxation. Makati City, Philippines: St. Pauls