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Taxes, the Political Community, Responsibility and the Common Good

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May 11, 2017

During the next few weeks, the California legislature will focus on the state budget.  With a supermajority, California Democrats will be in full control of the process but it is unlikely to be smooth sailing for them.

State tax revenue is coming in significantly below projections.  A recently enacted gas tax increase has put some Democrats on the hot seat.  Even within the Democratic Party business interests have helped elect more “moderate” Democrats who do not always have the same priorities as the state party.

Perhaps, most importantly, Governor Brown has been determined to get the state’s fiscal house in order before the end of his final term and what very well might be his farewell to elected public service.

No one likes taxes but they are inescapable in modern society.

So what does the Church teach about taxation and our duty to pay them? What is the moral dimension of paying taxes and taxation? What does the Church teach about the requirements of government in the use of such tax revenues? And, in the case of taxes being used for injustice, are we obliged to pay taxes at all?

As Jesus says, “Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God” (Mk 12:17). Complimenting this duty of citizens, in this partnership for the common good between citizens and the state authorities, the Church teaches us that the state is obligated to act in prudence toward the upholding of a just social order for the common good, including the prudent and moral use of tax revenue.

It is important at this point to note that Church teaching does not establish a specific system of government, budget framework or establish an approved regime, but rather provides moral and guiding principles and wisdom to order social decisions to what is good and just. For, while “authority belongs to the order established by God, ‘the choice of the political regime and the appointment of rulers are left to the free decision of the citizens.’” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1901; Gaudium et Spes, 74)

As citizens and because we are intrinsically social beings who have chosen to be part of a democracy, our state justly requires taxation to operate.

Indeed, the human person cannot survive, let alone thrive, outside of the context of a society and a social order. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states,

“The human person needs to live in society. Society is not for him an extraneous addition but a requirement of his nature. Through the exchange with others, mutual service and dialogue with his brethren, man develops his potential; he thus responds to his vocation.” (CCC 1897)

In other words, the need for ordered social relationships arises from human nature itself. Within society there are various levels of association and social bonds, some more and some less intrinsically bound up with human nature. The most essential of these is the family. As the fundamental building block of society, God established the family with the purpose of nurturing and educating children as well as that of the good of all of its members. However, the human family as such is unable to provide for every need that the individual person requires. Thus the family itself has need for larger associations, on up to that of the state.                                                                                                                   

Indeed, we see that “certain societies, such as the family and the state, correspond more directly to the nature of man; they are necessary to him.” (CCC 1882) As corresponding to the nature of man, the state is charged with a sacred responsibility to uphold justice and the common good as far as possible. For the common good to be upheld for each person it must be upheld in society, and for this purpose it is required that some be invested with authority to work for the rule of law and the common good (CCC 1897).

As members of society, we are morally required to obey legitimate authority and just laws, as well as to do our part for the common good through paying taxes among other means. (CCC 2240) Additionally, and arising from this same responsibility, we find that tax evasion to be morally illicit (CCC 2409).

As the need for state authorities is established by God, arising from human nature itself, the state contains a determined purpose. The state is charged with the obligation and responsibility “to ensure as far as possible the common good of the society.” (CCC 1898) This includes the just, responsible and prudent use of state revenues. Indeed, the willful squandering of these revenues would be a crime against the common good and a misuse of state authority, contrary to its purpose.

Therefore, great care must be given to the planning, collection, dedication, and distribution of taxes to ensure conformity to justice, sound reasoning and the common good. While it is true that due to sin, ignorance and human weakness, some laws and state actions may be unjust. As long as we do not share the intention of the unjust action, our material cooperation with these evils through paying taxes is remote enough to free us from any direct guilt. Furthermore, the greater obligation toward the common good still requires us to pay taxes. We ought, in these cases, to work for a more just society through other legitimate means.

In summary, the duty to pay taxes arises from humanity’s natural requirement to live in an ordered and just society, which necessitates civil authority. Indeed, Our Lord, the Church and sacred scripture (Mk 12:17, Rom 13:1 -7) teach us that while our worship and greatest allegiance belongs to God alone, in whose image we are created, the payment of taxes is morally obligatory under the virtue of justice, to pay to each their due.