Recently, a number of Catholic religious leaders protested against the Speaker of the House, John Boehner (R-OH), a fellow Catholic, as the commencement speaker at the Catholic University of America. Their gripe: His proposed budget cuts would reward the wealthy while cutting programs for the most vulnerable (a relative term). They signed a letter pointing out that Boehner was at variance with Church teaching — the implication being that anyone who does not favor an entitlements-based liberal economic agenda is not following the gospel.
This belief unfortunately gained traction by a misinterpretation of the phrase “preferential option for the poor,” made at the Latin American Bishops’ Conference at Medellin, Columbia, in 1968. It was quickly bandied about by Liberation Theologians as an ecclesiastical economic and political manifesto. It was, however, an evangelical call for personal conversion of both the poor and the rich, which the bishops believed to be the key for greater justice and charity.
The fact of the matter is that Jesus never put forward any public policy proposal other than, “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” Consistent with this, we can presume Jesus paid His taxes to the state, and we know for certain that He paid the Temple tax with the coin that He had Peter retrieve from the mouth of a fish.
Jesus’ call is for personal salvation. Individual charity is an essential part of His teaching. In the Gospels, concern for the poor is not only demanded, but those who do not care for them are threatened with damnation — recall the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man or the Parable of the Separation of the Sheep from the Goats.
To give freely from one’s own purse is part and parcel of the gospel’s call for compassion and self-denial for the good of others. Its mandate benefits both the receiver and, more so, the giver. Government entitlements do not have this capacity: firstly, because government handouts do not allow the recipients to grow in responsibility for themselves or the national franchise; and secondly, because their funding is involuntarily procured and indirectly allocated.
Corroborating the above assertion, Princeton University Sociologist Robert Wuthnow, in his 2004 book Saving America: Faith-Based Services and the Future of Civil Society, found that government welfare programs have little effect on changing the lives of their recipients. On the other hand, aid supplied by caring organizations, especially churches, has a more comprehensive impact on transforming the lives of those they serve.
Currently, 47 percent of Americans pay no income tax. Yet we can presume that many of these people are voters who are claiming a say or a share in the distribution of their fellow citizens’ wealth. This group not only includes the non-contributing poor but those who have taken advantage of tax loopholes. Can anyone legitimately believe that they are being Christian by voting to spend or, by a sleight of hand, take other people’s money?
As one of its precepts, Catholic social teaching has a concern for the common good. This demands that everyone should contribute to society according to his or her means. A solution for this is to institute the “fair tax,” or a national sales tax that would do away with the federal income tax on personal and corporate income. It would force more people to live within their means and inculcate the virtue of frugality, which is sorely needed in a society with a $14.3 trillion national debt. And, most importantly, it will give everyone some skin in the allocation of revenues being disbursed.
It was not until the Sixteenth Amendment was passed, in 1913, that a federal income tax could be levied on individuals. The Founders envisioned that the monies for running the government would be raised by imposts on foreign goods, on some domestic products (e.g., whiskey), and assessments on the states. A consumption tax would, therefore, be more in tune with the original intent of the Constitution.
The fair tax would not end the need for some government aid to those who fall below the poverty line. However, it would greatly curtail personal excess by rich and poor alike, as well as the free spending of other people’s money. It would cut down on tax cheats, tax shelters, and charitable deductions for eccentric causes, all of which add up to billions of dollars in lost revenue. It would also require illegal aliens, now numbering more than twelve million and not paying taxes, to contribute toward the services that they are consuming without cost. Finally, it would greatly simplify the now 3.8 million-word U.S. tax code, which lends itself to confusion and political chicanery.
A fair tax would lend itself to greater honesty and may even give more people a chance to fulfill the gospel mandate of personal charity and thereby save their souls, something government programs can never hope to accomplish.