Render unto Caesar…

Ahead of a much-anticipated budget, Susan Gately looks at taxation from a Catholic point of view

Finance Minister Michael Noonan has being doing his best to dampen speculation about a giveaway budget next week. He has insisted that people will not be throwing their hats in the air over the taxation measures in the budget for 2017. The very next headline reported the highest number of homeless people ever were sleeping rough in Dublin.

While everyone hates paying taxes and most feel they pay far too much, those juxtaposed news reports and the recent Apple controversy illustrate that in a developed society, people must pay to support services and, especially, those in need.

“Our taxes are our way in sophisticated societies for caring for each other,” says Fr Michael Shortall, lecturer in moral theology at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth. “If you’re not paying your taxes you are not following through on your responsibilities to care for others and in particular to care for those who are most vulnerable like the sick, the young, the old who all require pensions, education and hospitals.”


So what does Christianity teach on taxes?

Jesus’ reply to the pharisee “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” (Mk 12:17) is a good starting point representing the two main pillars of Church teaching. Firstly, ‘Give to Caesar’ signifies the reasonable demands of paying tax in a way that enables everyone to flourish, especially those most in need. This is part of what is called ‘the common good’. The second ‘Give to God what is God’s’ represents the perhaps more important commitment to faith.

Catholic teaching on taxation as part of the common good, is contained in the Catechism, the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church and notably the Vatican II document, Gaudium et Spes which says the obligations of justice and love are fulfilled by each person contributing to the common good “according to his own abilities and the needs of others”. It continues: “Yet ..many in various places even make light of social laws and precepts, and do not hesitate to resort to various frauds and deceptions in avoiding just taxes or other debts due to society.” (GS, 30)

Civil law distinguishes between tax avoidance and tax evasion. Tax avoidance is an accepted legal means to keep down your tax bill. Tax evasion refers to the the illegal non-payment or underpayment of tax. “Certainly, those who do the latter must be held accountable in justice,” says Fr Shortall. 

Within a corporation, moral accountability is assigned to people with responsibility, like managers, leaders and accountants but people working within corporations “do have the moral duty to raise concerns if they feel the ethical responsibilities in relation to tax are not being adhered to”, he adds.

It is morally wrong not to pay just taxes and it’s a sin, says Fr Shortall, although he admits it is one to which few confess! “A lot of it has to do with the distinction between tax avoidance and tax evasion. One person’s tax avoidance is another one’s tax evasion.”

He agrees that the sinfulness of not paying taxes should be emphasised more. Would be penitents could add to their examination of conscience: “Am I following the law and doing what is required of me? Am I paying promptly? Tax delayed is as good as tax not paid,” says Fr Shortall.

Corporations should also pay their taxes for “as a body they also benefit from the conditions of the common good that are the purpose of good government,” says the lecturer in moral theology.

Justice is part of the common good too. Catholic social teaching says that tax must be paid in a manner that is fair: those with more should pay more, and this also applies to corporations.

Professor of Economics Dr Ray Kinsella says the Church’s teaching confirms the importance of supporting the marginalised and “that means a progressive rate of tax especially in an era when austerity still casts a very long shadow”.

On the vexed debate over the €13 billion in claimed back tax from Apple, he says he is “unequivocally” of the view that multi nationals could play a “much more important role in supporting social spending in the countries in which they are located”.

Multinationals cannot be viewed in a different way to the rest of the economy. “It is wrong economically and wrong in social justice to have one enclave in the economy that has incredibly favourable advantages and the wider economy deprived of the resources they should be paying into in that country,” he says. His views are echoed by the Director of the Nevin Economic Research Institute (NERI), Dr Tom Healy. “The notion that large multinational corporations can use Ireland or another jurisdiction to avoid paying tax is quite simply morally repugnant,” he writes.

From a moral point of view, justice demands a level playing field, no secret tax deals and what is open to one should be open to all, says Fr Shortall. The Church can advise on the common good but the ‘art of politics’ belongs to the political realm. “You have to balance having low tax and high jobs. In an Irish situation the Government feels that it is in the best interests of our common good to keep Corporation Tax low in order to attract jobs. That kind of discernment is part of the ‘art of politics’ and is not about Church teaching,” he says. 

However, while in times of austerity it may be legitimate to ask the poor to contribute something, like the Universal Social Charge (USC), in good times “there would be a moral imperative that the USC should start going down for those who cannot pay.”

Tax rate

Last week, the Irish Tax Institute noted the rapid escalation of tax here, with those on the average industrial wage of €35,000 paying not twice the tax of someone on half that salary (€18,000) but eleven times the tax as at that level the rate jumps to 40%. 

The ‘squeezed middle’ feels that for years it has been paying more than its fair share of tax. According to Dr Healy people often think of ‘middle income Ireland’ as being people earning around €30,000 but from his research, there are a huge number of people earning between €12,000 and €15,000 (students/ pensioners). “The real middle is actually a bit lower than people think it is,” he says.

“When people talk about the ‘squeezed middle’ you have to stand back and look at the bigger picture which is that in the absence of social welfare people would be much poorer. It is estimated in fact that about 49% of the population would be at risk of poverty. So in Ireland we rely on taxes and welfare to bring about a somewhat more equal distribution of income.”

Irish priest, Fr Brendan Purcell, adjunct professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame Australia says there is nothing wrong in a person trying to reduce their tax liability. “I see nothing wrong with people trying to minimise their tax payments, provided, if they can afford it, they put money directly in the hands of NGOs that are helping the poor, especially the ones with a policy of empowering people themselves.”

Governments tend to waste too much in administration, he adds, while trusted NGO’s have staff whose idealism puts those most in need first.