“Ask a Priest: What is the Church’s teaching on the redistribution of wealth under the Affordable Care Act?”

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Q: Can you please help me understand the teaching of the Catholic faith and the teaching of the U.S. bishops’ conference regarding the redistribution of wealth under the Affordable Care Act? My understanding is there are three ways to transfer wealth in society: charity, taxation and revolution. I thought the Church’s only desired method of transferring wealth was through charity. In charity all the blessing promised in the Scriptures are potentially created for both the giver and the receiver, and charity thus is an image of what Christ showed us perfectly on the cross. Taxation, it seems, takes the giver and requires him to surrender his wealth under the threat of incarceration, thus eliminating his free will and the blessings of being charitable with his money. On the receiver’s side, the one receiving the benefits from the government no longer is connected to the giver, he only sees the government handing out the money and does not feel gratitude to the taxpayers, only to the politician who determines how much they receive. Taxation appears to sterilize the act of transferring wealth. Since I understood the Catholic Church to teach that we are a faith of proposition not imposition, taxation would seem contrary to the Church’s teaching since it imposes charity. Shouldn’t the Church be in support of developing charity in the country and not taxation? -D.A.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: Thanks for a very timely question. It will help if we break the question down into two parts: one focused on principles, the other on particulars.

First, the principles. The Church is not against taxation when it is fair. Jesus himself did not consider it unjust to pay taxes to the Roman emperor. “Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar” (Mark 12:17). St. Paul likewise insisted, “Pay to all their dues, taxes to whom taxes are due” (Romans 13:7). The Catechism, No. 2240, says: “Submission to authority and co-responsibility for the common good make it morally obligatory to pay taxes ….” There is no hint that taxation in and of itself violates our free will; doing something that contributes to the common good would, in fact, be a laudable use of our will.

Taxation in principle neither contradicts the practice of charity nor exempts us from the duty to help the poor. (We recall that the individual mandate of Affordable Care Act was upheld in court as a tax.) Nor is taxation as a means of redistribution of wealth a bad thing in itself. It is worth quoting extensively from No. 355 of the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church: “Tax revenues and public spending take on crucial economic importance for every civil and political community. The goal to be sought is public financing that is itself capable of becoming an instrument of development and solidarity. Just, efficient and effective public financing will have very positive effects on the economy, because it will encourage employment growth and sustain business and non-profit activities and help to increase the credibility of the State as the guarantor of systems of social insurance and protection that are designed above all to protect the weakest members of society.”

That said, the Church recognizes that it is not its place to dictate civil policies. “If by the autonomy of earthly affairs we mean that created things and societies themselves enjoy their own laws and values which must be gradually deciphered, put to use and regulated by men, then it is entirely right to demand that autonomy” (Compendium, No. 45). For further reading you can check out the U.S. bishops’ conference website on key themes of Church social teaching that can be found here.

Now, let’s shift to particulars. The Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”) has generated its share of debate. The Church applauds the parts of the law that help the truly needy. But it has and will continue to speak up about parts of the law and related federal directives that violate religious liberty (such as forcing Catholic institutions to pay for contraception and sterilizations). The U.S. bishops’ conference has a webpage dedicated to its statements on various health issues (click here).

Hitting the right balance between fair taxation, ethical laws, respect for religious liberty, and the proper autonomy between church and state is an ongoing work. Where taxation or any kind of government unduly limits the practice of religious liberty, it has overstepped its bounds. Where taxation is so high that it leaves little or no money for private or church-related acts of charity, it has overstepped its bounds. Where government programs foster an entitlement mentality in people (“gimme, gimme”) or where such programs discourage personal work and effort, they have gone too far and need to be reconsidered.

It is not always easy to locate the exact line at which government programs or taxes start to do more harm than good. Obamacare, like any law, can be improved (even its biggest supporters have already tried to do so). That is why citizens, including Catholics, need to keep an eye on public policies and speak up when something needs to be changed. Building a better society is always a work in progress, and the Church does not have a “concrete solution” to every problem (see Gaudium et Spes, 43). I pray that you do your best as a citizen to help build the country.

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