Sunday, November 8, 2009

Grace and Taxes

I've been wanting to write this for a long time, but the words would not come. Recently, I read several pieces, by Matt Warner and others, that said what I wanted to say with enough eloquence to make me want to copy their work and add my own meager words to it.
I don't support the health care plan passed by the house recently. As you know, I've been attacked for being selfish and “un-Christian”, since how can you deny the right of the poor to have healthcare? Well, the easy response to give was the most obvious flaw in the healthcare plan; that it would support and fund abortion. In theory it does not, although I truly believe that the concessions made by the Stupak amendment will be watered down or removed entirely before the senate is done.

So I could continue to argue about abortion coverage, or euthanasia, or other life issues, but that is all probabilistic argument right now. Instead, there are the harder-to-explain (at least for me) reasons. For many of my friends the reason is money. They are already overtaxed, and with faltering economy, high unemployment, and depleted savings, the last thing they want is congress to spend another $1,000,000,000,000.00 (remember when the U.S. Deficit hit that number a few years back? Now we're talking about spending that much money in one bill in addition to the rest of the budget).

But although I don't want any more taxes, and I think spending money you don't have is ridiculous and criminally irresponsible I have reasons that bother me as much or even more. At the risk of sounding cryptic, I sum up my reason as “there is no grace in paying taxes”. Let me expound on that a bit.

Jesus explains in Matthew 25:34-40 (quoted from the New American Bible
Then the king will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.
For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me,
naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.'
Then the righteous will answer him and say, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink?
When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you?
When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?'
And the king will say to them in reply, 'Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.'
From this passage and others we get the seven “corporal works of mercy” which are:
  • Feed the hungry
  • Give drink to the thirsty
  • Clothe the naked
  • Shelter the homeless
  • Visit the sick
  • Visit those in prison
  • To bury the dead
One can clearly extend the “visit the sick” to mean “care for the sick” and conclude “we must pass healthcare legislation!” But just because legislation says it will care for the sick, does that make it an appropriate remedy?

What I mean by “no grace in paying taxes” is this. When I perform corporal works of mercy I m doing God's work. When I pay my taxes, am I doing God's work? I have no choice in the matter, so I am not choosing to do these things. On the contrary, anyone who does not pay taxes is fined and in the case of healthcare thrown in prison as well.

Likewise, since money is fungible I can't even claim that my money went to help the uninsured. In Luke 20:22-25 Jesus is posed a question about taxes
Is it lawful for us to pay tribute to Caesar or not?"
Recognizing their craftiness he said to them,
"Show me a denarius; whose image and name does it bear?" They replied, "Caesar's."
So he said to them, "Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God."
I've heard that used to defend paying taxes for healthcare legislation. But I'll note two interesting things. First off, Jesus does not say it is good to pay taxes or even right to pay taxes. He says it is lawful to pay taxes. In other words, you are not sinning when you pay taxes. But the cool thing is that there is always another level (usually many) in every Gospel story.

Jesus tells the scribes and chief priests that they should pay Caesar the coin, which belongs to Caesar because it has Caesar's image on it. He also tells them to repay to God what belongs to God. What do you suppose we have that is made in the image of God? Ourselves. That giving of ourselves is not part of paying the tax, but in addition to it. We can't sit back, pay taxes once a year and say “I have fulfilled a moral obligation.” we personally need to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, visit the sick and imprisoned and bury the dead. Forcing others (and being forced ourselves) to do it is not in keeping with the Gospel.

Matthew Warner has expressed it succinctly and far more beautifully than I can in his post at Fallible Blogma “A Tired Democracy”:
There will always be people in need. We must help them – not empower some ultimately corrupt government to do so on our behalf. Jesus commanded us to love/feed/help/clothe others. Nowhere does he teach that we are to force others to do so on our behalf. And I would challenge every Christian out there who continues to attack “rich” people they’ve never met, and those of you who demand and empower our government to take from one to give to another, to search your heart as to whether Jesus would ever do that? Or to find one place where Jesus calls us to do that?
Lastly, there is subsidiarity. I had internalized the definition of this word many years ago, without having the word to describe it. I only came across it in the Catechism of the Catholic Church recently, and it has been used often by the bishops in discussions of the current healthcare legislation. The CCC has this to say (
1883 Socialization also presents dangers. Excessive intervention by the state can threaten personal freedom and initiative. The teaching of the Church has elaborated the principle of subsidiarity, according to which "a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to co- ordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good."
1885 The principle of subsidiarity is opposed to all forms of collectivism. It sets limits for state intervention. It aims at harmonizing the relationships between individuals and societies. It tends toward the establishment of true international order.
So we have to examine the question, “is healthcare reform necessary on a national level?” I would argue that some forms of healthcare reform are appropriate on a national level. Things like interstate competition between insurance companies, and availability of generic treatments from foreign sources should be addressed at a national level. Sadly, none of these issues is addressed by the current health care bill.
Bishop James Van Johnson had this to say in “Skinning the Health Care Cat"  (which I also quoted in “Why I Can't Support the Health Care Bill Part II” and which I will repeat part of here - color added to text by me):
“One might legitimately ask if giving a large, inefficient, but powerful bureaucracy like the federal government control of health care is a wise move. For one, this runs counter to the well-known principle of subsidiarity, so prominent in Catholic social teaching: “a community of a higher order should not interfere in the internal life of a community of a lower order, depriving the latter of its functions, but rather should support it in case of need and help to coordinate its activity with the activities of the rest of society, always with a view to the common good."

How much of a role the government should have is a matter of prudential judgment. However, there are ethical dimensions to this question. Certainly, it has a role to play, but that does not necessarily mean that it should be the sole provider of health care. The government can act to remove abuses, and to regulate the health care industry so that the markets efficiently serve all the people.
Archbishop Joseph Naumann and Bishop Robert Finn have this to say in “Principles of Catholic Social Teaching and Health Care Reform” (text colored by me - I didn't have the audacity to color any of the popes' text - it is all relevant):
The writings of recent Popes have warned that the neglect of subsidiarity can lead to an excessive centralization of human services, which in turn leads to excessive costs, and loss of personal responsibility and quality of care.
Pope John Paul II wrote:
“By intervening directly and depriving society of its responsibility, the Social Assistance State leads to a loss of human energies and an inordinate increase of public agencies, which are dominated more by bureaucratic ways of thinking than by concern for serving their clients, and which are accompanied by an enormous increase in spending.” (Pope John Paul II, Centesimus Annus #48)
And Pope Benedict writes:
“The State which would provide everything, absorbing everything into itself, would ultimately become a mere bureaucracy incapable of guaranteeing the very thing which the suffering person—every person—needs: namely, loving personal concern. We do not need a State which regulates and controls everything, but a State which, in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, generously acknowledges and supports initiatives arising from the different social forces and combines spontaneity with closeness to those in need. … In the end, the claim that just social structures would make works of charity superfluous masks a materialist conception of man: the mistaken notion that man can live ‘by bread alone’ (Mt 4:4; cf. Dt 8:3)—a conviction that demeans man and ultimately disregards all that is specifically human.” (Pope Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est #28)
While subsidiarity is vital to the structure of justice, we can see from what the Popes say that it rests on a more fundamental principal, the unchanging dignity of the person. The belief in the innate value of human life and the transcendent dignity of the human person must be the primordial driving force of reform efforts...
It is very clear that, respectful of this principle, we must find some way to provide a safety net for people in need without diminishing personal responsibility or creating an inordinately bureaucratic structure which will be vulnerable to financial abuse, be crippling to our national economy, and remove the sense of humanity from the work of healing and helping the sick.
The Church clearly advocates authentic reform which addresses this obligation, while respecting the fundamental dignity of persons and not undermining the stability of future generations.
Both of us in our family histories have had experiences that make us keenly aware of the necessity for society to provide a safety net to families who suffer catastrophic losses. Yet, these safety nets are not intended to create permanent dependency for individuals or families upon the State, but rather to provide them with the opportunity to regain control of their own lives and their own destiny...
For example, legislation that excludes legal immigrants from receiving health care benefits violates the principle of solidarity, is unjust and is not prudent. In evaluating health care reform proposals perhaps we ought to ask ourselves whether the poor would have access to the kind and quality of health care that you and I would deem necessary for our families. Is there a way by which the poor, too, can assume more responsibility for their own health care decisions in such manner as reflects their innate human dignity and is protective of their physical and spiritual well being?
So, even with the Stupak amendment I oppose the current health care legislation. Aside from the fact that I believe it will bankrupt our economy and do more harm to citizens and good, I have these objections. It still contains at least the capacity (and arguably the reality) of life issue abuses. It is unjust. It violates principles of subsidiarity. And it supplants good works with corrupt buearocracy.


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