No. 2 – Taxes, Sequestration and Pope Francis

By David C. Agullard, Executive Director of Catholic Charities of Baton Rouge

What we do with our stuff matters, not only right now and next weekend, but for eternity.Tribalism is alive and well. Our social landscape is increasingly characterized by descriptors such as balkanized, neotribal, or as I first encountered the thought in a book by historian Arthur M. Schlesinger in the early ‘90s, the dis-United States of America. 

 As with so many social phenomena, the trend seems to have an inexorable volition of its own, this one leading to isolation. I am reminded of a routine by George Carlin, whose comedy contained insight about social trends. He noted the progression of popular magazine titles over the years: Life (universal). Look (the horizon). Us (relationships) ... Self.

However you describe it, Americans are more divided than ever, and the result is tribal warfare. One of the common traits of tribal warfare is that it is ever-present. People live in a constant state of hyper vigilance. The world is sharply and necessarily divided -- us and “not us.” Everything “not us” is life-threatening. 

Fear of differences was a successful survival instinct that evolved over scores of millennia, and is difficult to overcome.  Two thousand years after Christ lived the Gospel and died on the cross daring to challenge continued division, we still want to divide the world. Samaritans and Jews. Republicans and Democrats. Sinners and righteous. Europeans and Americans. Those with whom we will share a meal, and those we ignore at our gate.  Rich and poor.

This tendency forces an Us-vs-NotUs paradigm. The emerging Hispanic population will destroy the American Dream. Obama supporters comprise Satan’s League. Conservative Republicans value guns rather than life. If you favor higher taxes, you’re a socialist. If you advocate for smaller government, you’re a Darwinist.

At a time when our economic, political, social and human relationships are globally interdependent, the tribal instinct is suicidal. The American ideal, an ideal founded on a mutual pledge of “our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor” to secure “equal station” under the “laws of Nature and Nature’s God,” this ideal is threatened.

What in the world – no, what to the world can the Catholic Church offer? The Gospel. The radical love of the Word of God. As discomforting today as it was then. Christ expressed God’s love simply. The Samaritan is one of us. The poor man at the gate is worthy of a seat at your table.  Christ cast his lot with the poor, and called money “tainted.” 

It’s easy to say Christ didn’t mean those things literally. He was speaking in parables to an ancient civilization. These days I couldn’t provide for my children and my retirement if I sold everything I own and gave it all to the poor. I couldn’t even check-out of the grocery without “tainted” money.

In today’s Us-vs-NotUs culture, a reasoned, principled discussion of the economic and political implications of living the Gospel seems impossible.  But this is precisely what the Catholic Church has to offer: Gospel principles made practical for our time.  Sure, the terminology of Catholic Social Teaching is obtuse: the integral promotion of the person, the singularity of each human, the universal destination of goods.  

Huh?

So let’s look at a practical application to one never-ending controversial issue embedded in our national conscience at its genesis on a Boston wharf: taxes. On the one hand, some claim that taxation is theft of private property; that it’s unjust to tax the rich more than others. On the other, some claim taxes constitute justice; that wealth should be concentrated in the State to protect the poor.  

And so we end up in opposing camps gridlocked in sequestration. But both extremes can be examined reasonably in light of Catholic Social Teaching.  And most importantly, Catholic Social Teaching offers an alternative.

Regarding private property, the Catechism is clear. The right to private property exists but does not trump the truth that “the goods of creation are destined for the whole human race.”  With that principle, the Church teaches that the things we own privately also exist in common, and government has “the right and duty” to regulate ownership to benefit the common good.  But the Church stops short of endorsing socialism, i.e., State ownership of essential industry.

The Church opposes the concentration of wealth, whether in the State or individuals.  The Church’s position is neither liberal nor conservative, Republican nor Democrat. It is neither American nor European, neither tribal nor national. 

In fact, it is not exclusively Catholic. It is Biblical. The “universal destination of goods” is a “primordial” truth, embedded in Genesis and tied to our destiny by God. What we do with our stuff matters, not only right now and next weekend, but for eternity.

The cars in your driveway and the stuff in your closet, my five bicycles and room full of backpacking equipment … those are God’s created goods that exist for one purpose: so that we may experience and then share His love. Our prayer life, our sacramental life, our Christian faith is not something separate from our material life. 

Our spiritual destiny is linked to our material reality. This does not mean all taxes are good, but moves the discussion into the realm of the sacred. With this as a starting point, would we not approach each other more respectfully? Would not the shrillness of our public discourse be replaced by the humble reverence of worship? Would we not deliberately seek common solutions rather than constant combat? Would not our pre-occupation with self be elevated to a broader view of all of us, even Life itself?  

The alternative is that we then start a conversation about taxes and government with an agreement that they are not evil in themselves and engage in a respectful, faithful discussion of how to best use both for the common good according to the “laws of Nature’s God” and as defined by Christ, rather than any specific interest group, i.e. “tribe.”

This may sound like conversation for seminarians, not political leaders, parents and voters. It’s not. It is quintessentially American. Our Declaration of Independence also contains a pledge of intradependence.

This approach is also firmly Catholic, and it matters. Look at the fracturing of our nation. Look at the splintering of our world.  Then watch Pope Francis. By all indications, his papacy will emphasize social justice, that worship is an intentional act to live the Gospel and overcome the inequalities embedded in our social institutions, not merely a sense of reverence we encounter alone on the kneeler after communion. 

We pride ourselves in being a Christian nation founded on the laws of God. But we are tempted to become a tribal nation, founded on distrust. This is neither Christian nor Catholic … nor American. It is contrary to both our national ideals and our created person-hood  And we replace the Garden of Eden where we live with God, in partnership with one another and in harmony with creation, we replace it for a life of separation. 

Separation from one another. 

Separation from creation.  

Separation from Christ. 

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