My father has taught us to think about what is right and wrong. Up to now, after talking something over with him and thinking about it, I have been able to agree with him on things. But this time I can’t agree with him, and I don’t know what to do.
Dad has made a living for us by doing painting, repairs, and maintenance for homeowners and small businesses around town. I have been helping him Saturdays and vacations ever since I turned fourteen, and my younger brothers also began helping when they were old enough. Dad has not paid us for our work, but he always has seen to it that we had everything we needed and has given us many things we wanted. He also has been putting aside money to help us get a start in life.
I just graduated from St. Francis of Assisi High School, and I am not planning to go to college. I don’t think I have a vocation to be a priest, but I want to live simply, as St. Francis and some other saints did. With Dad’s help, I am going to find a place to live in a nearby town and try to make my living doing the kind of work he does.
When I begin earning money for myself, I don’t think I should pay income taxes or support the government in any other way I can avoid. The Vietnam war was on when Dad got out of high school and, thinking it wrong, he went to jail for four years rather than be drafted. Today the U.S. is not involved in a war, but I think the government is so corrupt it would be just as wrong for me to pay taxes as it would have been for Dad to go to Vietnam.
Most people think the U.S. government is not so bad. But a political science course we had last year showed how great a country we could be but at the same time opened my eyes to a lot of things. The Supreme Court made abortion legal, and about a million and a half unborn babies are killed in this country every year, some at taxpayers’ expense. A great deal of tax money has been and still is being spent for nuclear weapons meant to destroy an enemy society by wiping out whole cities, most of whose people are no threat to anybody. The public schools and state universities are supposed to be neutral about religion, but many of them undermine students’ religious beliefs and teach them to live accordingly. People like my parents, who want a religious education for their children, get no public help, yet they have to pay taxes to support schools that won’t serve their needs. A few years ago, the president had a hard time finding someone to be attorney general and filling other jobs, because he kept picking people who had cheated on their taxes and exploited illegal immigrants. Many public officials are caught cheating the people, and probably a lot more get away with it. And the U.S. uses its foreign aid to promote population control around the world.
I don’t plan to tell the government I won’t pay taxes. I never have had to file a tax return and I just won’t start. Doing jobs for different people and getting paid for each job as I do it, I won’t be employed by anybody. I will take only the work I can do by myself and won’t hire anyone to help me. And I won’t put money into anything paying interest.
I am not planning to spend everything I earn on myself. As Dad has done, I will keep track of what I spend for paint and other things, so I will know how much I am making. Then, like him, I will give ten percent of what I make to the Church. Each year I will work out what my federal and state income taxes would be; but instead of paying them, I will give at least that much to help some people who are being hurt by the government’s corruption. For instance, some students have to drop out of St. Francis every year because their families can’t afford the tuition, and I could give the tax money to the school to help one or more to stay.
Dad disagrees with me. Though he went to jail rather than go to Vietnam, he always has been very careful about paying taxes and thinks tax evasion is a sin. If you agree with him, I hope you can explain it, because to me it seems definitely wrong to support this country’s corrupt government.
This question calls for application of the norm regarding tax evasion. The New Testament instructs Christians to pay taxes, and this moral instruction is still handed on by the Church’s teaching. Though part of the money raised by taxation is used in doing evil, citizens generally may and should pay legally required taxes to support the good things even a bad government does. One might refuse to pay taxes as an act of civil disobedience, but that is not the questioner’s plan. Under extreme conditions, some patriotic citizens could rightly withhold financial and other support from a bad government and try to serve the nation’s common good by other means. But even then, lying would not be justified, and prolonged tax evasion is hardly likely to succeed without lying. Moreover, most citizens can rightly pay the taxes exacted by a bad government, in order to avoid punishment for not paying them.
Rome dominated the whole world of New Testament times, including Jesus’ homeland. Devout Jews and Christians hardly considered Roman government good, for Rome not only oppressed and persecuted them but claimed for its empire and rulers a quasi-divine status that violated God’s exclusive right to humankind’s worship. Christians therefore looked forward to Rome’s eventual destruction (see Rv 17–18). Nevertheless, the New Testament teaches Jesus’ followers to pay legally required taxes.
The gospels record an exchange between Jesus and some people who confronted him with a question that seemed to create a dilemma: Should we pay taxes to the Roman emperor? A yes would offend his fellow Jews, a no, the Roman oppressors. Asking his challengers to produce the coin used to pay the tax, Jesus called their attention to the fact that it bore the image of the emperor and his inscription (which referred to him as “son of the divine Augustus”). By having and using the emperor’s coin, these people implicitly acknowledged imperial authority, yet they were unwilling to believe in Jesus and acknowledge his divine authority. He therefore told them to give back to the emperor the things that are his (coins stamped with his image and an idolatrous claim) and to give God the things that are his (the obedience of faith, worship, and complete love: one’s whole life and very self).375
Plainly, much more is conveyed by that exchange than that taxes should be paid even to a bad government. But if that were not true, what Jesus said would have been misleading. Moreover, St. Paul teaches that Christians should submit to rulers and pay taxes, because God gives rulers their authority so as to prevent and punish wrongdoing (see Rom 13.1–7; cf. 1 Pt 2.13–17). Handed down to us, this moral instruction remains part of the Church’s teaching (see GS 30; CCC, 2238–40; LCL, 894–97).
You may find that teaching understandable if you reflect more deeply on your view that the government is so corrupt it would be as wrong for you to pay taxes as it would have been for your father to serve in Vietnam. True, the two are similar in one important respect—conscientious citizens are pressed by the law’s threats of punishment to be involved in public acts they believe wrong. But participating in a war one believes wrong also differs in important ways from paying taxes to what one believes to be a bad government.
To begin with, though a war includes many small actions by individuals and groups, the whole war is one very large, complex action of the nation waging it. If a war is wrong, anyone actively and directly taking part in the fighting, or otherwise trying to help win the war, becomes an accomplice in the bad action.376 By contrast, a bad government is not a single action—indeed, not an action at all—but a social agent that does many different things. Though its bad acts do affect what it is, just as an individual’s habitual and unrepented sins make him or her a bad person, even bad governments, like bad individuals, do many good things; and conscientious citizens can participate wholeheartedly in many actions (the good ones) of their bad government, just as conscientious individuals can participate wholeheartedly in many actions (the good ones) done by their bad relatives and associates.
This first difference points to another. Citizens who believe a war is wrong can avoid serving in it. Though likely to pay a price, as your father did, they can refuse to be accomplices in the evil. But unless they emigrate, citizens who think their government is corrupt cannot avoid being involved in political society and taking advantage of services it provides, such as protection against foreign and domestic threats. Even if one leaves one’s homeland and goes to another country, one does not solve the problem, for some government is necessary and no government is perfect. Conscientious people cannot avoid being involved with one or another more or less bad government.
In the final analysis, however, a nation is not its government. A nation is a people living together in a region and sharing many common interests; a government is an organization needed by a nation to act for certain of its interests. Just as an individual may never deliberately commit any sin to achieve an ulterior end, however good, so not even to promote or protect its common interests may a nation ever fight a war that is wrong, insofar as that is one large bad action. But just as upright individuals can employ people who are sinners to achieve various goods, so a nation can and even must use its more or less bad government to protect and promote its common good (see CCC, 2242; LCL, 844–55).
Consequently, citizens can rightly pay required taxes to support the good things their nation does by means of government, even though the government uses some of the money to do bad things. In paying taxes, upright citizens intend to support the good things: many elements of national defense and law enforcement; regulation of prescription drugs, securities markets, interstate commerce; health care for the elderly, the disabled, and the poor; and so on. They do not intend to support the bad things, but simply accept misuses of their money they cannot prevent.
Of course, some people try to calculate what portion of government spending goes for various bad things, in order to withhold that percentage from their tax payment. But since one cannot designate the purposes for which one’s taxes will be used, this strategy withholds some support not only from the misuses of public funds but from their good uses, to which support is due, while also still contributing to both the bad as well as the good. Bear in mind, too, that most people must accept the status of employees subject to tax withholding. Even if your plan for supporting yourself without attracting the attention of tax agents succeeds, few people who marry and have children could carry out such a plan and accept its financial constraints. And like any other evasion of taxes, not paying them to avoid supporting a bad government imposes an additional, unfair burden on citizens of modest means who cannot evade their taxes.
Another point, though incidental, is worth mention. When your father refused military service in the Vietnam war, he avoided fighting in a war he was convinced was unjust—something that would have been wrong in itself—and he openly defied the law and suffered the penalty. In that way he bore witness, unlike those who protested vehemently against the “unjust” war yet served when drafted so as not to go to jail. Though your plan to withhold taxes is conscientious rather than self-serving, carrying it out would not bear witness as your father’s refusal to serve did. Quite the contrary. It would lead others who learned what you were doing and wished to evade taxes for selfish reasons to imagine themselves justified in doing so.
Of course, one might choose to withhold taxes openly and accept the consequences, precisely to bear witness, that is, as an act of civil disobedience (see LCL, 883–84). But that would hardly satisfy anyone sharing your view that it is wrong to pay taxes. Indeed, since open violation of tax laws invites tax agents to collect the amount due with interest and penalties, it is more appropriate for someone who thinks people should pay their taxes to practice civil disobedience by publicly refusing to pay.
One nevertheless can imagine extreme conditions under which citizens would be obliged to withhold taxes and other support from a government so deeply corrupt as to be no longer useful as a means of serving the nation’s common good. In 1945, for example, Germans certainly had no obligation to support the Nazi government that faced imminent defeat, and citizens morally free and able to weaken that government and hasten its downfall by denying it their support should have recognized a patriotic duty to do so. Indeed, conscientious German citizens should have perceived such a duty even before 1945; and some did and fled the country, not only to save themselves but to serve their nation by opposing the Nazis.
Of course, patriotic citizens who continue to live under a government bad in various ways, but not as vulnerable and corrupt as the Nazi government, might at some point judge, rightly or wrongly but conscientiously, that they should no longer support their government by paying taxes. Being patriotic, they will do what they can to serve their nation’s common good by means that do not involve the government. That appears to be the idea behind your plan to use what you otherwise would pay in taxes to help at least some of the people who are being hurt by the government’s corruption.
Bad as the U.S. government is, however, it still serves the nation’s authentic interests in many matters. Moreover, it is hardly likely to give way to anything less bad, because evils such as legalized abortion that have been read into the Constitution enjoy widespread support. You could join with others in trying to mitigate those evils through the political process. But what you have in mind is not a form of political action.
Besides, even if your plan were morally acceptable in other respects, you would sin if you did anything intrinsically evil in carrying it out. But lying is intrinsically evil, and you could hardly evade taxes year after year without sometimes lying.
By contrast, paying taxes need not be anything more than handing over one’s money under duress, and that is not a sort of action wrong in itself. It need not be wrong to hand over money to very bad people likely to put it to very wicked uses. For example, one might give one’s wallet to a robber—“Your money or your life!”—or pay ransom to a kidnapper, intending to forestall a threatened evil and foreseeing little likely benefit in resisting. Similarly, though your father could not serve in a war he considered unjust, he and other good people, anticipating little or no benefit from trying to evade taxes, could pay them even to a very bad government, intending only to avoid penalties that would harm themselves and their dependents.
One last thought. You say you wish to live simply, as some of the saints did. Even though the evangelical poverty of the saints imposed some burdens on others, it was justified as prophetic witness to important truths about the kingdom.377 You also could bear powerful witness to the truth about the difference between worldly governments and God’s reign. And by not having taxable income, you could avoid paying taxes without evading them. You might be able to do this in at least two ways.
One would be to limit the net income you earn each year to a sum that, with legitimate deductions and exemptions, would fall just below the minimum that is subject to income taxes. Could you subsist on so little income? Perhaps, if you gathered, begged, and produced for yourself—perhaps on a small subsistence farm—many of the necessities of life. Then too, you would qualify for various public programs to aid the poor, and you could justly take advantage of them provided you bore clear witness by your lifestyle against the government’s wrongdoing and used a substantial part of your time and energy in serving the nation’s common good—for example, by working to mitigate some of the injustices you rightly deplore.
Again, assuming you are right in thinking you do not have a vocation to be a priest, you might have a vocation to be a brother in some community—perhaps the Franciscans—that welcomes men called to religious life but not ordination. Life as a brother in a sound community would fulfill your wish to live simply. The sort of work you plan to do would make a welcome contribution to many communities. Finally, living in accord with your vow of poverty, you would have no personal income, and so, without violating the law, you would pay no income taxes.
375. See Mt 22.15–22, Mk 12.13–17, Lk 20.20–26; cf. Joseph A. Fitzmyer, S.J., The Gospel According to Luke (X–XXIV): Introduction, Translation, and Notes, Anchor Bible 28A (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1985), 1289–98.
376. See LCL, 908–10; John Finnis, Joseph M. Boyle, Jr., and Germain Grisez, Nuclear Deterrence, Morality and Realism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987), 342–64.
377. See LG 42–44, PC 13; John Paul II, Vita consecrata, 89–90, AAS 88 (1996) 465–66, OR, 3 Apr. 1996, xvii.