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The Power to Tax is the Power to Destroy by Fr. George W. Rutler

wp7ae12c92_05_06FROM THE PASTOR
October 26, 2014
by Fr. George W. Rutler

“He who pays the piper calls the tune” is a saying based on the Scottish custom of having the lord of the manor choose the music for which he was paying. Sometimes in lieu of money, the piper was given a dram of whisky in a bowl called a “quaich” (pronounced “quake”), and the liquor was often referred to as “lucre.” If you are in someone’s pay, he will tell you what to do.

This has long been a challenge when the Church accepts the patronage of a civil ruler. St. Athanasius and St. John Chrysostom stood up to such emperors as Julian the Apostate and Theodosius, who were outspoken in what they thought was their right to call the tune. After the Great Schism, the Byzantine Church had an even greater problem with this “Caesaropapism” since it no longer had a protector in the Pope. And the problem pertains even today in the new post-Soviet Russian government. In the West as well, St. Ambrose and St. Hilary of Poitiers had to face down civil rulers. Pope Gregory VII kept the Emperor Henry IV waiting in the snow. Pius VI and VII fared worse with the Emperor Napoleon.

In the eighteenth century the Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II was called the “Sacristan of Europe” because, although he was something of a religious skeptic, he regulated all the details of worship, even to the design of candlesticks, and censored the contents of sermons. In this he was something like Annise Parker, the mayor of Houston, who caused a stir recently with her subpoena of the sermons of five local clergymen on the grounds that Christian expressions might violate the city’s Equal Rights Ordinance. The Emperor Joseph II might have admired her moxy, although the protocols of his court would have been confused if she had visited with the woman she calls her “wife.” The Texas Attorney General called her subpoena “a direct assault on the religious liberty granted by the First Amendment.”

There is a logic to governments giving grants to charities run by religious institutions, since they run the charities more efficiently than the government. In two recent years Catholic Church agencies received 1.5 billion dollars in grants. But the piper may call the tune. Some Catholic hospitals already have had to close rather than do the government’s dance. Consider a case in Idaho, where city officials have told clergymen that they must officiate at same-sex weddings, or face fines of $1,000 a day and time in jail. Then there is the neuralgic fact of tax exemptions. Chief Justice John Marshall’s decision in McCulloch v. Maryland (1819) paraphrased the defense of Daniel Webster: “The power to tax is the power to destroy.”

It all boils down to rendering unto Caesar and unto God. Christ expected the Pharisees of his day to know the difference. He expects the same of us.


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