Rendering to Caesar

by Fr W Nkomo

We must render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, but who gets to say what is Caesar’s – Caesar  alone, or does God have a say?

As attempts to increase taxes both in our country and in neighbouring South Africa intensifies tempers and emotions rise in the taxpayers. Objectively, increasing tax without the increment of salaries means taking what has for the recent past been used for the livelihood of families because there has never been surplus for the working class. That therefore will mean a huge amount of the people’s useful labour is spent funding the government. What does the Church have to say about this? Below is an article by Professor Michael Pakaluk answering the question.

At the start of modern Catholic social thought, Leo XIII warned that government would be able to achieve its beneficent goals, only “provided that a man’s means be not drained and exhausted by excessive taxation. The right to possess private property is derived from nature, not from man; and the State has the right to control its use in the interests of the public good alone, but by no means to absorb it altogether. The State would therefore be unjust and cruel if under the name of taxation it were to deprive the private owner of more than is fair.” (Rerum novarum, 47)

But what counts as fair? Presumably, that judgement could be reached, only by those adept at apportioning out the joint roles of “nature” and of “man” – not an especially strong suit for us today.

This much seems correct: a fair tax burden would need to be something short of what “drained and exhausted” taxpayers. Thus a limit on government is implied. The classical and scholastic concept of taxes was: financing for the necessary activities of government. It was expected that there would be a match between what government reasonably attempted to do, and the burden that taxpayers could bear.

This rich and sharp teaching on taxation is presented in a highly attenuated form in the Compendium of Catholic Social Doctrine: “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.” [355]

The Compendium presumes that the State has the function of redistribution, and its sole comment about the family and taxation falls under that idea: “In the redistribution of resources, public spending must observe the principles of solidarity, equality and making use of talents. It must also pay greater attention to families, designating an adequate amount of resources for this purpose.”

How do we ensure that a church and its property are rendered to God not Caesar? To this far the law and tax policy are protecting the Church. However as we all know that an exemption is a favour. The law therefore should not be changeable by an individual acting on his own in order to safeguard such a favour. Caesar himself has given some answers. Churches often provide services that government might otherwise have to provide. Churches do not engage in any economic activity that generates taxable income. If church property were taxed, churches could hardly be built in cities, where people live. Whatever can be taxed can be destroyed, but the government should not have the power to destroy any religion.

And yet, Caesar’s guide is always expedience. And, besides, the deepest answer comes from God, not Caesar. It pertains to the independent sovereignty of the Catholic Church, enjoyed analogously by Christian churches and other religions, and explained by Leo XIII: “The Almighty, therefore, has given the charge of the human race to two powers, the ecclesiastical and the civil, the one being set over divine, and the other over human, things. Each in its kind is supreme, each has fixed limits within which it is contained, limits which are defined by the nature and special object of the province of each.” (Immortale Dei 13)

The health coexistence of Caesar and God depends on Caesars realization that he would have no power in the world were it not given to him by God and therefore it is not competition but servitude and complementarity. God therefore has a say on what is Caesar’s.