VATICAN (ChurchMilitant.com) - Eminent scholars are challenging Pope Francis' economic policies after the pontiff reiterated his shibboleths on the redistribution of wealth and compared taxation to biblical tithing in an address to Italy's revenue agency.
Speaking to a delegation of the Agenzie delle Entrate at the Vatican's Clementine Hall Monday, Francis said he was expounding on "some teachings of the gospel" on taxation, since "in the Bible, there is no lack of references to the theme of taxes."
"In this regard, the practice of paying tithes is little known but very interesting," the pope noted, "in which a tenth of a person's revenue is given to the king, as Abraham did after he received a blessing from the priest-king Melchizedek."
Francis explained that "the Old Testament, while maintaining this practice, gives it another meaning" and assigns the tithe to the Levitical priests. Tithing thus serves to cancel notions of self-sufficiency and helps create responsibility for the other, "starting with those most in need."
Interpreting taxation as "a sign of legality and justice," Francis insisted that a fair tax system "must favor the redistribution of wealth" as a "function of the common good," as taught in the Church's social doctrine (which it inherits from Scripture and from the Church Fathers).
Railing against "a society that focuses on private property as an absolute and fails to subordinate it to the style of communion and sharing for the good of all," the pontiff lamented the attitude of ingratitude towards the taxman.
Francis slammed the "scourge of tax evasion," contrasting it with "the simple righteousness of so many taxpayers" who pay taxes faithfully as "a model of social justice." Citing the story of Zacchaeus, the pope asked the delegation to aim for the goal of "transparent money."
Ethicists, economists and biblical scholars — many of whom have questioned the pope's posturing on economics — noted with concern Francis' imposition of a Marxist hermeneutic on Scripture and his overturning of the Church's teaching on private property.
"Tithing was a flat 'tax' mandatory for all Israelites. This is, ironically, the opposite of Francis' idea of secular taxation on the rich for the so-called common good," a Rome-based biblical scholar told Church Militant, lamenting the pope's "disingenuous reading of Scripture."
The biblical scholar (who is an expert on the Old Testament) elaborated:
Tithing was a sacral act. Its goal was not State-controlled retribution of wealth (an idea alien to Scripture). Abraham offers a tenth to Melchizedek as a faith affirmation — an act symbolizing that God alone must get glory for his victory in battle. Melchizedek, who is later seen as a prototype of Jesus Christ and the priesthood, blesses Abraham.
Deuteronomic literature instructs the Israelites to consume their tithes of grain, wine, oil and firstlings as a sacrificial meal in a place chosen by God. In two out of every three years, the family is to use their tithes for a sacrificial meal. In the third year, the tithe is given to the Levite, the sojourner, the orphan and the widow (because they do not possess land).
"No New Testament text ever mandates a tithe but, rather, commands generous and sacrificial giving instead," writes New Testament scholar Craig Blomberg in the Journal of Markets & Morality. "Christian giving was always voluntary, never required by any central authority."
"Private property is enshrined as a fundamental good and a right for the children of Israel as they prepare to occupy the Promised Land," observed Blomberg. He noted that "numerous laws guard against theft of possessions, implying that there is private ownership of them."
Speaking to Church Militant, political scientist Paul Kengor lamented Pope Francis' "extraordinarily unsophisticated and deeply simplistic analysis of taxation — which will, again, merely fuel claims that Francis is a socialist and Marxist and so forth."
Professor Kengor, biographer of Pope John Paul II and author of recent bestseller The Devil and Karl Marx: Communism's Long March of Death, Deception and Infiltration, continued:
I would never defer to this pope on questions of taxation and economics. For a long time (namely, the first years of his pontificate), I tried to defend him when he spoke up on these subjects, but I was burned and embarrassed again and again. As bishop of Rome, he is in way over his head on this matter.
Note his highly simplistic formulation, which I'm quoting verbatim: "Taxation is a sign of legality and justice. It must favor the redistribution of wealth." No, it must not. Sadly, I've come to expect this kind of sophistry from this pope, who, frankly, way too often speaks on issues far outside his spiritual expertise. I'm sorry to say this, and [am] even more sorry that it's true.
Addressing Italy's crippling tax situation, ethicist Dr. Michael Pakaluk told Church Militant that "there are many reasons for a Catholic layperson to be unhappy about such a dysfunctional system besides harboring an 'absolutist' conception of private property."
Pakaluk, professor of ethics and social philosophy at the Catholic University of America, explained:
Italy has the lowest birthrate in Europe and among the highest tax rates. Is there a connection? The Italian taxman will take 22% of every wealth-creating transaction, about 30% of the earnings of any free enterprise and almost 60% of the personal income of someone who makes what in the United States would be only $100,000.
The Italian government is not known for its efficiency and reliability. Historically, Italy has struggled to control an understandable cash-based black market. Italy has a highly depressed culture of private giving, with Italians giving only about a fifth of the amount to charity that Americans do. Italian tax collectors themselves are aware of all these problems.
Leading Catholic economists, in the book Pope Francis and the Caring Society, have extensively critiqued Francis' proposals as appearing "to violate the commandment 'you shall not steal,' because government redistribution always and necessarily involves force or coercion." The economists addressed "some bracing truths about economics that Pope Francis (with all his large, encompassing nature) does not seem to understand."
"The argument that property is a man's wages in another form is important because there has always been a very strong biblical and Catholic Church injunction against depriving a person of his justly earned wages," writes Philip Booth, citing Pope Leo XIII's defense of private property in the pope's encyclical Rerum Novarum (1891).
"Ironically, by supporting government redistribution worldwide, Francis' suggestions result in removing free will from the equation — and thus removing true charity or genuine compassion from the act of giving, in favor of statist coercion," argue Lawrence J. McQuillan and Hayeon Carol Park.
"Francis never identifies real-world government programs that best achieve his vision of distributive justice. In this regard, he is guilty of the vice of vagueness, which is no substitute for knowledge and leaves the pope espousing nothing but what he sees as good intentions," the authors note.
"No role for the political authorities is evident. Christ's followers never appear to have attempted to forcibly redistribute the assets of fellow believers, let alone of non-Christians," writes Doug Bandow in a journal article titled "Capitalism and Christianity: The Uneasy Partnership?"
"The Bible neither creates a personal duty to equalize wealth nor mandates government to engage in such a practice," Bandow adds.
The Rome-based biblical scholar who spoke to Church Militant remarked how Francis' exhortation to the Italian tax agency "leaves him [Francis] open to charges of hypocrisy, especially in the area of financial transparency."
"Your own reporting shows ... how the pope has met secretly (on more than one occasion) with Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla and how Pfizer is notorious for stashing billions in tax havens," the biblicist noted to Church Militant. "Is Francis prepared to publicly lecture Bourla and Pfizer using the same speech he gave to the Italian revenue agency?"