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Pope Francis has spent a year on the Throne of Peter. In that time, his modest style and high-minded ideals have ignited a new optimism and fervor among Roman Catholics, including those who left because of disagreements with some of its teachings.
Francis has gone out of his way to voice support for the world’s poorest citizens, rightly noting that their plight is too often ignored or brushed aside. Until this week, his statements have called for voluntary action by wealthier countries and individuals as the right way to relieve economic inequality. He appealed to our better selves, and in so doing, made us all ask if we could be kinder and more generous. The answer, of course, is yes.
On Friday, however, Francis chose a meeting with – of all people -- officials of the United Nations to endorse what he called “the legitimate redistribution of economic benefits by the state, as well as indispensable cooperation between the private sector and civil society.”
By appearing to sanction what amounts to forced redistribution, Francis grievously exceeded his authority and became what amounts to a robe-wearing politician. He also exposed his Church, one of the wealthiest institutions in the world, to inevitable charges of hypocrisy. And he put himself in a position of having to back up his frothy talk with ruinous action.
Let’s see: for starters, perhaps the Catholic Church and its affiliated non-profit organizations should start voluntarily paying income and real estate tax in the United States, from which it has traditionally been exempt.
There is no doubt that the addition of tax revenue from the Church would be considerable, if hard to estimate. The 17,000-plus parishes may not all measure up to architectural wonders like St. Patrick’s in New York or the newer Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles. But few Catholic churches have absolutely no value. What would 39.5% of all that be?
How could Francis, or his subordinates in the United States object to voluntarily turning over part of their vast revenue?
The notion of the church paying taxes is certainly not heretical. Italy – which surrounds Vatican City where the pope lives – began taxing Catholic Church property last year as a way of helping to relieve its enormous economic problems. At last check, St. Peter’s was still standing.
Further, Francis might consider selling off the artworks stored at the Vatican museum and in churches throughout the world, and the thousands upon thousands of ancient books and manuscripts in its library. The Pietá, for instance, should fetch a pretty penny, especially if the buyer is, say, a backer of Al Qaeda who can afford to smash it to pieces as soon as it is acquired.
The pope is the head of the Church. He is the Vicar of Christ and is infallible on matters of doctrine.
When it comes to economics, however, Francis should stick to making suggestions for how to voluntarily reduce economic inequality and leave tax policy to the politicians. Perhaps he can help by offering a prayer for them. God knows, they need it.