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Taxes Come to the Archbishop

Newly-minted StarTribune (daily cat-box liner) columnist Katherine Kersten kicked off her new column in style by taking Archbishop Harry Flynn to task for consistently advocating higher taxes.

Kersten makes the altogether convincing argument that many of these programs actually hurt the poor, and marshals powerful evidence in favor of her claim, much of which has become mainstay conservative (I should say, Republican) rhetoric. While I am not always convinced by some of the trickle-down economic arguments made by Kersten, it is obviously true that government anti-poverty programs are wasteful, inefficient, and ineffective, which makes them prima facie suspect. That being said, I don't necessarily think the specific programs advocated by Flynn would necessarily "hurt" the poor, as they are targeted toward folks in particular situations. And in a time when legislatures are ratcheting up spending on casinos, stem-cell research and corporate welfare, maybe we should reprioritize our spending habits.

That being said, my objection to Flynn's proposal is on two different principles: 1) higher taxes hurt families, and 2) Harry Flynn (as I've said many times before on this blog) is stepping way outside the bounds of his competency.

My particular beef with more taxes is not the sort of trickle-down job creation arguments espoused by Kersten, but instead, that high taxes actually hurt the middle class and are anti-family. How many folks are forced to work two jobs or have both parents work because of high taxes? (Yes, there is a standard of living issue there as well.) Furthermore, many middle class folks would love to give more money to organizations that they find are effective anti-poverty programs, as well build a civil society and culture of life that prevents family breakdown. And it is the "root cause" of family breakdown that is the number one cause of poverty. Government programs always attack the symptoms, but never the source (and since it is the family that is often the source, that might be a good thing). Higher taxes continue to disempower citizens and prevent them from exercising their responsibility as stewards (often, large diocesan fundraisers, usually called stewardship plans do this as well).

Being a good steward means making responsible choices as to how to use resources. Just writing a check to big government or big church thwarts this responsibility and leaves us as passive rather than active citizens in church and polis. Evangelicals are far better stewards of financial resources primarily because their institutions remain financially decentralized. Just because we have a bishop, it does not mean that the diocesan financial resources have to be concentrated in him. It seems that large chanceries and the USCCB have wasted hundreds of millions of lay dollars on bureaucracy alone. As spending at the diocesan level has gone up, "mission effectiveness" has gone down. At an institutional level, the Church is failing miserably in its role as pastor, teacher, and evangelizer. Is there a connection? I think so. Renewal in the Church today has largely come from independent initiatives of the laity as well as the movements, who were galvanized by the late Holy Father (mirroring other renewal movements within Catholicism - Gregory I, Cluny, Franciscan, Trent).

If the Church wishes to advocate government spending as a way of alleviating poverty and helping people "participate" in economic society, they should begin to think outside the box. One place they could like, ironically, is the Bush Administration's conception of an ownership society. Despite the fact that many inside the administration are not a fan of these programs because they require more money, or are not particularly committed to using religious organizations to renew society, it is a bold initiative championed by the President, Jim Towey (former attorney for Mother Teresa) and Sens. Rick Santorum and Sam Brownback, that thinks outside the box on solving poverty. For instance we have friends here in town who were able to buy their first home without a down payment because of a grant from a HUD program spearheaded by the ownership society initiative. This is really giving people a stake in society and allowing them real independence and participation.

But once again, the real problem is that bishops should not be making particular judgments about certain pieces of legislation, especially involving economic matters. They should elucidate the principles clearly, consistently, forthrightly, (subsidiarity, solidarity, the dignity of work, preferential option for the poor) and not feel afraid to condemn certain things that are clearly violative of human dignity. They could even lead rallies on the capitol steps where they protest grave injustices. However, they should not have organized bureaucracies where particular policy initiatives are pushed. And I am going to make the bold statement that this includes the "life" issues such as abortion and the death penalty. Many were glad to see the end of the juvenile death penalty in Roper v. Simmons, but the jurisprudential path to that result was highly questionable, and further complicated by an amicus brief by the USCCB. The task of political change is ultimately the province of the laity. I want our bishops to stand for justice, to proclaim the sanctity of human life and the evil of abortion, the dignity of work, etc. But having policy arms and pronouncing on particular legislation hurts the credibility of the Church, as well as the active involvement of the laity and their responsibility of stewardship. This is not an agenda of retreat, it is one of renewal where in the end, the just causes will be furthered, and the Church will not lose its credibility by advocating the rescue of the snail darter (remember the TVA v. Hill case anyone?). Ending poverty is a bedrock principle of Catholic Social Thought. But beyond the very broad principle of subsidiarity, there is no "Catholic" way to end poverty.

One last thought as to our good Archbishop. The folks whom he has entrusted to craft these policies need to be removed. They are essentially left-wing political activists and ideologues who work under the cover of religion. Why their prudential opinions and spin on CST should guide the Church in this diocese remains a mystery. Abp. Flynn should seek the counsel of priests and theologians in his diocese, not recovering activists, who understand the tradition and its limits and possibilities. My radical position regarding politics need not be adopted for genuine improvements in credibility and policy to be made. Government spending is not only not the only way to be compassionate and responsible, it often doesn't even take care of the problem it was meant to solve.

As a final note, because this issue is near and dear, I thought I'd step out of my self-imposed (and unanounced) blogging hiatus to put in my $.02. I will be on blogging break until September, when I'll have more of a chance to follow the news and write frequently. Right now, I'm working full time (no computer access), editing two journals, preparing two papers for publication and a lecture, and trying to spend a good amount of time with my beloved son and wife. So, I'm a bit busy and will have to rely on my co-bloggers to keep our happy ship running over the summer. Perhaps we'll add a blogger or two?????

Make sure to keep checking back in with us. In the mean time, check out such fine blogs as Mirror of Justice, Southern Appeal, Open Book, Touchstone's Mere Comments, IgnatiusInsight, and The Remedy by the Claremont Institute. Happy Reading!


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