Did the Pope really call tax avoiders
There’s been an interesting debate in the last few days as to whether Pope Francis really did call tax avoiders “murderers” in the context of the coronavirus pandemic. The Pope’s comment came in response to an Italian journalist who had written of the lessons he had learnt from the coronavirus pandemic. In responding, the Pope picked up one of the phrases used by the journalist and said “It has become evident that those who do not pay taxes do not only commit a felony but also a crime / murder [Italian delitto]: if there are not enough hospital beds and artificial respirators, it is also their fault.” The problem here is that some ambiguity is attached to the meaning of the word delitto. I am no Italian linguist but George Turner of Taxwatch has made the point that while reuters translated delitto as ‘crime’, it can also be translated as ‘murder’ and as such, the Pope is referring to those who avoid tax as ‘murderers’.
But is that possible? Is it right to call someone whose actions are somewhat remote from the harm they cause a ‘murderer’? Of course, in the history of the church and moral philosophy this is not a new problem. The hit-man who pulls the trigger is clearly a murderer, but what about the drug baron who orders the death? Clearly, they’ve committed a crime but are they still a murderer? Well in British law, they would certainly be convicted either for conspiracy to murder or as joint enterprise murderers. Either way, they can be classed as ‘murderers’. The case of tax avoiders however is more complex, and if one were to pursue a criminal case for the physical harm they have caused then if any charge is appropriate it is probably that of manslaughter (corporate or otherwise).
What makes this interesting in respect of the Pope is the parallels that can be drawn with the criteria for mortal sins, which is what murders obviously are. These are that they are grave, the person knew what they were doing, and did so with intent.
Tax avoidance is clearly grave. It is not mere tax planning. It is the deliberate act of failing to comply with the intention of parliament. In terms of intentional non-compliance, it might be compared to those who in the current crisis deliberately ignore the instructions we have all received to socially distance. Secondly, it requires that the person is aware of their actions – they know they will cause harm. It is here that the tax avoider might claim that they are simply trying to maximise their returns, and the harm that is caused by their theft from the public purse is not their responsibility. However, morally speaking wilful blindness is no defence. Wilberforce famously said “You may choose to look the other way but you can never say again that you did not know.” Surely, that is true of those who choose to avoid paying tax. Amongst other things, tax does contribute to the provision of public services. To choose to look the other way by stashing millions of pounds in a tax haven is to choose not to fund public services. This is full knowledge in Catholic terms. And finally, it requires intent – that is the person was not under duress, but wilfully chose the action they undertook. Their intent may not have been to harm others, but they certainly intended to hide wealth that could have helped.
So did the Pope call tax avoiders murderers? Well, possibly, and from a theological point of view I think it quite likely that there was a deliberate ambiguity in the words he used. For whether their actions amount to murder or a crime, they are still in either case a mortal sin deserving of judgement – both God’s and, especially in the present crisis, the judgement of us all.
Dr Justin Thacker is the National Coordinator for Church Action for Tax Justice