Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition
As Inquisitions go, the Spanish one went quite recently. The last garroting took place in 1826, with abandonment of the 350 year-old program in 1834. Portugal had, by then, put that sad part of its history behind her, while the Papal States, and their offshoot The Vatican, finally got round to announcing their Inquisition’s requiem in 1908, and its requiem aeternam in 1965. Parting was, evidently, such sweet sorrow.
Despite the Renaissance and all that followed, and despite the receding risk of having one’s soul removed from one’s body by religious force, the Catholic Church (and in its wake, other Christian sects and religions) has historically been treated with kid gloves – nowhere more notably than in the field of taxation.
Several nations have agreements with the Vatican governing that institution’s extensive property holdings, which provide extensive exemptions from income tax and property taxes. In addition, for various reasons (e.g. in the US, the Establishment clause of the First Amendment; in other nations, the contribution to the public good) nations include religions of all stripes in their tax-free, not-for-profit legislation.
Where the real clash occurs is when a religious institution earns commercial income. Income tax is a dogmatic no-brainer (though not according to all those agreements); but property taxes are in another world.
Salvation has possibly come in the form of the European Union, the Godless machinery of which has just come up, for at least the second time, with a fortuitous deus ex machina.
On June 27th, the European Court of Justice issued a judgment that Spain’s municipal construction and building tax could apply to Catholic Church property used for educational purposes not funded by the Spanish government. This was despite a Spanish High Court ruling enforcing a 1979 agreement with the Vatican that no taxes could apply to property and earnings from property owned by the Holy See and its offshoots. The miraculous solution was unlawful state aid – which, in the EU canon, is up there with adultery and child-sacrifice. The case was referred back to the Spanish courts for consideration – the presiding judges of which will presumably not need to stretch Church representatives on the rack or burn them at the stake in order to enforce an equitable solution.
On a previous occasion, in 2012, thanks to pressure from the EU over the same unlawful state aid, then Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti was handed the moral strength to strong-arm the Vatican into paying taxes on commercial properties around Italy, which hitherto had been tax exempt if they included some token religious symbol, like a chapel in a converted monastery hotel. Meanwhile, the Vatican itself remained a tax sanctuary, although the cash-strapped city of Rome has in recent years been trying to get the pope, who happens to live there and has expressed personal support for taxation, to pass the collection plate among the moneychangers at the entrance to the Vatican museum and its lucrative shop.
Other countries, unable to brandish the symbol of unlawful state aid, that have been trying to reach a modus vivendi with the Church will welcome the ECJ’s decision; notably Zimbabwe, that paragon of taxation virtue, and Israel, where it all started when an idealistic young man exhorted his countrymen to ‘render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s ’. But then, in those days, all roads led to Rome.