It has long been regarded as more of a national sport than a misdemeanor. And it has long benefited from the seemingly boundless indulgence of the Italian Roman Catholic church.
However, now the head of the Italian bishops’ conference, Cardinal Angelo Bagnasco, has unambiguously declared that “evading taxes is a sin.” He called for “serious, effective and relentless” action against tax dodgers.
The cardinal’s remarks are a boost to the technocratic government of Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti, which is running a high-profile drive to root out evasion as it struggles to eliminate Italy’s budget deficit and start paying back the country’s 1.9 trillion euro (US$2.47 trillion) public debt. Among those often accused of avoidance, if not evasion, is the church itself. Its premises are exempt from property tax.
Critics have long maintained that the church takes unfair advantage of a 1982 law intended to benefit non-profitmaking organizations by claiming exemption for income-generating properties it owns, such as private clinics and guesthouses run by religious orders. This and other tax breaks enjoyed by the church have been the subject of an inquiry by the European commission.
Bagnasco’s comments have prompted speculation of an agreement to pre-empt the threat of action by Brussels against the Italian government.
Bagnasco told his fellow prelates the church did not seek “improper self-exemption.”