Prodi Asks Church's Help With Tax Cheats
The Associated Press
ROME - Premier Romano Prodi has called on Roman Catholic priests to help him battle Italy's widespread tax evasion by invoking the seventh commandment , thou shalt not steal.
Prodi made the appeal in an interview this week with Italian religious affairs weekly Famiglia Cristiana. His comments sparked fierce criticism that he is blurring the lines between church and state, and on Thursday Prodi defended himself in a front-page letter to Italy's top daily.
"A third of Italians heavily evade taxes," Prodi told Famiglia Cristiana. "To change this mind-set, everybody, starting with the teachers, must do their part, school and church included."
"Why, when I go to Mass, is this issue, which is ethically charged, almost never touched upon in the homilies?" Prodi asked.
Tax evasion is a chronic problem in Italy. The government has launched a crackdown and claims to have recovered $16.4 billion in unpaid taxes last year.
But according to government estimates, unpaid taxes, including income from the country's black-market economy, are equal to 27 percent of Italy's gross domestic product.
In Thursday's letter to Corriere della Sera, Prodi said tax evasion is "the main reason why we have both overly high taxes for honest people and a heavy deficit in the state's balance."
He said that it was up to the ruling class to set a good example. But, he added, "if memory serves, St. Paul exhorted (citizens) to obey the authority."
Prodi is a practicing Catholic, but he has always defended the secularism of the state. The propriety of church involvement in government affairs is a recurrent issue in Italy. The Vatican and the powerful Italian bishops conference are often accused of interfering in political matters, most recently on family issues such as gay unions. They deny the accusation.
In 2005, Prodi rejected the bishops conference call for Catholics to abstain from a referendum that asked whether Italians wanted to loosen restrictions on assisted fertility. The premier said he was a "grown-up Catholic" who would go to the polls.
Some observers complained that, in this case, the interference ran in the opposite direction.
"Instead of telling parish priests what to do or not to do, Prodi should simply lower taxes," Daniele Capezzone, a lawmaker from the small anti-Vatican Radical Party, said in an interview.
The opposition was quick to attack Prodi. Luca Volonte, of a centrist party of Christian Democrats, said the premier "violates the very secularism that is always called for."
The controversy reached the floor of parliament Thursday. Giulio Andreotti, a senator and former premier who was irked by Prodi's rebuke of the church, said he had brought the premier a copy of the catechism.
Reaction from the church was mixed.
Archbishop Bruno Forte, a theologian and longtime friend of Pope Benedict XVI, said that "if the church is cautious, it is because it tries to understand the reasons people have. Not justifying, understanding."
But the Rev. Gianni Baget Bozzo, a friend and political aide to conservative leader Silvio Berlusconi, said evading taxes is not a sin and can even be seen as "self-defense."