My seventh-grade son is covering the Constitution and government structure in History class. While driving to school the other day, we were reviewing the division of powers between federal and state levels. Federal powers are “delegated,” that is, carefully circumscribed and limited to those defined in the Constitution. To underscore this point, we kept going over the Tenth Amendment, the key to understanding the balance: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States, respectively, or to the people.”
“We are not creatures of the government,” I explained. “The powers ‘we the people’ have not delegated remain with us. Ultimately, these powers, or rights, come from the fact that we are made in the image and likeness of God, with inalienable dignity and an eternal destiny.”
I’m not sure if my little editorial helped him on the test that day, but dads are supposed present the Big Picture.
Continuing our drive-time review, we went over the specific federal and state powers, and what the textbook called concurrent powers, which both the states and the feds possess – such as exacting taxes, the topic of my next mini-lecture.
“You should remember that we pay both federal and state taxes, a tax on top of a tax. Then there’s your real estate tax, which mostly goes to the public schools which we don’t use by sending you and your brother to Catholic school. And in Connecticut we have this novel thing called a ‘car tax’ in which all vehicles registered in your name are taxed according to some formula known only to the state.”
My son smiled, and said, “I guess you’re all worked up because Monday is April 15.”
“What’s that?” my 8-year-old asked.
“That’s when dad has to file his taxes,” the older boy said.
Not wishing to miss an opportunity for forming future responsible citizens, I ventured a little farther from the seventh-grade text.
“When Jesus was asked about paying taxes, he said to ‘Render unto Caesar’ the payments set for taxes, but never to let our allegiance to earthly power undermine our worship of God,” I said. “God comes before any earthly power, and what we owe God comes before anything the government demands. If the two conflict, we must obey God and not men.”
In the rearview mirror, I saw my boys look at one another with the expression, “There goes dad again!”
“Hey guys, I saw that,” I smiled. “You’re lucky I don’t quote from the Catechism. It says that we are social beings and that it is natural and necessary for us to form associations and governments to promote and guard the common good. But there must be a principle of subsidiarity, so that the lower, more local bodies are not swallowed up by the larger, more powerful ones. What individuals can do alone or in groups should not be trampled on by the state, and the same in regards to state and federal authorities. This is a big issue today on so many issues.”
I had just taught my younger boy “transubstantiation” for his First Holy Communion next month, so I didn’t think “subsidiarity” was too big a word.
“The bottom line, boys,” I told my car-captive audience, “is that we may not like it, but paying taxes for the common good is part of our Catholic faith.”
“Can we get back to the separation of powers, Dad?” my son said. “I have a test.”
With not much help from me, he did well.
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.