After an Italian mayor asked the local archdiocese to pay back property taxes on Catholic schools amounting to around U.S. $112,000, the archbishop has written to the country’s prime minister threatening to close those schools if the Church is forced to pay.
In a letter published on his own archdiocesan website, Archbishop Luigi Negri of Ferrara-Comacchio wrote center-left Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, addressing him “as a citizen even before a Christian,” asking him to reverse the edict from Ferrara’s mayor or “we will be forced to close the private schools.”
Negri said that the archdiocese doesn’t have the money to pay the tax bill, and that insisting on payment will come “at the expense of the children.”
Ferrara, a city of roughly 134,000, is located in the Emilia-Romagna region of northern Italy.
The dispute began when the city of Ferrara decided recently to apply the basic Italian property tax, known as the imposta municipale propria or “IMU,” retroactively to 2010 for Catholic schools, on the basis that because they charge a partial tuition they count as a “commercial activity.”
Negri, on the other hand, argues that the schools do not make money and represent a public service on the part of the Church.
According to reports, roughly ten parishes in Ferrara received notices from the city government asking them to calculate their property taxes back to 2010, and then to pay them. An official in the archdiocese has estimated that the total cost, if imposed, would be in excess of U.S. $112,000.
Negri asked Renzi to exempt Catholic schools from the property tax with “norms that do not leave margins for unfavorable interpretations,” widely taken as a reference to a 2015 ruling from the Italian supreme court that held Catholic schools charging tuition qualify as commercial entities.
That case involved a similar situation in Livorno, located on the western coast of Tuscany, in which the city government was seeking payment of roughly U.S. $470,000 in back taxes also dating to 2010.
Lower courts had barred the city’s attempt to collect the taxes on the basis that the schools were non-profit, but the supreme court held that collection of tuition made it a commercial activity, and that “nothing precludes management [of that activity] at a loss.”
Many Italian observers believe that if the Archdiocese of Ferrara is compelled to either pay the taxes or close the schools, it could have a ripple effect across the country, with other Catholic entities as well as other non-profit operations that collect some form of revenue hit with back-dated tax bills.
Traditionally, the Catholic Church in Italy has enjoyed a broad exemption from property taxes if even a small portion of a facility is used non-commercially – for instance, a chapel inside a bed-and-breakfast.
Under pressure from the European Union, Italy began tightening those exemptions in 2013, but the precise application of the new property tax requirements remains vague and often determined on an ad-hoc basis at regional and municipal levels.
Italy also has a “Church tax” system in which taxpayers may elect to earmark o.8 percent of their annual income tax payments to a religious institution or social program of their choice. In the most recent year for which data is available, 2013, almost 81 percent of Italians elected to direct those payments to the Catholic Church, netting roughly U.S. $1.2 billion, with proceeds spread across more than 220 archdioceses, dioceses and other jurisdictions.
Negri, widely seen as one of Italy’s more conservative Catholic prelates, is no stranger to controversy.
Last year, an Italian newspaper carried a report suggesting that Negri had been overheard on an Italian train criticizing Pope Francis, especially his personnel appointments, and expressing hope that Francis would die soon.
Negri firmly denied those reports, which were based on the recollections of an unnamed fellow passenger.