Tax Exemption at Sea for the Vatican

03/09/2011 15:42 BST | Updated 03/11/2011 09:12 GMT

In Italy the last tax maneuver (45 billion euro) announced by the Berlusconi's government to deal with the economic crisis has revived the old controversy about tax exemption of ecclesiastical bodies. The dispute between State and Church concerning the municipal property tax (ICI) lasts for many years. According to the latest amendment passed by the Prodi's government in 2006, today in Italy all Vatican property for purposes "not exclusively commercial" are excluded from taxation. The buildings of the Italian Church are not certain. Some people speak of a billion square feet, others of 100 million. To date, a census has not yet been done and the properties of the Vatican remain one of the secrets held by the "Bel Paese."

The Radical Party (part of the opposition) has tabled an amendment that, if approved, would force the Church to pay the municipal tax on buildings not intended for purposes of worship. Thus, the Vatican would be deprived of the tax exemption for all the buildings used, for example, for health purposes, educational and touristic. A privilege estimated between 400 and 700 million euro each year, according to an analysis (really prudent) of the Italian municipalities. But if the amendment is approved, an entire system of privileges could be called into question. In addition to the exemption by ICI, the Church has, in fact, a series of state grants on which Brussels is already investigating and that could cost Rome a conviction for state aid.

The Italian Church is shouting at the plot. The bishops' newspaper (Avvenire) denies the accusers and asserts that the only real urgency, for Italian economy, is to fight against tax evaders (yes, but what?). Meanwhile, on Facebook has begun collecting signatures in support of the amendment proposed by the Radical Party. However, the Vatican knows it can count on the aid of much of the political, majority and opposition.

The controversy is open and the conclusion is certainly not obvious. Regardless of the outcome of the vote in Parliament, I believe that an act of transparency from the Vatican is due. A census of church property and assets would help to clarify the issue, dissolving the reasonable doubt that was born even in the hearts of the most devouts. Provided that internal revenue for the Vatican is not a matter of faith.