(The following is excerpted from a statement from the Maryland Catholic Confrence that was distributed earlier this week, along with a letter, to Gov. Martin O'Malley and members of the Maryland General Assembly, as the state legislature is meeting for a special session on the state's budget crisis.)

From Biblical times to the present, the Judeo-Christian tradition has been the foundation of many legal tenets. This tradition is the basis for Catholic teaching and continues to be invoked today in the context of public policy. Because it is based in Scripture and right reason, the tradition provides a moral lens through which we can with confidence view public policy. Applying Catholic social thought to the matter of taxation in the State of Maryland, we find that there are two basic moral principles that should govern the collection and distribution of taxes as they benefit the State and its people.

The principle of contributive justice -- all members of a society have a responsibility to contribute to the common good. A just and equitable system of taxation ensures that everyone contributes according to his or her ability to pay. Through the contributions of our taxes, we share the blessings that God has given us so that our resources can be used for the good of all.

The principle of distributive justice -- the distribution of wealth among the members of a society should first address the basic material needs of all people. The goal of distributive justice is to obtain a just and equitable distribution of income, wealth, and power. This goal should be evaluated in light of how this allocation affects the poor and most vulnerable in a society.

On the basis of these moral principles, we make the following suggestions as a guide for tax policy in the State of Maryland. We understand that these applications of moral principles do not have the same moral certainty as the principles themselves and that people of good will can agree or disagree on the application of moral principles.

1. Spending by the State of Maryland should first assure that the basic needs of all people; especially those who are poor and vulnerable; are addressed as a priority before other appropriations are made. Just as in a family's budget, spending for recreation and entertainment should come only after paying for shelter, food, clothing and other necessities.

2. All citizens have the right and responsibility to contribute to the common good through the payment of taxes. The collection of taxes is an important and justifiable role of government. Taxes are an individual's contribution to the common good. In any society, the common good should be accorded greater significance than the good of any individual or special-interest group. Paying taxes is one way that citizens give something back to society.

3. The state should seek and maintain revenues sufficient to meet the basic needs of all, especially the poor and vulnerable. Effective stewardship of resources is always of concern to any branch of government, but even the most careful management of resources cannot overcome a fundamental lack of income. As prudent families do, the state should maintain savings for periods when revenues are less than needed. Tax cuts, while popular, should result from a reduction in revenue needs, not as a result of providing favors for special interests.

4. Taxation in any form should be based on one's ability to pay. If Maryland's tax policy is to remain faithful to Catholic teachings, it should first ensure that the system collects taxes according to one's ability to pay. Catholic social teaching supports a more progressive form of taxation. Our contribution to the common good should reflect our blessings. From those to whom much has been given, much should be expected. Those who make the most profit from our economic system benefit most from the structures and infrastructure that make economic enterprise possible. Tax exemptions and tax incentives should not change the fundamental requirement that taxes should be based on one's ability to pay.

5. All forms of taxation should be fair and just in their treatment of the poor. Taxation can be used as an economic strategy to level income distribution in a society. Systems of taxation also can grant certain advantages to those in different income brackets. Unfortunately, such advantages are often granted on the basis of power and political influence rather than on moral principles. Those who are poor should not pay a disproportionate amount of income in the sum total of taxes paid. This is especially true in the case of property and sales taxes, which low -- and moderate -- income people tend to pay in higher percentages of their total income and, therefore, are considered to be more regressive taxes. Those who are wealthier should consider their higher tax bracket as part of their Biblical obligation to tend to the "widow and the orphan."

Works of charity will always be the personal responsibility of each of us. But private charity cannot substitute for what the public sector can do through the just collection and distribution of tax monies. What can be done by the exercise of personal responsibility cannot substitute for the public responsibility -- government's responsibility -- to provide a safety net for poor families and vulnerable people.

It is important that all citizens reflect on these moral principles of contributive and distributive justice. We believe that contributive justice means that all citizens should contribute willingly to the system of taxation so that government can provide for the common good. We believe that distributive justice means that meeting the basic needs of its citizens should be the first priority of government.

Catholic moral teaching raises two essential questions that apply to all economic policies:

1. Does this policy maintain or enhance the life and dignity of the human person?

2. How does this policy affect the poorest and most vulnerable of our brothers and sisters?

We hope that by considering these questions and applying these moral principles to issues of taxation in Maryland, we will help our state direct its tax monies first and foremost toward the benefit of the least of our brothers and sisters.