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 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 mindset, 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 says it has 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, equal 27 percent of Italy's gross domestic product.
In yesterday'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.
The opposition was quick to attack Prodi in this case. Luca Volonte of a centrist party of Christian Democrats said the premier "violates the very secularism that is always called for."