Sermon: Rendering Unto Caesar
Politics should not be a bad word. The political life is inherent to humankind because of our social nature. The desire to pursue justice and the right ordering of society means that politics is one of the highest of human vocations. St. Thomas Aquinas recognized legal justice, the aim of politics, as the highest of the moral virtues (ST II-I, 58, 12), since legal justice since the common good, the object of politics, is so much greater than the good of any individual man or woman. The scriptures too, both in the old and new testaments, recognize the goodness of political life.
In the Old Testament, the Jewish kings were chosen by God and anointed by the prophets to lead the people of Israel. But even pagan rulers were seen as chosen instruments of God, such as the pagan king of Persia, Cyrus, whom Isaiah addresses today as the LORD’s anointed. When Christ appeared before Pilate, he told him, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above” (Jn 19:11). St. Paul writes even more directly to the Christians at Rome, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God” (Rm 13:1). Persia, Pontius Pilate, and the Roman emperors are surprising people to see as God’s chosen instruments! Even more surprising, really, than anyone running for office in the United States in the year 2020.
Throughout history, the Church has encouraged the involvement of the faithful in political life, both in predominantly Catholic societies and otherwise. In our own parish, we have had various parishioners running for office, holding office, or otherwise being involved in political parties or connected organizations. This is a very good thing: not because we want Catholics to infiltrate the local, state, or federal government, but because politics is a noble vocation that seeks the highest of goods: the common good.
Today we see perhaps the most emblematic Scripture passage about the relationship between our faith and political life: “[Render unto] Caesar what belongs to Caesar
and to God what belongs to God” (Mt 22:21). One interpretation of this passage would say, “Well, doesn’t everything really belong to God?” Of course that’s true, but it misses the point. Christ is indicating here that there is a legitimate distinction between God and the civil power. He places Himself in continuity with the Old Testament tradition that sees the civil power as endowed with authority by God – even outside of the chosen people of Israel.
If the theocratic interpretation – that there really is no distinction between civil and religious power and duty – is incorrect, the opposite is also equally problematic: that is, the high wall of separation of Church and State offered by liberal secularism. This idea holds that the things of Caesar and the things of God are not just distinct but totally separate. Under this system, the Church would have no right to speak on political issues and should confine Herself to teaching morality to Her own adherents.
The Catholic position on the relationship between faith and political life, instead, finds middle ground in holding that the civil power has legitimate authority that the Church should not usurp, but that boundaries to that authority also exist. The Church’s role is to point out both to politicians and to those who participate in the political process by voting where those boundary lines are. When the Church does this, She is not merely expressing an opinion nor sharing a merely religious teaching. The Church draws on the natural law, knowable to all men and women through the use of their reason, to elucidate the ethical priorities that guide our political life. The truth is not respective of persons. Nothing can be true for you and not for me. Rather, our natural reason helps each person to discover objective truth, which is always outside the human person and verifiable by the objective order of reality.
The first boundary on the authority of the State is the dignity of the human person. The right to life of innocent human beings is inviolable. The State can in no way tolerate, approve, or carry out the taking of innocent human life. Furthermore, human reason and modern biology indicate that the beginning of human life takes place at conception, at which time a separate human being, genetically distinct from his or her mother and father, exists. Thus the Church teaches that, “the fruit of human generation, from the first moment of its existence … demands the unconditional respect that is morally due to the human being …. The human being is to be respected and treated as a person from the moment of conception; and therefore from that same moment his rights as a person must be recognized, among which in the first place is the inviolable right of every innocent human being to life” (Donum vitae, I, 1).
For this reason, the Bishops of our country have repeatedly emphasized that protection of the innocent, unborn human child is the preeminent priority of our civic life. This becomes increasingly important as previously worked out compromises (such as the bipartisan agreement not to use federal funding for abortion) are threatened by a more radical pro-abortion movement that has taken hold in many parts of the United States. Furthermore, 47 years after Roe vs. Wade, the presence of this abominable practice in our country and our world has led highly influential bioethicists to its logical conclusion: that the life of the child outside the womb is no less inviolable than the life inside. Post-partum abortion is now an acceptable position among secular bioethicists. Lest this seem like extreme fear mongering, recall how quickly public opinion and civil law have changed to accommodate what formerly seemed like extremely unlikely possibilities – often in rather undemocratic fashion.
The inviolability of human life from its very beginning is also threatened by infertility treatments such as in-vitro fertilization, in which hundreds of thousands of human persons every year in the US alone are killed as byproducts of this vain quest to make men and women the authors of human life, or condemned to spend the rest of their lives in a freezer. The degradation of human life in its embryonic stage also takes place in government and privately-funded research known as embryonic stem cell research or therapy. Even previously universally condemned practices such as editing the genome of living human beings near the beginning of their lives are on their way to the mainstream and have been conducted by rogue scientists. Will our government refuse to allow, fund, or benefit from this rogue science? Or will we acquiesce to the pursuit of human health above all things, such as our use of cells taken by the destruction of human embryos in order to develop vaccines, as is currently being done through the country and world?
In order to respect the inviolability of human life at its origins, the secular power must also respect the natural ordering of the generation of human life and all that this means for human society. This means respecting the dignity of marriage as the fundamental basis of the family and recognizing marriage as the lifelong union of one man and one woman, as discernable through the right use of human reason. As could easily have been predicted, the breakdown in societal understanding of what marriage is has led to a breakdown in understanding the most basic facts about the human person: that sex is a biological characteristic that is not assigned (as if it were random) but determined based on observable facts, and that ought to be accepted lovingly as a gift from God. While the Church urges compassion and understanding for those who struggle to accept their identity as male or female or who experience attractions towards members of the same sex, She calls on the civil power to recognize these truths knowable through the light of reason and uphold the identity of the human person, marriage, and the family. These are public goods in which the civil power necessarily takes an interest in its work to promote the common good, and must be promoted and defended by civil society and even the State in order for society to flourish.
Even more fundamentally, though, we see an increasing trend to remove people of faith from public life or principles of faith from acceptable discourse. The radical secularization of our society continues to accelerate. People of faith are increasingly labeled as bigots. Federal and state governments attempt to force business owners, private individuals, and even religious sisters to violate their conscience by promoting same-sex marriage, paying for artificial contraception, or even forcing medical personnel to participate in abortions. We stand at a pivotal point in our history: Will the basic right of the human conscience – celebrated across cultures and across political lines – be respected and honored, and will faith be acceptable as a part of public life? Even more fundamentally, will appeals to reason and the natural law be derided as bigotry in disguise? Will reason be replaced by emotional appeal, verifiable only by the feelings of the mob? Will freedom of religion be replaced by freedom of worship – giving the excuse that people of faith remain free to worship as they please, but without allowing deeply held religious convictions to be lived outside the church walls?
These, then, are areas of inviolable principle upon which compromise cannot be made – the dignity and inviolability of innocent human life from the moment of conception, the rights of conscience, the dignity and nature of marriage and the family, and the right to free exercise of religion. These are not the only such issues, but they are ones that meet the three-part test that I mentioned two weeks ago: Issues that are 1) Intrinsically evil, 2) Of particular gravity, and 3) Extensive proliferation. Contrast this, for example, to torture, which is intrinsically (always and everywhere) evil, but of significant lesser gravity (when it has to do with criminals rather than innocents) and has much less proliferation.
But what of that which belongs to Caesar? What are the areas in which there are legitimate differences of opinion as to the best way to pursue the common good? These too are more than we have time to mention here, but a couple examples will be helpful:
Perhaps the most illustrative is capital punishment. Catholic tradition makes clear the legitimacy in principle of the State’s ability to deprive criminals of their life in order not only to protect society but to restore right order – legal justice, the highest of moral virtues. St. Paul writes to the Romans, “But if you do wrong, be afraid, for [the governing authority] does not bear the sword in vain; he is the servant of God to execute his wrath on the wrongdoer” (Rom 13:4). Nevertheless, at different times in history and to varying degrees, Popes and bishops have called on the civil power to limit or even entirely abstain from using this authority due to a variety of social circumstances. But the Church has also clarified that Catholics can in good conscience disagree about the application of this principle as a matter of legal prudence. The Church does not bind the consciences of the faithful regarding capital punishment, but “renders unto Caesar” the authority given to the civil power by Scripture and the natural law. At the same time, though, for a Catholic to entirely disregard the emphasis by the Vicar of Christ and the successors of the Apostles in recent years on the potential injustice of the application of capital punishment would also be problematic. When the Successor of St. Peter speaks, and when our legitimate pastors speak, we ought to listen, even when they do not bind our consciences. (A very similar case is that of just war – we can disagree about whether a particular military conflict meets the criteria for a just war, but no one can hold that it is okay for a country to initiate a conflict merely to enlarge its own territory. One is a matter of prudence, the other of principle.)
There are also issues in which competing principles need to be balanced. Countries have the right to impose reasonable restrictions on immigration, but people also have a right to flee violence and discrimination. Many people have come to our country from places where their physical safety was threatened on a daily basis by violent drug cartels, where children are regularly kidnapped, held for ransom, and executed, and where providing for their family is a grave hardship. Many young people in our country did not even make the choice to come here and have known no other home. They are as American as anyone else, except on paper. Yes, we can have different opinions about how to resolve the thorny issue of immigration, but the Church asks us to consider that justice – rendering what is due to the other – is not as easy as it may appear.
We see competing principles in economics as well. The Church does not propose an economic system, but She does decry the failures of both unrestrained capitalism and socialism, on both human and spiritual levels. She decries socialism’s making of the State into a god that dominates all aspects of human life, and unrestrained capitalism’s extreme disparity in outcomes for rich and poor. This critique is one shared by social scientists and commentators across the political spectrum, who are increasingly concerned with the development of a large underclass that has been left out of our country’s economic and social prosperity. Here the Church offers even less in the way of specifics, as we draw farther from Her proper expertise, but She still raises Her voice to draw our attention to those who have been left behind and forgotten.
But how does this apply to the 99.9% of us who are not public officials? The private citizen in a democracy is responsible for informing and exercising his conscience in the voting booth and for holding public officials accountable once they are in office. In determining which candidates are worthy of our support, we should be guided not by our partisan leanings, but by the principles of civic life we find in the natural law and the Gospel, some of the most important of which I have outlined today. If you find that for whom you should vote is no clearer at the conclusion of this sermon than at its beginning – good. It is not my intention to tell you for whom to vote. I aim today to do the Church’s work in forming consciences about the difference between inviolable principles (what we “render unto God”) and those matters of political prudence (what we “render unto Caesar”) that should be guided by the light of the Gospel but about which the Church does not bind the consciences of the faithful.
The Church does not align Herself to a political party. In a certain sense, a committed Catholic should be “politically homeless.” But this is not an excuse for us to disengage from civic life. Christians should be a leaven within society, calling public officials to greater accountability to the truths knowable through natural reason and revealed by God, and serving in public office in a way consistent with the natural law and the Church’s teachings.
Political issues are not all equal. We cannot determine for whom to vote by drawing up a simple list of pros and cons. We must give greater priority to the ending of those things which are intrinsically evil, of particular gravity, and of great proliferation, such as the preeminent priority of protecting unborn life from the moment of conception. But we must also not allow this one issue to blind us to the many other ways in which Christ calls us to uphold the dignity of all human life. Catholics are called to transform our political parties from within to a greater recognition of the natural law in all its aspects and the rights of all people.
Before and after the 2020 elections, Catholics will disagree about the application of political prudence. A vote for one candidate or another should not be a dividing line within the Church. This does not mean, though, that there aren’t correct answers to the question of which political candidates better align with the teachings of the Catholic Church and with the natural law. However, the Church recognizes the limits of her area of expertise and seeks to inform the consciences of the faithful with the principles to be used in making the prudent determination of which candidates to support so that they might freely “[Render unto] Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God” (Mt 22:21). This might leave the waters murkier than we would like, but if the solutions were obvious, we wouldn’t be talking about politics.
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist, Goshen
XXIX Sunday through the Year, A.D. MMXX
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