“Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Mark 12:17)

     Deciding how to balance what we really owe to Caesar with what we owe to God is a perennial issue for a believing Christian.  In the age of Covid and related governmental tomfoolery that question has become, let us say, even more acute.  This coming weekend I’ll take a more specific look at recent events; today I’m posting an updated version of something I first published a few years ago drawing upon the work of a certain Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger when he was head of Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.  It’s an oldie (in keeping with Throwback Thursday), but, as they say, a goodie.

Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI)

One need not buy in to the confusing and often intentionally obfuscating “Wall of Separation” language here in the United States to understand that the proper role for a believing Christian in public and political life is not always clear. As in other areas of decision-making, we need to apply our personal judgment in determining how to act in specific situations, but we should form those decisions in the light of the moral law and the teaching of the Church.  An enormously helpful guide in sorting out these questions is the Doctrinal Note On Some Questions Regarding The Participation Of Catholics In Political Life [text here], published November 2002 with the authorization of Pope (now Saint) John Paul II, and under the name of Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, then Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.

     The Doctrinal Note, despite its brevity (it’s only about eight pages long) is a wonderfully rich yet concise discussion, as we have come to expect from Joseph Ratzinger.  It deserves a much fuller treatment than I can give it here, but it’s worthwhile to consider a couple of its main points.

First of all, participating in public and political life is a good thing:

It is commendable that in today’s democratic societies, in a climate of true freedom, everyone is made a participant in directing the body politic. Such societies call for new and fuller forms of participation in public life by Christian and non-Christian citizens alike . . . The life of a democracy could not be productive without the active, responsible and generous involvement of everyone, “albeit in a diversity and complementarity of forms, levels, tasks, and responsibilities”. (sec. 1, citations omitted)

As Catholic Christians, however, we have a particular mission to fulfill, a “proper task”:

By fulfilling their civic duties, “guided by a Christian conscience”, in conformity with its values, the lay faithful exercise their proper task of infusing the temporal order with Christian values, all the while respecting the nature and rightful autonomy of that order, and cooperating with other citizens according to their particular competence and responsibility. (sec. 1, citations omitted)

In other words, we need to recognize our mission to be Salt and Light to a world in desperate need of the Truth (see Matthew 5:13), while at the same time respecting the freedom of those who might disagree.

     The Doctrinal Note goes on to say that such involvement on our part is not only good, but is in fact essential if democratic governance is to survive:

At the same time, the Church teaches that authentic freedom does not exist without the truth. “Truth and freedom either go together hand in hand or together they perish in misery.” In a society in which truth is neither mentioned nor sought, every form of authentic exercise of freedom will be weakened, opening the way to libertine and individualistic distortions and undermining the protection of the good of the human person and of the entire society. (sec. 7, citations omitted)

That is to say, without the Christian witness of the truth about God and man, society will devolve into a self-indulgent free-for-all: amoral, undisciplined people are incapable of self-government.

Joseph Ratzinger was not the first to point this out.  In fact, it was the accepted wisdom prior to the establishment of the United States two and a half centuries ago that republics in general, and democracies in particular, would eventually collapse in a self-destructive orgy of unrestrained appetites.  That’s the traditional understanding that Abraham Lincoln was invoking “four score and seven years” after the American founding in his Gettysburg Address. Lincoln described the Civil War as a “testing” of whether a nation “conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal . . . or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.”

The founders themselves were aware of the dangers, but saw the Christian faith of the American people as the key to overcoming those perils . . .as long as Americans held to that faith.  John Adams warned that men “may plan and speculate for Liberty, but it is Religion and Morality alone, which can establish the Principles upon which Freedom can securely stand.”  George Washington was very emphatic on this same point in his farewell address:

Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens . . . Let it simply be asked: Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice ? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.

It is substantially true that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government.

It is substantially true that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government.-George Washington

  Both the Church and American founders agree that the freedom to govern themselves is only possible for people who know, and who have been formed in, the Truth.

     And that leads us to the limits of politics and government.  Our actions as citizens in a republic are guided by, and in that sense subordinate to, our properly formed consciences; likewise, the policies of the government are subject to a higher moral law.  If our consciences are not properly formed, no law can make us good.  At best, we can hope to encourage good behavior by providing incentives for it, and discourage bad behavior by providing disincentives.  And when you have a large number of people with improperly formed consciences combined with government incentives to bad behavior, you face societal and political chaos.

      What that means for us is that our first and most important task is to be the best Catholic Christians we can be, before we ever cast a vote or sign a petition.  To the degree that we create a more Christian society, we make possible a more just government. We should approach direct political action with the understanding that whatever we do politically (and not, certainly, to subordinate our consciences to majority opinion or the party platform), it is guided by, and in service to, the Higher Truth. This may seem ironic, particularly to an unbeliever, but the first and foremost thing that a Christian citizen owes to Caesar is that he or she be, in fact, a faithful Christian: without that, nothing else is enough.

Finally, it’s good to keep in mind that God and Casesar each have a claim on us, but that doesn’t mean that they have equal claims. Government can do many good and essential things: provide for a common defense, nurture a secure environment for civil society to flourish, build and maintain infrastructure, help alleviate the temporary effects of poverty and abuse.  Government cannot do everything, however, nor should it try: in keeping with the Principle of Subsidiarity [link], we should beware of the government subsuming responsibilities that rightfully belong to individuals or other associations, especially the family or the Church.  The very real dangers of government overreach of this sort have come into particularly sharp focus over the past year. And, of course, as Christians we have to know that, however much the state can do, only Jesus Christ can bring about the Kingdom of God.

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