In his homily upon his inauguration as the Bishop of Rome and Pope, Saint John Paul II invited the people to be open to Christ. He wasn’t merely speaking about the need to open our hearts to Christ, but he called for all political and economic systems in the world to also be open to the power of Jesus Christ. His was an invitation to allow Jesus Christ to be an integral part in every aspect of our lives.
Today, we consider those words which are so often quoted in our society, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s.” It’s both a popular and dangerous concept in our pluralistic society, because it can cause us to think that somehow God has no place in the public sphere. It is a call by Christ to accept our responsibilities as citizens of the world, but it is also a caution for us to remember who we are. We are first and foremost citizens of Heaven and children and subjects of the Most High God.
One of the important things to remember is: what is legal is not necessarily right. Our government can pass all of the laws it wishes, but we can’t simply say to ourselves, “Well, it’s legal and render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s.” All too often we use that as an excuse and we don’t ask ourselves, “What belongs to God? What is ‘by right’ God’s?” We cannot, even as good citizens, obey any law that violates God’s law. This is because God’s law is supreme and supersedes any law devised or enacted by human beings.
Leo Tolstoy said, “Something that is wrong remains wrong, even if everyone is doing it.” This is especially the case in our world today. So, when we think about our rights and responsibilities, we need to ask ourselves, from where to our rights come, and to whom are our responsibilities owed? Our right to free speech and a free press, our right to free practice of our religion and free assembly, from whence do they come? There are people who say that these are in the Constitution, and therefore they come from the government.
I believe that it was James Madison who opposed enumerating these rights in the Bill of Rights for this very reason. He feared that some future generation would believe that, because they are written in a constitution for a government, they are given by the government. They come to us, not from man, but from God, and with them comes the primordial right: the Right to Life. This is a right that is slowly eroding as we begin to talk about “death with dignity” for people who are old, infirmed and whose lives “no longer have value.”
In parts of the Western world, most especially in Western Europe, this idea is extending to even those who “have lost the will to live.” And so, even young people suffering from depression can be put to death because it is falsely believed that their suffering has no value. Is this “Rendering unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s?” Does the government have any right to dictate to us when life begins and when life ends? Are those not decisions that belong to God alone?
In our own nation, we are seeing one of the most important institutions created by God at the very beginning of the human race, the Institution of Matrimony, under attack as the government says “We have the right to define that.” It is not man’s institution. It doesn’t belong to Caesar. Therefore, we cannot allow Caesar to dictate how it is understand and experienced.
Attempts have been made to erode our religious freedom as well, with many speaking about “freedom of worship” as opposed to “freedom of religion.” It is as if to say, “Do what you want to do within the confines of our Church, but keep your faith out of the public sphere.”
We have to let what is God’s inform our decisions. Before we vote, we have to ask ourselves, “Do these candidates respect God’s law? Do they recognize where the line should be drawn between what is Caesar’s and what is God’s?” We can pass all the laws we want, and regardless of what the law says, right remains right and wrong remains wrong. Something that is wrong continues to be wrong, even if everyone is doing it.
It’s famously said that you can tell that a conversation has completely deteriorated when the Nazis are raised, but if we can’t look to the past and learn from it, what is the benefit of the suffering of past generations? I saw a movie a few weeks ago from the early 2000’s, it’s called “The Conspiracy” and it’s about the secret, one-day meeting of top party officials to make the “final solution,” the Holocaust, completely legal. Everything that was done in Germany in the late 1930s and early 1940s was legal under German law. That doesn’t make it right.
We are called, as Catholics, to actively participate in the life of our cities, states and nations. We are to participate with an active understanding of what it means to be Catholic Christians and to resist non-violently any law which violates Jesus’ instruction that we render unto God that which is God’s. We are also to cooperate fully with every law that renders unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s.
We live in a tension between God and the world. We must remember that we are called to be Heavenly citizens first and citizens of the United States second. Always Heavenly citizens first, recognizing that we serve two kings: the King of Kings and the temporal Caesar. They belong in that order: the King of Kings first, and Caesar second.
Saint Thomas More stood before the headsman under the sentence of death for refusing to allow the king to usurp God’s law. He declared to the people assembled at the moment of his martyrdom, “I am the King’s good servant, but God’s first.”
With God’s grace, I hope that we can always be the king’s good servant, but God’s first.
by Fr. Keith Cummings
Father Keith Cummings is a priest of the Diocese of Arlington and Chaplain at Saint John Paul the Great Catholic High School in Dumfries, Virginia.