Render unto Caesar
Twenty-Ninth Sunday of the Year. Is 45:1,4-6; Ps 96:1,3-5,7-10; 1 Thes 1:1-5b; Mt 22:15-21
At the presidential election finally approaches in this country, it is timely and providential that we have, as the text in today's Gospel, “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's.” Jesus' answer is capable of many layers of interpretation, but the most immediate sense of his answer is that, as Catholics, we owe civil allegiance and obedience to the state of which we are citizens. This obedience extends to paying taxes even in states that are imperfect, as are all human institutions. Furthermore, even unaided human reason understands the importance of supporting the state, given that almost any state is preferable to anarchy, a disorder in which immorality and evil runs riot.
Nevertheless, Jesus' answer does not imply that the things of Caesar and the things of God are two separate worlds, as if Christians should remain totally detached from politics. On the contrary, when Caesar, whoever he is, acts unjustly toward his people and interferes with the work of salvation, then Christians have a right and duty to protest. In the late fourth century, for example, St. Ambrose, bishop of Milan, wrote a respectful but forceful letter to the Emperor Theodosius after the emperor had ordered the massacre of several thousand citizens of the town of Thessalonica. Bishop Ambrose told the emperor that, in the sight of God, he dared not offer Mass if the Emperor intended to be present. Referring to the emperor's presence at Mass, Bishop Ambrose wrote, “Is that which is not allowed after shedding the blood of one innocent person, allowed after shedding the blood of many? I do not think so.” (Letter LI) Fortunately, St. Ambrose succeeded in shaming the Emperor into repentance for his crime, and the Church in turn offered a way of reconciliation. Following a confession accompanied by several months of public penance, the Roman Emperor was readmitted to communion in the Catholic Church. The Church is, as I have said before, a hospital for repentant sinners. This case of Ambrose confronting Caesar shows that it is both a right and duty, while respecting civil authority, to confront that authority when it turns to evil. The example of Ambrose also highlights an evil that especially calls on us to confront Caesar, namely when Caesar, whoever he or she is, kills, or permits the killing, of the children of God. As God says to Cain in the Book of Genesis, “What have you done? The voice of your brother's blood is crying to me from the ground.” (Gen. 4:10).
Now it might not seem that individual Catholics can make the kind of difference that Bishop Ambrose made in the late Roman Empire, but this is not true. Every Catholic has an opportunity for glory, to do something heroic in his or her life by the grace of God. And Catholics have certainly shaped the modern political world in many good ways. Our Polish Pope, John Paul II, with the support of millions of his countrymen, helped to bring communism to an end peacefully in Eastern Europe in the 1980s, one of the great political miracles of all time. In Western countries, where we not only have the opportunity to 'render unto Caesar' but even to choose our Caesars, even the mere action of Catholics voting has sometimes made the decisive political difference. For nearly forty years in Italy from the late 1940s till the 1980s, Catholic voters effectively prevented the Italian Communist party from gaining power. Furthermore, most people do not know that Catholic voters nearly brought Hitler's career to an end in the 1932 elections. Despite clever propaganda and growing intimidation by the National Socialist or 'Nazi' party, Hitler only gained a quarter of the popular vote in Coblenz-Trier, Cologne-Aachen and Bavaria, all the predominantly Catholic areas of Germany . Most Catholics voted for Hindenberg in preference to Hitler. In the rest of Germany, by contrast, Hitler gained nearly half the popular vote. It is sobering to think that the bloodshed of World War II might have been prevented if the voting pattern in Bavaria had been replicated across Germany. In our own time, it is noticeable that the only countries in Europe still holding back or limiting the silent, modern holocaust of abortion are predominantly Catholic democracies: the countries of Ireland, Poland, Malta and, for the present, Spain. The only part of the United Kingdom where the government does not dare to impose abortion is Northern Ireland, where Catholics and Protestants work together to prevent it. In the United States, by contrast, where one in six voters are Catholic, it is sobering that we have not done more to encourage respect and legal protection for the sanctity of human life. And this in a society where one in five people, more than forty-eight million people, are missing, because although they were conceived they were not permitted to be born.
When confronting the apparent strength of the forces arrayed against Christian civilization, it is easy to be intimidated by the gathering darkness. Under these circumstances, it is encouraging to recall the words of the greatest British Prime Minister of the twentieth century, Winston Churchill. In the dark days of 1940, just before the Battle of Britain, Churchill made an extraordinary speech preparing the nation for the coming conflict. He said, “Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization ... if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science.”  My dear brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ, the Second World War ended in military victory, but the battle against the enemy's policies - eugenics, euthanasia, disrespect for the sanctity of human life and the extermination of those deemed unfit to live - this battle continues right now in western countries. Let us pray for our countries, let us become better educated about the issues and become politically engaged. Jesus Christ called his followers the 'light of the world'; let us not be lights hidden under baskets.
Father Andrew Pinsent, St Ambrose Church, St Louis, 19th October 2008
© Fr Andrew Pinsent. Academic Web Site.