Thursday, February 26, 2009

Rendering to Caesar

Archbishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Denver, the Most Rev'd Charles J. Chaput, had some strong words for how to navigate the current political situation. In an age when the powers of the state - especially the federal government - are expanding and encroaching on various parts of our social and economic lives, he offers a sane critique that is distinctly Christian, catholic, and American. That it comes from the lips of the second Native American to be granted episcopal rank should lend credit to his words. In dealing with Caesar, this man carries the historical memory of his office through the gift of apostolic succession and the DNA-bound memory of a people who were robbed of their land by promises of phony goods and assurances of protected status.

The speech is in promotion of his new book, Render Unto Caesar. This isn't the first time the man has spoken with clarity and conviction on the issues of how Christian citizens are to behave in a republic. He's provided consistent leadership in the election, and I pray the whole house of Roman Catholic bishops in the US - as well as bishops in other judicatories - listen to this man who is made a chief shepherd in the flock of God. Below are some snippets:
We need to remember that tolerance is not a Christian virtue. Charity, justice, mercy, prudence, honesty – these are Christian virtues. And obviously, in a diverse community, tolerance is an important working principle. But it’s never an end itself. In fact, tolerating grave evil within a society is itself a form of serious evil. Likewise, democratic pluralism does not mean that Catholics should be quiet in public about serious moral issues because of some misguided sense of good manners. A healthy democracy requires vigorous moral debate to survive. Real pluralism demands that people of strong beliefs will advance their convictions in the public square – peacefully, legally and respectfully, but energetically and without embarrassment. Anything less is bad citizenship and a form of theft from the public conversation.

Caesar does have rights. We owe civil authority our respect and appropriate obedience. But that obedience is limited by what belongs to God. Caesar is not God. Only God is God, and the state is subordinate and accountable to God for its treatment of human persons, all of whom were created by God. Our job as believers is to figure out what things belong to Caesar, and what things belong to God -- and then put those things in right order in our own lives, and in our relations with others.

[As Christians] we have a duty to be politically engaged. Why? Because politics is the exercise of power, and the use of power always has moral content and human consequences.

The “separation of Church and state” does not mean – and it can never mean – separating our Catholic faith from our public witness, our political choices and our political actions. That kind of separation would require Christians to deny who we are; to repudiate Jesus when he commands us to be “leaven in the world” and to “make disciples of all nations.” That kind of radical separation steals the moral content of a society. It’s the equivalent of telling a married man that he can’t act married in public. Of course, he can certainly do that, but he won’t stay married for long.

“To suggest -- as some Catholics do -- that Senator Obama is this year’s ‘real’ prolife candidate requires a peculiar kind of self-hypnosis, or moral confusion, or worse. To portray the 2008 Democratic Party presidential ticket as the preferred ‘prolife’ option is to subvert what the word ‘prolife’ means.”

I like clarity, and there’s a reason why. I think modern life, including life in the Church, suffers from a phony unwillingness to offend that poses as prudence and good manners, but too often turns out to be cowardice. Human beings owe each other respect and appropriate courtesy. But we also owe each other the truth -- which means candor.

President Obama is a man of intelligence and some remarkable gifts. He has a great ability to inspire, as we saw from his very popular visit to Canada just this past week. But whatever his strengths, there’s no way to reinvent his record on abortion and related issues with rosy marketing about unity, hope and change.

I think Catholics – and I mean here mainly American Catholics – need to remember four simple things in the months ahead.

First, all political leaders draw their authority from God. We owe no leader any submission or cooperation in the pursuit of grave evil. In fact, we have the duty to change bad laws and resist grave evil in our public life, both by our words and our non-violent actions. The truest respect we can show to civil authority is the witness of our Catholic faith and our moral convictions, without excuses or apologies.

Second, in democracies, we elect public servants, not messiahs. It’s worth recalling that despite two ugly wars, an unpopular Republican president, a fractured Republican party, the support of most of the American news media and massively out-spending his opponent, our new president actually trailed in the election polls the week before the economic meltdown. This subtracts nothing from the legitimacy of his office. It also takes nothing away from our obligation to respect the president’s leadership.

But it does place some of today’s talk about a “new American mandate” in perspective. Americans, including many Catholics, elected a gifted man to fix an economic crisis. That’s the mandate. They gave nobody a mandate to retool American culture on the issues of marriage and the family, sexuality, bioethics, religion in public life and abortion. That retooling could easily happen, and it clearly will happen -- but only if Catholics and other religious believers allow it. It’s instructive to note that the one lesson many activists on the American cultural left learned from their loss in the 2004 election -- and then applied in 2008 -- was how to use a religious vocabulary while ignoring some of the key beliefs and values that religious people actually hold dear.

Every new election cycle I hear from unhappy, self-described Catholics who complain that abortion is too much of a litmus test. But isn’t that exactly what it should be? One of the defining things that set early Christians apart from the pagan culture around them was their respect for human life; and specifically their rejection of abortion and infanticide. We can’t be Catholic and be evasive or indulgent about the killing of unborn life. We can’t claim to be “Catholic” and “pro-choice” at the same time without owning the responsibility for where the choice leads – to a dead unborn child. We can’t talk piously about programs to reduce the abortion body count without also working vigorously to change the laws that make the killing possible. If we’re Catholic, then we believe in the sanctity of developing human life. And if we don’t really believe in the humanity of the unborn child from the moment life begins, then we should stop lying to ourselves and others, and even to God, by claiming we’re something we’re not.

Catholic social teaching goes well beyond abortion. In America we have many urgent issues that beg for our attention, from immigration reform to health care to poverty to homelessness. The Church in Denver and throughout the United States is committed to all these issues. We need to do a much better job of helping women who face problem pregnancies, and American bishops have been pressing our public leaders for that for more than 30 years. But we don’t “help” anyone by allowing or funding an intimate, lethal act of violence. We can’t build a just society with the blood of unborn children. The right to life is the foundation of every other human right -- and if we ignore it, sooner or later every other right becomes politically contingent.

...for Christians, hope is a virtue, not an emotional crutch or a political slogan. Virtus, the Latin root of virtue, means strength or courage. Real hope is unsentimental. It has nothing to do with the cheesy optimism of election campaigns. Hope assumes and demands a spine in believers. And that’s why – at least for a Christian -- hope sustains us when the real answer to the problems or hard choices in life is “no, we can’t,” instead of “yes, we can.”

The word “hope” on a campaign poster may give us a little thrill of righteousness, but the world will still be a wreck when the drug wears off. We can only attain hope through truth. And what that means is this: From the moment Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life,” the most important political statement anyone can make is “Jesus Christ is Lord.”
Read the rest here.

1 comment:

Viola Larson said...

Chris, Thank you for posting this. It is fresh air in a stale world. We need more Presbyterians that sound stand for Jesus Christ like that. He actually in parts sounds like the Declaration of Barmen. The part that has to do with state versus the church.


“ 8.22 - 5. "Fear God. Honor the emperor." (1 Peter 2:17.)
Scripture tells us that, in the as yet unredeemed world in which the Church also exists, the State has by divine appointment the task of providing for justice and peace. [It fulfills this task] by means of the threat and exercise of force, according to the measure of human judgment and human ability. The Church acknowledges the benefit of this divine appointment in gratitude and reverence before him. It calls to mind the Kingdom of God, God's commandment and righteousness, and thereby the responsibility both of rulers and of the ruled. It trusts and obeys the power of the Word by which God upholds all things.

8.23 We reject the false doctrine, as though the State, over and beyond its special commission, should and could become the single and totalitarian order of human life, thus fulfilling the Church's vocation as well.

8.24 We reject the false doctrine, as though the Church, over and beyond its special commission, should and could appropriate the characteristics, the tasks, and the dignity of the State, thus itself becoming an organ of the State.