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God and Ceasar


Roman Forum, Rome, Italy

Homily for the 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Click here for the YouTube video version from the 10 AM Sunday Mass 

In this Sunday’s gospel passage, we see that Jesus is caught in a real predicament.   The dilemma is compounded by the fact that two bitterly opposing sects, the Pharisees and the Herodians, have joined forces to attack Jesus.

Had Jesus said that paying the tax was unlawful, the Pharisees and the Herodians would promptly have reported the matter to the Roman officials and his arrest would have quickly followed.  Had he answered that it was lawful to pay the tax, he would have damaged his reputation before the Jewish people who resented paying tax to an invading government.

“Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God” (Matthew 22: 21).  With this distinctive answer Jesus establishes a teaching which goes beyond the needs and circumstances of his own times and serves as a guiding principle for all generations.

All of the baptized enjoy a dual citizenship.  We are citizens of the country of our birth or political allegiance, and we are citizens of the kingdom of heaven.  Ideally, these two citizenships should not clash, but sometimes they do.

Jesus calls us to be good citizens of both kingdoms, but many times conflicts do arise which cause the citizens of the heavenly kingdom to take a stand in defense of the truth.

Many people consider Jesus’ words to justify a complete separation between religion and government.

This is not the meaning of his teaching.

According to Jesus’ words, all forms of law draw their authority from God.  Thus, civil law must be in conformity with the moral law.  Here is where the dilemma lies for all disciples of Jesus.

What course of action must one take when the civil law violates or contradicts the moral law?

The issues of slavery, segregation, abortion, euthanasia, and same-sex marriage are vivid examples of issues where many Christians have been drawn into conflict.

Thankfully, the sad American experience of slavery has been resolved. More and more advances are being made to eliminate racism from our culture although the news is filled with many sad tensions and conflicts. However, the dark clouds of legalized abortion, the continual threat of legalized euthanasia, and the aggressive onslaught on marriage hang over our heads.

Throughout her long history, the Catholic Church has always pointed out that civil law must conform to the moral law.  Public opinion does not make something right or wrong; the objective moral law does.  Thus, not only Catholic politicians, but also all men and women in public life have an objective moral criterion to follow.

When a civil law is not in conformity with the moral law, it is an unjust law.  Legalized slavery, for example, was an unjust law.  Legalized forms of segregation were unjust laws.  Legalized abortion is an unjust law.  Legalized euthanasia is an unjust law.  Legalized same-sex marriage is an unjust law.  Slavery, segregation, abortion, euthanasia, and same-sex marriage are in essence contrary to the objective moral law, and therefore, no human law can claim them to be legitimate.

The teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas explains this point with great clarity when he writes that “human law is law inasmuch as it is in conformity with right reason and thus derives from the eternal law.  But when a law is contrary to reason, it is called an unjust law; but in this case it ceases to be a law and becomes an act of violence” (Summa Theologiae, I-II, q. 93, a.3, ad 2).  Furthermore he goes on to say: “Every law made by man can be called a law insofar as it derives from the natural law.  But if it is somehow opposed to the natural law, then it is not really a law but rather a corruption of the law” (Summa Theologiae, I-II, q. 95, a.2).

Pope John Paul II in his monumental encyclical letter Evangelium Vitae wrote: “Democracy cannot be idolized to the point of making it a substitute for morality or a panacea for immorality” (E.U. 70.4).  “It is therefore urgently necessary, for the future of society and the development of a sound democracy, to rediscover those essential and innate human and moral values which flow from the very truth of the human being and express and safeguard the dignity of the person: values which no individual, no majority and no State can ever create, modify or destroy, but must only acknowledge, respect and promote” (E.U. 71.1).

“Then repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God” (Matthew 22: 21).  These famous words of Jesus do not mean that civil law must operate in such a way that it has no reference whatsoever to the objective moral law.

The Founding Fathers of our nation understood the correct relationship between civil law and moral law.  James Madison, for example, once said, “We have staked the whole future of American civilization, not upon the power of government, far from it. We have staked the future of all of our political institutions…upon the capacity of each and all of us to govern ourselves, to control ourselves, to sustain ourselves according to the Ten Commandments of God.” 

George Washington, our first president, said, “It is impossible to rightly govern the world without God and the Bible. Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.  And let us indulge with caution the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion.  Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail to the exclusion of religious principle. The smiles of heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right, which heaven itself ordained.”

Patrick Henry said, “Whether this new government will prove a blessing or a curse will depend upon the use our people make of the blessings which a gracious God hath bestowed on us. If they are wise, they will be great and happy. If they are of a contrary character, they will be miserable. Righteousness alone can exalt them as a nation. Reader: whoever thou art, remember this, and in thy sphere practice virtue thyself and encourage it in others.”

Finally, Thomas Jefferson said, “Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath? I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever.”

In his bestseller “Render unto Caesar,” Archbishop Charles J. Chaput wrote: “We Christians are in the world but not of the world.  We belong to God, and our home is heaven.  But we’re here for a reason: to change the world, for the sake of the world, in the name of Jesus Christ.  The work belongs to us.  Nobody will do it for us.  And the idea that we can accomplish it without engaging in a hands-on way the laws, the structures, the public policies, the habits of mind, and the root causes that sustain injustice in our country is a delusion” (page 46).

The most urgent mission at hand for the Catholic Church in America is the creation of a new culture of life.

If we can kill an innocent child in the womb of a mother and that no longer shocks us as a nation, then nothing will shock us.

Unending wars, violence and social injustices will continue.

Discouragement, fear and even despair will fill the minds and hearts of many people.

They will respond by not reading or watching the news, but the collapse of society will continue.

Abortion undermines civil order because it affirms that everyone is not equal under the law.

Let us remember the haunting words of Mother Theresa: “Any country that accepts abortion is not teaching its people to love, but to use violence to get what they want. That is why the greatest destroyer of love and peace is abortion.”

Fix the abortion problem and we fix the country.  We have a moral obligation to participate in the political life of our country by voting and we have a moral obligation to vote for those candidates who will do all that they can to end legalized abortion.

This does not mean that we become single issue voters.  It does mean that we recognize that abortion is an intrinsic evil and the greatest of all evils.  On the list of things that are evil, abortion is number one on the list.  Fix the abortion problem and go on to the next issue.