February 27, 2009

CLEARING UP DOUG KMIEC'S MORAL CONFUSION:

Rendering Unto Caesar: The Catholic Political Vocation: The following lecture was delivered on Monday evening, February 23, 2009, to a standing-room only audience in St. Basil’s Collegiate Church on the campus of the University of Toronto. (ARCHBISHOP CHARLES J. CHAPUT, O.F.M. CAP, CERC)

I think the message of Render Unto Caesar can be condensed into a few basic points.

Here's the first point. For many years, studies have shown that Americans have a very poor sense of history. That's very dangerous, because as Thucydides and Machiavelli and Thomas Jefferson have all said, history matters. It matters because the past shapes the present, and the present shapes the future. If Catholics don't know history, and especially their own history as Catholics, then somebody else -- and usually somebody not very friendly -- will create their history for them.

Let me put it another way. A man with amnesia has no future and no present because he can't remember his past. The past is a man's anchor in experience and reality. Without it, he may as well be floating in space. In like manner, if we Catholics don't remember and defend our religious history as a believing people, nobody else will, and then we won't have a future because we won't have a past. If we don't know how the Church worked with or struggled against political rulers in the past, then we can't think clearly about the relations between Church and state today.

We need to be very forceful in clarifying what the words in our political vocabulary really mean. Words are important because they shape our thinking, and our thinking drives our actions.

Here's the second point, and it's a place where the Canadian and American experiences may diverge. America is not a secular state. As historian Paul Johnson once said, America was "born Protestant." It has uniquely and deeply religious roots. Obviously it has no established Church, and it has non-sectarian public institutions. It also has plenty of room for both believers and non-believers. But the United States was never intended to be a "secular" country in the radical modern sense. Nearly all the Founders were either Christian or at least religion-friendly. And all of our public institutions and all of our ideas about the human person are based in a religiously shaped vocabulary. So if we cut God out of our public life, we also cut the foundation out from under our national ideals.

Here's the third point. We need to be very forceful in clarifying what the words in our political vocabulary really mean. Words are important because they shape our thinking, and our thinking drives our actions. When we subvert the meaning of words like "the common good" or "conscience" or "community" or "family," we undermine the language that sustains our thinking about the law. Dishonest language leads to dishonest debate and bad laws.

Here's an example. 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.

Here's the fourth point. When Jesus tells the Pharisees and Herodians in the Gospel of Matthew (22:21) to "render unto the Caesar the things that are Caesar's and to God the things that are God's," he sets the framework for how we should think about religion and the state even today. 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.

So having said all this, what does a book like Render Unto Caesar mean, in practice, for each of us as individual Catholics? It means that we each have a duty to study and grow in our faith, guided by the teaching of the Church. It also means that 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.

As Christians, we can't claim to love God and then ignore the needs of our neighbors. Loving God is like loving a spouse. A husband may tell his wife that he loves her, and of course that's very beautiful. But she'll still want to see the proof in his actions. Likewise if we claim to be "Catholic," we need to prove it by our behavior. And serving other people by working for justice, charity and truth in our nation's political life is one of the very important ways we do that.

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.



Posted by Orrin Judd at February 27, 2009 7:35 AM
blog comments powered by Disqus
« ONE FASCINATING THING ABOUT THE BOOK THOUGH...: | Main | ET TU, BARRACK?: »