Archbishop Chaput: Christians must live out their faith in the public square
RENDER UNTO CAESAR:
Serving the Nation by Living Our Catholic Beliefs in Political Life
Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap
(Doubleday, 2008, 258pp, hard cover, $44.95. Available from Freedom Publishing)
Reviewed by Tim Cannon
We know the story well: scheming Pharisees and Herodians conspire to catch Jesus out. 'Should we pay the tax to Caesar or not?' they ask. It was a classic damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don't question. But Jesus pulls the rug from beneath his detractors' feet: 'Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's'.
As Archbishop Charles J. Chaput of Denver demonstrates in his recently published book Render Unto Caesar, the episode is more than just a witty exchange in which Our Lord has the final word. Rather, it raises the question as to what belongs to Caesar, and what belongs to God, and in turn the complex relationship between Church and State, and a Christian's role in society.
Exclusion of religion
Archbishop Chaput's book is a timely contribution to a debate presently dominated by non- and anti- religious ideologues, who argue ever more aggressively for the elimination of all traces of religion from the political realm.
Religion, it is claimed, is a private matter to be confined to the private lives of citizens, especially when those citizens are politicians or public officials.
The Archbishop's response to such a claim is insightful and articulate, with much to offer Catholics, non-Catholics, the politically active and the politically apathetic alike.
While the issues are addressed from a distinctly US viewpoint, there is much of value for non-Americans as the author leads us through a rich historical, theological and political landscape. He demonstrates not only that any attempt to expel religion from the public domain is liable to cause grave harm to society, but also that the Church and her members are duty bound to strive for a society whose laws and structures are ordered towards the good, and are in conformity with the natural law - God's law, to which all man-made laws are necessarily subordinate.
As society's moral compass spins awry, the Archbishop places the task of rehabilitation squarely on the shoulders of the Christian faithful, whose mission today is no different from that of the twelve apostles: to go out to all the world and tell the Good News.
But Christ's call for the faithful to love and serve one another has political consequences since the pursuit of justice - which is the goal of politics - is a public manifestation of love of neighbour. As the author notes, for Christians, 'Actively witnessing to and advancing what we believe to be true about key moral issues in public life is not 'coercion'. It's honesty.'
Of course actively witnessing to the faith is no mean feat. To do so, Christians must overcome the modern, technology-fuelled propensity to distraction and the complacency resulting from abundant material comfort.
The author also urges American Catholics to address the serious distortions and deficiencies in their knowledge and understanding of America's unique Catholic heritage. Current hostility to the Catholic Church must be understood within the context of an historical antipathy for 'papists', he argues.
What is more, the Catholic Church has long been a stalwart in the struggle for the protection of human rights in America, for which it has frequently earned public praise. Although praise for the Church's opposition to abortion and euthanasia is all but non-existent in the mainstream media today, the Archbishop shows that it is the Church's tradition of defence of human life and human rights which has remained steadfast, while society's viewpoint lacks consistency.
He also tackles misconceptions regarding the separation of Church and State as enunciated by the Second Vatican Council, rejecting claims that it delivered a mandate for governments to prevent religion from interfering in the political process in any way shape or form.
The author suggests that the apparent ease with which so many Christians isolate their faith from the rest of their lives has been instrumental in effectively validating calls for Christianity to be banished from the public domain. If so-called Christians can attend church on Sunday, but for the rest of the week live lives totally bereft of God's presence, then why shouldn't religion be excluded from public life?
Personal renewal and spiritual growth are therefore vital in countering the mission of removing religion from the public realm. It is a credit to the author that in setting such a monumental task before the reader, he maintains an enthusiastic, hopeful and encouraging tone. These are the thoughts of a man deeply in love with the Church and with Jesus Christ, supremely confident in Christ's power to transform the world, and fiercely loyal to the Church's teachings, her leaders and her saints.
The book abounds with anecdotes of men and women who exemplify the ways in which the Christian vocation, if authentically and faithfully lived, can bring to bear political change which truly reflects God's love. The lives of Dr Martin Luther King Jr, St Thomas More, Popes Benedict XVI and John Paul II, and many others, are woven by the author into a message which is genuinely inspirational.
Render Unto Caesar is a thoroughly enjoyable, thought-provoking and challenging read, and Archbishop Chaput's intelligence, breadth of research, and pastoral nature leap off every page. Aware that many in the Church (and outside the Church) are in desperate need of guidance, he provides a thoughtful and practical guide to assist well-intentioned Christians, regardless of their political persuasion, to put their faith into action in the political realm, and in doing so, to participate in Christ's mission of the salvation of the world.
Tim Cannon is a research assistant with the Thomas More Centre.