God and Caesar
Fr. Joseph Rampino
“Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God.” This saying of Jesus which we hear today in the Gospel acts as a touchstone for our interaction in public and civic life as Catholics. How fitting that we should hear this reading today, so close to the upcoming elections for president and other government offices. With each civic decision we make, we need to be asking ourselves, “am I giving to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s?”
First, what does it that famous phrase really mean? What really belongs to Caesar, and what really belongs to God? We should remember that Christ speaks this axiom when given a coin with the image of the emperor. He speaks of giving the image back to its owner, rendering each representation to the person who is depicted. This is the key for our understanding as well.
The State, the structure and institutions of civic life are things made in the image of humanity for the sake of the common good of humanity. These are the things that belong to Caesar. There is always room for debate with regards to systems of governments, the framing of laws, the execution of governance, social institutions and supports, and the structures that uphold our common life as public citizens. The Church enumerates principles by which we can judge what is good in this realm, such as human dignity, solidarity, and subsidiarity, but she never endorses one form of governance or tool of statecraft as necessary, or as automatically superior. The things that belong to Caesar are to be given to Caesar for adjudication.
Yet, there is another image at play. While the State is in the image of humanity, humanity itself is in the image and likeness of God. The things that deal with the dignity of the image of God, that deal with moral and spiritual realities, the things that are most human and constitute our likeness to God, belong to God alone. These are the things that no state has any right to change or decide. In particular, we can say that the truth that human dignity is inviolable from conception to natural death, that affronts to that dignity in the form of abortion, racism, abuse, or euthanasia are always wrong, belongs to God and not to Caesar. This truth, and other truths about what it means to be human, are God’s domain, and never the domain of the State. The Church can speak on such matters with real authority, and the State cannot, no matter what power it claims to have.
So again, we may ask: do I return to Caesar what is his? To I return to God what is God’s? Do I make this distinction in my civic opinions and choices? To I try to confine or reduce God to one form of political action acceptable in my eyes? Do I try to offer to the State and public opinion the sorts of things that are God’s to decide? If we give to both God and Caesar what is their due, we practice true justice, which is the pre-requisite for peace. With that principle and virtue at the heart of our public action, we can do great good for the world which God loves so much.