Caesar Is Not God
by Ryan McMaken by Ryan McMaken
In a recent speech in Toronto, Charles Chaput, the Archbishop of Denver, condemned what he called "a spirit of adulation bordering on servility" that surrounds Barack Obama and his administration. "We elect public servants, not messiahs," said Chaput. And while the term "public servant" is perhaps an outrageously benign term for any president since Coolidge, the point is well taken from Chaput, who I can only assume has grown weary of hearing from parishioners that the new president will make lame beggars walk and blind men see.
Chaput goes on to say that "We owe no leader any submission or cooperation in the pursuit of grave evil," and that "we have a duty to change bad laws and resist grave evil in our public life."
So when exactly is this sort of resistance acceptable?
Chaput’s words can be applied generally as we shall see, but in this particular case, the Archbishop is referring to the Obama administration’s position on abortion. This position, Chaput notes, contrary even to Bill Clinton’s position that abortions should be safe, legal, and rare, "is not only aggressively u2018pro-choice’; it has also removed any suggestion that killing an unborn child might be a regrettable thing."
From Chaput’s perspective as a Catholic bishop, unborn children are humans with the same natural rights as toddlers and adults. So when a conscientious bishop finds himself confronted with a civil government that turns a blind eye to what the Church sees as a major form of violence against millions of individuals, he is left to confront what sort of obedience is due to such a government.
Clearly, Chaput believes that abortion is a "grave evil" and therefore "[w]e owe no leader" who supports abortion "any submission or cooperation" on the matter. But what of other issues? What else counts as "grave evil," and under what other circumstances might resistance to the state be justified?
Resistance against civil government has been a Catholic tradition since the very beginning. The martyrs of the ancient world who died rather than submit to the laws of the Roman Empire are still venerated today, and modern martyrs like Miguel Pro and the Cristeros continue to inspire believers. Since the first century, resistance to the state has always been permitted under the proper circumstances, although violent resistance is held to a much higher standard.
To understand the nature of Catholic resistance, one must understand the proper role of civil government in the Catholic world view. From the Catholic perspective, the central purpose of civil government (which need not take the form of a modern state) is simple. Civil government exists to protect persons from violence and aggression by others, and to provide for the common good. This is not "common good" vaguely defined as "national security" might be today. The common good is good that is common to everyone. Outlawing murder, for example, is in the interest of the common good, because no one, not even murderers, truly benefits from murder. A civil government that fails to do this is not a legitimate government. Thus, such a government must be resisted and certainly need not be hailed, praised, obeyed, or applauded. This position, explicitly stated, goes back at least to Thomas Aquinas, and less explicitly, back to the early Church Fathers.
Any government or state that acts in the interests of the state itself, or for a particular class, or which fails to maintain the rule of law that protects natural rights, is in fact illegitimate and may be morally overthrown. Historically speaking, the church hierarchy is rarely ever seen encouraging armed resistance, but for Aquinas, even regicide was acceptable if a state were sufficiently corrupt.
But we are still left with the problem of when resistance is justified.
To answer this question, many fall back on Matthew 22 in which Christ, when asked whether or not a believer should pay taxes to the state, notes the emperor’s image on the tax money and declares "render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s."
Much is made of this comment, and it is often presented as a proof that Christ considered even Caesar’s murderous and dictatorial rule to be perfectly legitimate.
This certainly isn’t the Catholic position. Chaput’s comments in Toronto were preceded and clearly based on his book Render Unto Caesar released last year. In the book, Chaput explores the nature of Christ’s comments on Caesar.
While Christ’s words clearly imply that something should be afforded Caesar, it is not at all clear as to what that might be. In sermons, Chaput in the past has noted that the early Church Fathers had one clever answer: Since the Roman coin that was to be rendered unto Caesar bore Caesar’s image, then that which bears God’s image should be rendered unto God. Since every human person bears God’s image, then humanity itself belongs to God while some coinage belongs to Caesar. This isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement of Caesar’s power.
In his book, Chaput reiterates this point by noting that while civil government might be afforded authority when acting justly, free will, beauty, moral integrity, goodness, and immortal souls all belong not to the state but to God.
But perhaps most important in this passage from Matthew is the fact that a significant dichotomy exists between Caesar and God. For the oriental despotisms of the ancient world, and certainly for the "divine" Caesars of the late Roman Empire, there was not division between god and Caesar at all. Yet, here is Christ making is quite clear that Caesar is not God and God is not Caesar.
In his book Jesus of Nazareth, Pope Benedict XVI writes about just how subversive this message was. The very language of early Christianity mocked the pretense of divinity among rulers of the Roman Empire. Benedict notes that in the days of the early Church, "Son of God" was a title claimed by the Emperors, and when the emperors sent out edicts to be read to the masses these proclamations were called "euangelions." So, the fact that the Christians would claim that writings about their Christ would be called euangelions and that Christ himself (and Christ only) should be called Son of God, provided a direct challenge to the Roman state.
Consequently, philosopher Rémi Brague, whom Chaput approvingly quotes in his book, writes that "from the start, Christianity set itself outside of the political domain, and its founding texts bear witness to a distrust of things political."
So what can we take away from this? We know that governments and their agents are not imbued with any kind of divine power. We know that Christians of all time periods have morally opposed the state, and we know that states are only legitimate when acting in the common good and in accordance with natural law.
But when exactly is civil government in accordance with natural law?
This is where Chaput is hesitant to offer any solid prescriptions. While this has disappointed many of his readers who expected him to put forth some kind of political ideology, Chaput wisely refrains from this. This is the position he has to take since, as Chaput notes, "the church has no special claim to policy competence." In other words, on matters of faith and morals, the Church can provide doctrinal certainty, but on everything else, the interpretation of natural law depends on the economists and philosophers and physical scientists.
This means that what counts as "grave evil," and demands a withholding of "any submission or cooperation" can vary depending on how one defines it. As libertarians, we define most government action as a type of unjust aggression against individuals. If individuals are taxed to fund abortions and unjust wars and police brutality and a nuclear arsenal, is not the very act of taxation a form of grave evil? If millions are impoverished by outrageous economic policies and the wealth of millions more is stolen through inflation and government spending that leads to economic collapse, is this not evil as well?
The answer to all of this is yes, of course. A state that impoverishes and kills and destroys, and all at enormous expense to taxpaying families, most certainly does not act for the common good. Nor does such a state even keep the peace when wars rage constantly overseas and the police state grows to proportions never before seen in American history. Yet, it remains to be seen how many Americans, let alone how many Catholics, agree with this assessment.
Catholic libertarians should take note. Libertarian political theory, itself grounded in natural law theory and a profound respect for human rights and human dignity, still has much work to do, but this tradition can only supplement and strengthen the traditional Catholic views of the state.
Chaput’s assessment of “a spirit of adulation bordering on servility” that surrounds Obama is sound enough, but if skepticism toward the government is warranted now, it was just as warranted in 2003 when the American state invaded Iraq with no justification and in obvious violation of Catholic Just War theory. And skepticism was certainly warranted during the six years of complete Republican rule when the GOP did not once even attempt to end taxpayer subsidies to Planned Parenthood while simultaneously demonizing Planned Parenthood in fundraising letters.
Distrust and skepticism of the state is a Catholic tradition, and is warranted now as always. Nevertheless, it is a shame that it has taken this long for an American bishop to say so.
Ryan McMaken [send him mail] teaches political science in Colorado.