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“Christians render to Caesar only what belongs to Caesar, not what belongs to God.”

I.

On December 20, at their request, the Editors of the London Financial Times published a column by Benedict XVI. In the L’Osservatore Romano reprint (January 3, 2013), it was entitled “Christians Without Compromise.” At the end of the column, the Financial Times’ editors amusingly, in my view, succinctly identify the author as “The Bishop of Rome and author of Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives.” Obviously, the title “Bishop of Rome” is accurate. But it is also in conformity with Anglican theology, which does not recognize the Primacy Office of Peter continuing in the present Pope.

The Pope began his comments by citing what is certainly the most famous and consequential passage in the New Testament about politics, namely, the “Render to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God” (see Mt 22:15-22). Benedict immediately pointed out that this response had to do with the legitimacy of paying taxes. It was asked to “trap” Jesus. The Pharisees wanted to draw Christ into current politics by presenting Him with a dilemma. If He was the awaited Messiah, surely He would oppose Roman occupation of Palestine. Thus He was “either a threat to the regime or a fraud.”

Jesus’ response avoided the trap. At the same time, He raised the level of discourse for both the Romans and the Jews. Implicitly, Jesus warned about the “politicizing of religion and the deification of the state.” Both politics and religion have a proper place. They need not be enemies except when either politicization or deification occurs. The Jews needed to recognize their Messiah would not be a Caesar. The Romans needed to know their Caesar was not God. Jesus did come to establish a “Kingdom.” But it would be of a “higher order.” At His trial, He told Pilate bluntly that His Kingdom was not “of this world.”

Next, Benedict turns to the “Christmas stories in the New Testament.” A similar message is found here. Jesus’s birth takes place in Bethlehem because of a census edict of Caesar Augustus, the first emperor of the Romans. He brought all the conquered lands into some form of higher administrative unity. Christ is born in an obscure place in this Empire. He would open to the world a “far greater peace” than that of the Pax Romana. The peace that Christ offers “transcends the limitations of space and time.” 

How so? How is Jesus presented in the New Testament? He is the “heir” of King David.” His liberation is not about armies and conquering enemies. Rather it deals with freeing us from “sin and death forever.” The birth of Christ causes us to question our priorities and values. Christmas is a time of glad tidings, of “great joy.”

But Christmas should also cause reflection, even “examination of conscience.” The Pope then notes that the year ending has brought economic hardships, so what can we learn from a man born in poverty in a manger? We can use Christmas time to read afresh the Gospels where this same Child is “recognized as God made Man.” Here the Pope, qua Pope, is affirming, reminding us what in fact happened in Bethlehem, and to whom it happened..

The inspiration for our “daily affairs”—be it in the Houses of Parliament or the Stock Exchange—comes to Christians from this same Gospel. To engage in political or economic life is to be encouraged but in a way that “transcends every form of ideology.” This latter avoidance in our day, of course, is not easy. An ideology is an explanation of things that usually does not leave itself open to any real transcendence or openness to what is.

II. 

In fighting poverty, Benedict explains, Christians begin not with the fact of poverty but by recognizing “the supreme dignity of every human being created in God’s image and destined for eternal life.” This recognition in the poor, rich, and those in-between is the real basis for the Christian presence in the world. It transcends every political and economic form. It includes the individual persons of all stages of growth and rank in any place or any worldly condition whether they accept it or not.

Benedict adds that “Christians should work for a more equitable sharing of the earth’s resources out of a belief that, as stewards of God’s creation, we have a duty to care for the weaker and most vulnerable.” When I read a sentence like this, especially in a place like the Financial Times, it strikes me as approaching the problem from the wrong, that is, “sharing” or “distribution” side and not from the production or creation side. Moreover, the “sharing” itself should not primarily be understood as a simple giving or taking care. It should be seen as the result of normal work and markets wherein everyone is involved. There is nothing socialists of all stripes love more than the notion of their being in charge, and hence gaining the glory, of distributing other people’s goods to the poor through state benevolence as if the goods come without effort.

The Pope adds that “Christians oppose greed and exploitation out of a conviction that generosity and selfless love, as taught by Jesus of Nazareth, are the way that leads to the fullness of life.” But it is not only generosity and selfless love that are opposed to greed and exploitation. The latter are also opposed by innovation and normal work that provide the basic conditions of everyone earning their own way.

Benedict recognizes that others who are not Christian understand many of these things. But Christians draw a line. “Christians render to Caesar only what belongs to Caesar, not what belongs to God.” In many eras in history, Christians have been “unable” to do what Caesar demanded. The Pope brings this principle up-to-date. “When Christians refuse to bow down before the false gods proposed today, it is not because of an antiquated world view.” In both subtle and overt ways, we are more and more asked—and threatened—by the state to embrace principles and deeds that are objectively immoral. We never thought it would come to this situation, but it has. Since Christians are “free from ideology,” they can reject the rationale given for obeying only Caesar.

Benedict ends his column in the Financial Times with an interesting take on the crib scenes in Italy. There Christ is pictured as being born amidst the ruins of ancient Rome. “This shows that the birth of the child, Jesus, marks the end of the old order, the pagan world, in which Caesar’s claim was virtually unchallenged.”

In the ruins a new King is seen arising. He has no arms. He does have love. He brings hope to all, even the lowliest. We are to live as “citizens of His heavenly Kingdom.” The Pope ends with these words: This is a Kingdom “all people of good will can help to build here on earth.” The “building of the Kingdom of God on earth,” in the history of political philosophy, has been frequently used, as Augustine saw, to justify elevation politics over religion.

What Benedict is saying here, in effect, is that the legitimate goals of politics and economics will not come about even on earth until the issue of the transcendent purpose and destiny of each human person is recognized. As he said in Spe Salvi, the whole ethos of the modern age has been driven by the effort to replace the eschatological ends of faith with political, social, scientific, and economic accomplishments in this world.

Benedict argues, to the contrary, that much improvement will come to the world itself only when it has its priorities right about what we can hope for in this world and what is our eternal destiny. This relationship is what he wanted to readers of the Financial Times to understand and embrace.

 
About the Author
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James V. Schall, S.J. 

James V. Schall, S.J. taught political philosophy at Georgetown University until recently retiring. He is the author of numerous books and countless essays on philosophy, theology, education, morality, and other topics. His most recent book is Reasonable Pleasures: The Strange Coherences of Catholicism (Ignatius Press). Visit his site, "Another Sort of Learning", for more about his writings and work.
 
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