Church and State today: What should Catholics do with politics?

In recent decades there’s been a tendency to identify the things of God with those of Caesar. That’s a serious problem.

My monthly column is called “Ecclesia et Civitas” because it mostly has to do with the relation between the Church and the secular community.

That’s a hard topic to get a handle on.

We are told to “render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” But the saying marks a divide without explaining it, and some say it’s a trick answer to a trick question.

In recent decades there’s been a tendency to solve the problem by identifying the things of God with those of Caesar. People fold love of God into love of neighbor, interpret the latter by reference to current secular understandings of what is good, and identify practice of the Faith with political action. So the Faith turns into secular progressivism using Christian language, and the Kingdom becomes the transformed society intended to result.

That can’t be right. The eschatological passages in the Gospels reject any notion of salvation through politics or historical development. And more basically, the first of the two great commandments is love of God, not love of neighbor. We are told to love God with heart, soul, strength, and mind, and our neighbor as ourself—a much weaker standard.

That’s obviously the right ordering, since downgrading what is best distorts everything. Love of God is needed to keep love of neighbor sane and genuine. It puts us all in a common setting in which each receives his true value. That makes it possible to love others as we love ourselves: otherwise it can be difficult to love some people at all.

It also makes it possible to understand and order goods properly. If we can’t do that we can’t tell what’s good from what we or others think is good. Morality becomes pushing our preferences on others or uncritical acceptance of theirs. The result is either self-righteous moralism or a conception of love that reduces to accepting, accompanying, and supporting the other in whatever he chooses to do.

Self-righteous moralism has a bad name. Nonjudgmental acceptance, accompaniment, and support now has a good one, even though it leads to its own moralism. But why would anyone want it, even in his own case? We are social beings, and in spite of our weaknesses we aspire to do what is right and good. But we have no way to get there if we make ourselves and our preferences the standard. Why would we want someone else to make them the standard?

It’s evident, then, that politics is not the same as the Faith, and we should put God and not man at the center. But that brings us back to the original question: what should Catholics do with politics?

The situation is complicated by Christianity’s unworldly streak. Jesus denied that his kingdom was a kingdom of this world, and silently accepted the devil’s claim that such kingdoms were his. He didn’t marry, have a home, job, or institutional affiliation, or own anything beyond the clothes on his back. And he spoke of the blessedness of the poor, meek, and humble, and didn’t resist arrest or even defend himself before Pilate.

The unworldliness continued among the early Christians. James 4:4 asks “know you not that the friendship of this world is the enemy of God?” and II Corinthians 6:14-17 advises “bear not the yoke with unbelievers … Go out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing.”

Nor did the conversion of Constantine put an end to such views. The rise of a more worldly Church allied with power led many saints to choose the solitude of the desert. Even today, the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity, and obedience are alive, contemplatives continue to separate themselves from worldly society, and people dream almost as ardently as Saint Francis of living a life like Jesus. And the talk of the “Benedict Option” shows how many ordinary Catholics are feeling the need for some degree of separation.

But those who welcomed the new connection to the Roman state under Constantine and his successors were also right. God created the world because He loves it, so to love God is also to love our neighbor. And love of neighbor includes concern with his practical affairs, and thus at times with politics. The Church needs solitaries, contemplatives, and fools for Christ, but not everyone is called to such things. Saint Francis, unworldly though he was, found the patron he needed in Innocent III, the most politically powerful of popes.

In any event, Christianity doesn’t do away with ordinary duties. Jesus was outraged when people thought they could beg off helping their parents by saying they had set their goods aside for religious purposes. So if you’re a king and a Christian, you should discharge your political responsibilities like a Christian. And when ordinary people have a share in government they should do likewise.

But again, what does that mean? Politics is inherently messy. As a practical matter political order is ultimately founded on war. And the day-to-day operation of government involves forcing people to do what they don’t want to do, if necessary with the aid of deadly force. We don’t let them work out their own way in cooperation with others, based on the goals and experience of those involved, we force matters.

That is often necessary and beneficial, but there are limits to what can be achieved that way. That is one reason subsidiarity, allowing as much autonomy as possible to local and informal associations, is so basic to Catholic social teaching. Catholics carry on their most useful public-spirited activities through such associations and not government.

And there are further problems. Getting things done politically involves acquisition of power and working with people who have it. But power is often acquired and used in dubious ways, and if you work with people you have to deal with them as they are and give them something they want. So practical politics routinely means cooperation with evil.

The effect is that politicians, although they may be affected by Christian concerns through conviction or calculation, are rarely saints. Not many people can engage in the rough-and-tumble of politics, with its ambiguities, convenient lies, and need for alliances and horse-trading to get things done, and adhere reliably to Catholic principles regarding double effect and remote cooperation with evil.

Even so, Catholics vote, and politicians need to please them as much as others. And the saints themselves can play a very important role in politics by changing what people aspire to. What view of life do people have? What do they expect from themselves and others? The answers to such questions form the setting in which politicians act and therefore the character of public life.

The greatest contribution the Church can make to political life is to help create that setting. Today the world needs that more than ever. For example, we hear a great deal about nature and ecology. Such concerns are important, and it is good for Catholics to concern themselves with them as citizens, but the Church’s primary mission and expertise have to do with how people relate to God and each other. Her big concern regarding nature and ecology should therefore be human nature—in other words, natural law—and the moral and spiritual ecology of human life. Who will deal with those questions if she doesn’t?

It seems to follow that her great ecological mission at present should be to stand up to those who want to clear cut and pave over family, religion, and evolved cultural community through global technocracy. To that end she doesn’t need solidarity with Jeffrey Sachs, the United Nations, and the Ford Foundation. Nor does she need to accessorize her efforts with images of Mother Nature and appeals to the Noble Savage. What she needs instead is to stand for what she has always stood for: love of God, a conception of morality centered on how each of us carries on his life, and a conception of society that emphasizes its multiplicity and the relative autonomy of its parts as well as its ultimate orientation toward man’s natural goods and to God.

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About James Kalb 132 Articles
James Kalb is a lawyer, independent scholar, and Catholic convert who lives in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of The Tyranny of Liberalism(ISI Books, 2008) and, most recently, Against Inclusiveness: How the Diversity Regime is Flattening America and the West and What to Do About It (Angelico Press, 2013).


  1. Unfortunately Latin bishops need to be reminded of the order of charity and it’s counterpart on the naturallevel with respect to the love of other people.

  2. What the Church needs to do is behave as though it actually believes what it has officially taught for twenty centuries.

    It can’t credibly proclaim God’s mighty love for each and every human being while its bishops debate whether or not the mass murder of two-billion children worldwide in the last fifty years via “legal” abortion is the preeminent issue. Of course it is. How could it not be? If humanity can be disposed of like garbage by the billions, and that is no big deal, exactly what is the basis for being concerned about the plight of migrants or the poor? Aren’t they then just more disposal human garbage? The failure to aggressively defend a huge, innocent, helpless segment of humanity being unjustly sentenced to death undermines the very basis for defending any segment of humanity. The bishops have no credibility until they deal with this realistically.

    The Church’s idolatrous complacency regarding the greatest holocaust of innocent human life in the history of the world is just that — idolatry — because it renders unto Caesar authority over innocent humanity that belongs to God alone.

    What has this idolatry cost Western civilization? Dr. Malcolm Watts, an advocate of “legal” abortion, without meaning to do so, summarized the cost very concisely. Before Roe and after California’s highly controversial “legalization” of abortion, Dr. Watts wrote an editorial, A New Ethic for Medicine and Society, that appeared in the September, 1970 edition of California Medicine. His audience was not that of the local mass media in California — that audience consisted of many who could be easily propagandized. No, his audience was to consist of educated medical professionals who had taken some version of the “First, do no harm” medical oath of Hippocrates and knew quite well the earth-shaking nature of California’s “legalization” of deliberately taking the life of the child in the womb. Dr. Watts was forced into intellectual honesty (which was followed by his advocacy of his “New Ethic”). Here is an excerpt from his editorial that makes clear what the traditional ethic was, which is also a concise description of what is lost when the state pretends to have the authority to “legalize” the murder of innocent humanity as a matter of social policy):

    THE TRADITIONAL Western ethic has always placed great emphasis on the intrinsic worth and equal value of every human life regardless of its stage or condition. This ethic has had the blessing of the Judeo-Christian heritage and has been the basis for most of our laws and much of our social policy. The reverence for each and every human life has also been a keystone of Western medicine and is the ethic which has caused physicians to try to preserve, protect, repair, prolong and enhance every human life which comes under their surveillance. …

    “Legal” abortion is more than Caesar’s demand that Christians render unto him that which belongs to God alone; it is also the overthrow of Western civilization. What does that look like?

    We found out what it looks like when after a decade of the German intelligentsia advocating for the legalization of abortion and euthanasia, thereby legitimizing such outrageous notions, the Nazis seized power in Germany. They took the newly legitimized concept that the state had such authority over innocent humanity and ran with it. This became a return to savagery, regardless of how well the savagery was kept hidden behind a facade of civilization by the Nazis.

    Anybody who has ever Googled up pictures of aborted babies realizes that we, too, have kept brutal savagery hidden behind only the facade of civilization.

    So how should the Church respond to this? Well, what did the martyrs do when Caesar demand of them worship that belonged only to God? They practiced peaceful civil disobedience in refusing to worship the Emperor, and accepted the consequences of doing so. In response to Caesar’s demand that we render unto him authority over innocent humanity that belongs only to God, I think the example of the peaceful civil disobedience led by Lech Walesa’s Solidarity movement was providentially provided to us.

    Of course, letting those known by all to be flaming advocates of “legal” baby murder receive the Eucharist must be ended immediately.

    In short, the Church must begin acting like it really believes what it teaches. That will be the birth of the New Evangelization JP II longed for.

    • What Dr, Malcolm Watts was writing for “educated medical professionals,” the State of Washington (which for early-century radical movements had been nick-named the Soviet of Washington) actually approved by popular ballot Initiative, also in 1970. This was first time in the history of the world that abortion was approved by a public vote, still three years before the United States Supreme Court Roe v. Wade fatwa in 1973. (And used by the staged abortion movement, plaintiff Norma McCorvey was not even pregnant–had no legal standing?–and later became a vocal pro-life advocate).

      Earlier, the Nazis likely imported the notion of eugenics from earlier small-scale programs in the liberal United States. See, for example, the DVD by John Mychalzyk (Director), “In the Shadow of the Reich: Nazi Medicine,” 1997 (I think available on Amazon). In the United States of the 1920s twenty-three states sanctioned eugenic sterilizations.

      Earlier still, in the Harvard Law Review (1895), Associate Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. had already set the tone for relativistic legal/amoral invention when he wrote: “. . . I often doubt whether it would not be a gain if every word of moral significance could be banished from the law altogether. . . .” Also, earlier, he had written: “I think that the sacredness of human life is a purely municipal idea of no validity outside the jurisdiction” (Mark de Wolfe, ed., The Pollock-Holmes Letters, 1874-1932, Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1942, Vol. 2, p. 36).

      Much of the Church leadership still seems unable to see the invasive swamp for what it is. Good news, though: now at the USCCB helm we have Gomez and Vigernon, rather than seamless garment empty suits.

  3. Today’s egomaniacal, politicization-of-all-things “ecology” is a humongous distraction and a passionate self-corruption sham, distracting all of us from the most important ecologies ever, which are the ecology inside our souls and the ecology in our relationships with others and with the True God, something the Church has been doing for 2,000 years and counting. Do we need updating on our evangelizing with the Holy Ecology of Jesus’ True Gospel that liberates us from Satan’s Universal Evil Politicization? Certainly, but what we need is updating not paganizing, which hides behind the total fantasy excuse that the pagan and indigenous live in some sort of “paradise” and we are the evil “colonizers” and that we failed in the Amazon.

    That Catholic “failure” in the Amazon is a totally fabricated failure because many of the Bishops in charge of the evangelization of the Amazon have succumbed to evil pagan politicization and are now begging for more of the same. Some of them even brag about never baptizing anyone. That’s self-inflicted, intentional, willful, political failure. In the meantime in the Amazon… indigenous people migrate from the jungle “paradise” of idolatry to the “horrible colonizer’ cities, all on their own, with no political coercion whatsoever. It is all a political amusement park charade that glorifies and promotes total spiritual and mental failure as total success, as in movies like “Avatar”, etc.

    I very strongly recommend to all here and to the managers and leaders of this CWR website the book “Ascension Theology” by Douglas B. Farrow, that bridges the gap between ancient Catholic Tradition and today’s highly politicized ideas and environment. Jesus’ Holiness Ecology brings total renewal to all ecological systems in humans, Nature and all Creation (Romans 8:19-23). Today’s Marxist Political Ecology is the real Enemy because it is designed for constant, consistent failure, weighted down by sin, in order to enthrone an evil “royalty” forever. This book is very readable and enjoyable even if you have to proceed and digest a bit slower than in most books. It is powerful and a total jewel for today’s extremely difficult times! Praise be to God!!

  4. Thanks for that information.

    If you haven’t seen the documentary Maafa 21, you will find it very enlightening regarding the link between eugenics in the United State and that of Nazi Germany. It used to be available on YouTube. It may still be.

  5. Aristotle considered politics as a part of ethics, a kind of social ethics. Looking at the circus going on in the U.S. Congress and the British House of Commons recently, one wonders what use politicians and parliaments are. For many, politics is a more or less lifelong career. As for democracy, understood as power in the hands of the people, it is a hoax, a camouflaged oligarchy. Besides, in most countries, politicians are a privileged class with a huge number of perks. Liberal democracy is clearly going down the tube, so something better or less problematical must be sought.
    The Church is far from being committed to liberal democracy, and St. John Paul II states that either monarchy or oligarchy or democracy can be acceptable if they are based on ethical principles, something that doesn’t happen anywhere these days. Besides the family, the political society are a natural necessity and voluntary associations are also very important, as the principle of subsidiarity would hold. So, do we need politicians many of whom these days are dedicated to infighting among themselves at a not insignificant cost to the common good which is what they are supposed to be promoting, also according to Catholic Social Teaching? Do we even need parliaments which in most countries are no more than talking shops which vote for what the heads of the political parties have already agreed on? With the help of modern technology, couldn’t we have some form of direct democracy whereby the people for people who are competent and have passed examinations in their fields, excluding universal suffrage which was not in the original U.S. Constitution? Most of the decisions could be made at a local level by administrators elected for that purpose and who could be voted out at any time once they have shown that they are incapable of fulfilling what they promised. Get rid of election campaigns and political parties. Why should people who have no understanding of the complex issues involved be allowed to make important decisions, that is politicians, many of whom have a deficient education and are full of ideology? Why should people who pay no taxes be allowed to have a share in the decisions regarding the use of the hard-earned money paid by the taxpayer?
    Politicians who have been caught lying should be voted out forthwith.

  6. Until we get back to the emphases in Scripture, Christianity is going to look very much like the rest of the world. 2000 years of developed doctrine has brought us to where we are today. Fortunately, for those who are interested, we still have the source documents to refer to if all else fails. Most of us have access to them and can read.

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