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Even Caesar belongs to God

Jesus is the Son of God, and He is the Source of human rights, of natural law, and of the legitimate authority of “Caesar,” meaning those who govern.

Detail from "Caesar's Coin" (1612-14) by Peter Paul Rubens []

The relationship between Church and state is one fraught with complexity and peril. This Sunday’s Gospel (Matthew 22:15-21) features one of the signature scriptural texts on this relationship. Jesus says, “Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.”

Several years ago there was a news report about a state senator in Nebraska who filed a lawsuit against God, “seeking a permanent injunction to prevent God from committing acts of violence such as earthquakes and tornadoes.” A district court judge wisely threw the case out of court, citing the impossibility of serving a subpoena to God.

All sensible people can agree on the absurdity of suing God. But this story shows us a dramatic example of the consequences of seeing an absolute division between God and politics, between Church and state. The Church and state can become imprudently entangled, sometimes to disastrous effect. But there can also be too-sharp a division, one which sets the state against the free exercise of religious belief. And when this happens, people can come very close to saying that there is some part of human life over which God is not Lord.

Then they’re only a step away from making God a defendant, one Who is subject to our laws, our politics, our ideas.

God sets the record straight in Sunday’s First Reading (Isaiah 45:1, 4-6), saying, “I am the Lord and there is no other.”  God is the Lord of all things, even politics and government.

The truth of God’s sovereignty finds an echo in most of our country’s founding documents, as well as the long tradition of presidential speeches, the existence of governmental chaplaincies, the Pledge of Allegiance, and countless other ways in which God’s providential rule has been honored in our society.

Consider the Declaration of Independence, which says that people are “endowed by their Creator with unalienable rights.” Or consider Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, one of the most highly regarded presidential speeches ever delivered. It is a classic example of striving to honor God’s rule over the affairs of human society, and to demonstrate that we are answerable to God for our society’s sins, such as the scourge of slavery:

Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.

Jesus guards against over-interference by religious authorities in the affairs of the state when He says, “repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar.” But the very fact that Jesus is the One answering this question, guards against hyper-separation of Church and state.

Jesus is the Son of God, and He is the Source of human rights, of natural law, and of the legitimate authority of “Caesar,” meaning those who govern. And so He has a “right” to speak, through Scripture and through the teachings of His Church, about how we govern, how we vote, and how we live as good citizens, defending human life, human dignity, peace, and justice throughout the world.

Again, the Church does not seek to run the world by means of political power. Her only power is the power of the Cross, the power of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Christ the King reigns from the place of His execution. His throne is the Cross, the instrument by which the powers of this world sought to kill God. The first loyalty of all must always be with Him. And all whose allegiance is to Christ are called to sacrifice themselves for the good of others.

But while the Church does not seek to run the world by means of political power, she needs to be actively engaged in seeking the good of others, of both individuals and our communities. The faithful need to serve others in Christian charity and to be God’s voice in the public square.  There are things that properly belong to Caesar, certainly, and those claims deserve respect, but it must never be forgotten that Caesar himself belongs to God.

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About Fr. Charles Fox 79 Articles
Rev. Charles Fox is an assistant professor of theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary, Detroit. He holds an S.T.D. in dogmatic theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas (Angelicum), Rome. He is also chaplain and a board member of Saint Paul Street Evangelization, headquartered in Warren, MI.


    • It’s a little hard to understand why, when Satan is the Anti-Christ, Anti-God and that he still exists. God the Father HAS THE POWER to eliminate this dingbat in a heartbeat. Wouldn’t heaven and earth totally move God-ward if such would happen?

  1. Well, does Satan also belong to God? Catholic doctrine says Satan was and is a creature of God. Satan was made by God. And Satan was even made good, originally, like all the other angels. He wasn’t made evil. But Satan chose to rebel against God and to oppose God in a fundamental way, forever. So, in light of all this, can we say that Satan “belongs to God”? Consider the case of Hitler. He was the “Caesar” of Germany for 12 years. Did Hitler belong to God? And what about Castro in Cuba? I think we enter into dangerous theological territory when we assert that the worldly governments established by men are necessarily carrying out the will of God. Worldly governments are necessary and inevitable, of course. But followers of Christ must always be on guard against falling into subtle worship or reverence of whoever or whatever is playing the role of Caesar. I think any discussion of this whole matter world be well-served by including and meditation on what Jesus told Pilate: “My kingdom is not of this world.” And I think we’d be aided by recalling that during the temptation of Jesus in the desert, at the beginning of his ministry, Satan offered to make Jesus the Caesar of the whole world if Jesus would just fall down and worship Satan. Jesus turned him down. Wow.

    • Catholics profess every Sunday that Christ–Who is King of Kings and Lord of Lords, the Alpha and Omega–is the God, the Second the Person of the Trinity, and that He will come again “to judge the living and dead.” That’s what it means to “belong” to God: to be, in the End, completely known before God, who is our Creator, Judge, and Lord. Caesar may (and all too often does) go against the Creator, against the divine and natural laws, and against what is good and true–but Caesar will finally answer to God. All of this is summed up well by St. Paul in the opening verses of his epistles to the Colossians:

      He is the image of the invisible God, the first-born of all creation; for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. 17 He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the first-born from the dead, that in everything he might be pre-eminent. For in him all the fulness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. (Col. 1:15-20)

      • In a way, it is also summed up in one of the stanzas of the “Dies irae” from the Extraordinary Form Requiem Mass for the Dead:

        Judex ergo cum sedebit;
        Quidquid latet, apparebit;
        nil inultum remanebit.

      • Thank you. My initial comment was provoked by the title of this article: “Even Caesar Belongs to God.” Somehow, for me, that phrasing seemed to carry troubling implications. For example, in the Trinity, we can correctly say, I think, that the Father belongs to the Son, and the Son belongs to the Father. In fact, in the Sacred Scriptures, Jesus says:

        “All that belongs to the Father is mine.”
        “I and the Father are one.”
        “Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me…”
        “I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you.”

        Speaking to the Pharisees, Jesus said this:

        “You belong to your father, the devil, and you want to carry out his desires.”

        My comment would be that, from these bits of Scripture, it is feasible to get the idea that some people belong to Satan and other people belong to God.

        In this sense, the sentence “Even Caesar belongs to God” seems to go too far, and misleads people into believing that by virtue of being in a top government office, “Caesar” necessarily and inherently has some special mandate or blessing from God and ought to be supported, obeyed, and praised by everyone, in an obsequious manner, no matter what “Caesar” does or says. Some of the ancient pagan Roman emperors gave themselves the title “Son of God.” But they were not that. And today, I think some top political leaders regard themselves as divine or quasi-divine, and want others to seem them that way. This seems like an ever-present danger.

        After all, Jesus himself merely said, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s.” His meaning there is not really clear. But Jesus did not say anything about Caesar belonging to God. Much of the Book of Revelation depicts one or more Caesar-like leaders as being in league with Satan.

        Of course, Paul in his letter to the Romans famously wrote: “Let every person be in subjection to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God and those which exist are established by God.”

        In the end, I cannot find put together a simple principle from all this. But I nevertheless remain uncomfortable with “Even Caesar belongs to God,” just as I would be with “God belongs to Caesar.”

        “Caesar” has done so much harm. Some of the Roman Emperors committed mass murder against the early Christians. “Caesar” in the USA approved legal abortion 50 years ago, resulting in 50 million killed preborn babies. Then there is or was Kim Jong Un, Hitler, Castro, Mao, Franco, Stalin, Pol Pot, Alexander the Great, Napoleon, Cesare Borgia, and so on. Congressman Abraham Lincoln, 12 years before he was president, gave a speech in which he accused President James K. Polk of using “sheerest deception” to start a war in violation of the Constitution.

        I can’t help but think that Jesus wants us to be pretty skeptical about all Ceasars, and to keep our distance, psychologically, emotionally, theologically, from all Caesars. This seems in line with this from Jesus: “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other; or else he will be devoted to one and despise the other.”

        We humans seem to have a natural tendency to become obsessed with worldly politics, and to become enamored with a current Caesar or wannabe Caesar. Just think of how often Catholics talk about politics, and how infrequently they talk about Christ or the Kingdom of God! It’s almost as if, with our behavior, we proclaim (to quote the unbelievers in the Sacred Scriptures) “We have no king but Caesar!”

        These are just scattered thoughts and observations. I am not stating any principle or system of principles. Best wishes.

        • I agree with many of your points, but I don’t see how you’re drawing the conclusions that you are from Fr. Fox’s essay. His point seems quite clear to me: Caesar and everyone else must finally answer to God; we all “belong” to God in the sense of being entirely dependent upon him for everything–even if we refuse to accept or confess it. That doesn’t mean–and I think this should be clear–that everything Caesar does it from God. Of course not. Rather, it means that Caesar and the proper authority, good government, and true order all come from God and are, in the end, oriented to God.

          I read Fr. Fox’s essay as a warning in both directions: to not think that Caesar has some authority complete distinct from divine and natural law, and to not think that Caesar can and must provide all solutions and answers to problems in this world.

  2. Jesus Christ: “Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and unto God that which is God’s” (Matt 22:21), and a trip up memory lane:

    Constantine (4th Century) “You should realize that Church and state are completely one, and, at our command and with the Providence of our God and Savior, we will become even more firmly united . . . and we will by no means tolerate any attempt of yours to cause disorder in the city or the Church.”
    Pope Gelacius I (the “two swords,” 494 A.D.): “There are two powers, august Emperor, by which this world is chiefly ruled, namely, the sacred authority of the priests and the royal power.”

    Charlemagne (in his first letter to Pope Leo III, late 8th Century): [I am] the representative of God who has to protect and govern all the members of god […] Lord and Father, King and Priest, the Leader and Guide for all Christians.”
    Pope Callixtus II (Concordat of Worms, 1122 A.D.): Imperial selection of bishops (Lay Investiture) ended, more or less, and the Church “shall do unto thee [the secular powers] for these what he rightfully should [meaning no further payoffs]”. (think China, today…)

    And—at the “periphery”—the Followers of Islam: “We can, therefore, conclude that owing to the restricted right of legislation, nobody is regarded as a ‘legislator’ (in the modern sense of the word) in an Islamic State. The authority of authorities in such a State can only be regarded as that of EXECUTORS of law, basically made by God” (Farooq Hassan, The Concept of State and Law in Islam, University Press of America, 1981).

    Of “Church and [not in or of] State”, what over the long-term with both one-world Secular Humanism and a “pluralism” of “religions”?

  3. A perfect world we are not, wherein the perfect Church and State would be under the best of circumstances virtually indistinguishable [recall Christendom], except that State legislates on that beyond the purview of Church [traffic laws occupancy laws medical exigency]. We all from beggar to king saint to Lucifer and the fallen angels belong to God in that He keeps us all in existence. Whereas belonging understood as adherence is the Red Line between Heaven and Hell. Life created in His image is eternal by nature of relation. Lost souls who beg God to extinguish their existence are told they can lose grace but not their immortality. Absolutely a better choice to belong to God by adherence. Wherever the Roman Caesars may be I’m confident they now agree.

  4. Persons in authority are accountable for their official acts before God. Injustice by authorities is not tolerated by God nor should it be by the state nor the populace. The only exception to this is the authority of the husband.

    This is because a husband naturally loves his wife and any children. It seems as though this natural love has – over time – perverted familial justice. If at least the principle had been remembered, then unjust “laws” against domestic violence and child abuse would never have been passed. The fact that they are has (along with “divorce”) wrecked unjust havoc in the building block of society – the family.

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