Book Review: Archbishop Chaput, 'Render Unto Caesar'
Fr. Robert Imbelli, a Boston College associate professor of Theology,reviews Archbishop Charles J. Chaput's new book on the role of faith in citizenship.
One can read the book on several levels, each illuminating the other. The first level is indicated by the book’s subtitle: “serving the nation by living our Catholic beliefs in political life.”
Central to the author’s position is that faith, though intensely and constitutively personal, is never private. Relationship with God through Jesus Christ is inseparably relationship with others in Jesus Christ, as the great judgment scene in chapter twenty-five of the Gospel according to Saint Matthew makes abundantly clear.
But, even beyond this, biblical faith always has social and even political implications. Anyone who takes seriously the prophetic tradition of the Old Testament readily acknowledges this. And the fulfillment of revelation in Jesus Christ only intensifies the believer’s vocation to foster the coming of the Kingdom in every dimension of human life.
The Catholic Church’s social teaching, from Leo XIII’s "Rerum Novarum," through Vatican Two’s "Gaudium et spes," to Benedict XVI’s recent Address to the United Nations, is the ongoing application of this prophetic tradition to the changing contexts of world history. Archbishop Chaput’s own conviction finds expression with these words: "The Church claims no right to dominate the secular realm. But she has every right – in fact an obligation – to engage secular authority and to challenge those wielding it to live the demands of justice. In this sense, the Catholic Church cannot stay, has never stayed, and never will stay 'out of politics.' Politics involves the exercise of power. The use of power has moral content and human consequences. And the well-being and destiny of the human person is very much the concern, and the special competence, of the Christian community (pp. 217-218).
On the other hand, there are influential voices, both in the United States and in Europe, that try to reduce religion and faith to a private preference that has no public role to play. They thereby seek to construct, what one critic calls, a “naked public square,” thereby domesticating religion and totally secularizing the public realm.
For Archbishop Chaput such a strategy not only denatures religion, and especially Catholicism, it stands in profound contradiction with the historical uniqueness of the American “experiment in democracy.” The so-called “wall of separation” between Church and State in the United States (a phrase often misleadingly invoked) was never intended to exclude the full engagement of believers in the political and civic life of the nation. And the American Constitution’s injunction against the “establishment” of religion was a precious protection against the unwarranted intrusion of the State into religious affairs.
The author draws significantly upon the thought of the late theologian, John Courtney Murray, S.J., who played a considerable role at Vatican II in the elaboration of the Council’s pioneering Declaration on Religious Liberty, "Dignitatis humanae." Murray argued (and Chaput agrees) that the founding documents of American democracy drew upon a natural law vision that affirms universal truths about the human condition. Thus Catholics, with their commitment to the natural law tradition, have a crucial contribution to make to American public life and the political process. Indeed, how can one possibly contribute to the common good unless one brings to the discussion and debate one’s deeply held values and moral convictions?
Moreover, the most authoritative figures in the Catholic tradition, like Saint Thomas Aquinas, recognize the legitimate autonomy of the secular. “Caesar” has a legitimate claim to the loyalty and dedication of citizens. But that loyalty can never usurp the obedience and worship due to God alone.
Archbishop Chaput dedicates a moving chapter to the English saint, Thomas More, whom Pope John Paul II called “the heavenly patron of statesmen and politicians.” The greatness of More lies in his courageous struggle to remain loyal to his duty to his earthly sovereign, while never compromising his ultimate dedication to the dictates of his conscience as reflective of his obedience to his heavenly King. As is well known, this integrity ultimately cost More his life; but his witness remains a powerful force and inspiration for all seeking to enlighten the social order with the light of the Gospel.
Thus the second level at which the book may be read is as an appeal to American Catholics to recover a robust and comprehensive understanding of their own faith tradition.
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