Father Cantalamessa on a Christian in the Public Square

A Commentary by Pontifical Household Preacher

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ROME, OCT. 14, 2005 (Zenit.org).- In his commentary on this Sunday’s liturgical readings, Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, the preacher of the Pontifical Household, discusses the relationship between religion and politics.

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Matthew (22:15-21)

Give to God the things that are God’s

This Sunday’s Gospel ends with an immortal phrase of Jesus: “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” Not Caesar or God, but one and the other, each one on his plane. It is the beginning of the separation between religion and politics, until then inseparable in all nations and regimes. The Jews were accustomed to think of the future kingdom of God established by the Messiah as a theocracy, that is, as a direct government of God on earth through his people.

Instead, Jesus revealed a kingdom of God that is in this world, but not of this world, which moves along a longitude of a different sort, and that because of this can coexist with any regime, whether it is of a sacred or secular type.

Thus, two different types of God’s sovereignty are revealed in the world: the spiritual sovereignty that constitutes the kingdom of God, which he exercises directly through Christ, and the temporal or political sovereignty that God exercises indirectly, entrusting it to individuals’ free choice and the game of second causes.

Caesar and God, however, are not on the same plane, because Caesar also depends on God, and must render an account to him. “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s” means therefore “Give to Caesar what God himself wants given to Caesar.” God is the ultimate sovereign of all. We are not divided between two proprietors; we are not obliged to serve “two lords.”

The Christian is free to obey the state, but also to resist it when the state is against God and his law. It is no good to invoke the principle of the order received from superiors, as those responsible for war crimes are accustomed to do before the courts. Before obeying men, God and one’s own conscience must be obeyed. Caesar cannot be given one’s soul which is God’s. The first to draw practical conclusions from this teaching was St. Paul. He wrote: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God. Therefore, he who resists the authorities resists what God has appointed. … For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing” (Romans 13:1). For a Christian (and for all honest persons) to legally pay taxes is a duty of justice, an obligation of conscience. The state, ensuring order, commerce, and all services, gives the citizen something for which it has the right to a return, precisely to be able to continue to provide such services.

Tax evasion, when it reaches certain proportions — the Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us — is a mortal sin. It is theft committed not against the “state,” in other words, “no one,” but against the community, that is, against all. This implies of course that the state must also be just and equitable when imposing its taxes.

The collaboration of Christians in the construction of a just and peaceful society is not exhausted with the payment of taxes. It must also be extended to the promotion of common values, such as the family, the defense of life, solidarity with the poorest, peace. Another area where Christians should offer a more incisive contribution is politics: not so much to the contents but to the methods, the style. The atmosphere of constant litigation must be detoxified; to restore respect and dignity to relations between parties.

Respect for one’s neighbor, gentleness, the capacity for self-criticism: are features that a disciple of Christ must take to all affairs, also to politics. It is unworthy of a Christian to indulge in insults, sarcasm, to descend into quarrels with the adversary. If, as Jesus said, whoever says to his brother “You fool!” is already liable to “the hell of fire,” what will happen to many politicians?

[Italian original published in Famiglia Cristiana; translation by ZENIT]

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