How to ‘Render’ without Surrender

I know that I promised last week to continue my analysis of “Seven Key Aspects of Life Where Jesus Spoils Our Fun.” And I will get back to it — in fact, I’ll do so relentlessly, seven times, until I’ve essentially written the core of my upcoming book on InsideCatholic’s dime. I look forward to Anger Week more than Lust Week, and I even promise to type up something for Sloth Week that will be “good enough for government work.” Mediocrity makes me feel right at home — raised as I was on liturgies whose solemnity fell short of Cub Scout rites, with music too goofball for second grade skits, and huge (but cheap) felt banners covering stained glass with messages like, “Rejoice, Damn It!” The one thing I learned as a Catholic in the 1970s was: Nothing’s too crappy for God.

But something timely has come over the transom: Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput’s Render Unto Caesar, now a national bestseller. Since his book is relevant to the elections, and he’s one of our most respected pastors, I think it’s worth interrupting the stream of deadly cynicism for just this week. Next time, I promise, I will revert to being frivolous.

Archbishop Chaput’s book is timely, and parts of it rise to timelessness. His program for a virtuous Christian citizen is stirring. In fact, it’s daunting. We must infuse all our actions — from daily interchanges with friends and enemies, through choices in the workplace and marketplace, to activism and voting in a democracy — with the same spirit that moves us to seek out the sacraments. That is, with a reverence for ourselves and our fellow men as images of Christ. We owe a further duty to our fellow citizens, who are members of the same civic community — whose taxes support the same institutions, who are subject to the same military service, who share in the same national project.

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None of this is wooly-headed, sentimental talk. The archbishop is a serious man, and he makes it clear that he is not urging us to do something nice for people (who might not deserve it) in order to feel better about ourselves. This book, to be perfectly candid, made me feel kind of rotten about myself — a sure sign of its orthodoxy.

No, Archbishop Chaput is pointing out a stark reality that our fallen nature hides and our post-Christian culture forgets: that humans are at once featherless bipeds and timeless spiritual beings; that the Other whom we face — who cuts us off in traffic, who’s rude to us across the conference table, who argues with us in bed — is in some real sense a “presence” of Christ. Not in the sacramental sense; most of those who bother to read a book by Archbishop Chaput will already understand reverence for the Host. (Insert your favorite Eucharistic Minstrel story here.) The “presence” we encounter day-to-day is what Jesus meant when He spoke of our “neighbor” and “the least among” us.

When we fail to respond with proportionate reverence to this mysterious presence — the Church has a zippy shorthand for this: “human dignity” — we are committing a kind of sacrilege. In most cases, it’s pretty venial, but little things add up. Our culture and politics are a daily, huge occasion of sin — a standing invitation to misanthropy and misogyny, indeed a freefall from Christendom into Curmudgeondom.

(To counter this, let me recommend a spiritual classic: Rev. Lawrence Lovasik’s The Hidden Power of Kindness: A Practical Handbook for Souls Who Dare to Transform the World, One Deed at a Time. Although, truth be told, a better title would have been: How Not to Be Such a Jackass. At least, that’s the message I got when my shrink bought me a copy.)

Of course, our failure is far more serious when it doesn’t just smudge the icing but wrecks the cake. Archbishop Chaput makes clear that no one can rightly call himself a Catholic if he accepts the wanton destruction of innocent human lives. A public official who countenances such killing may not hide behind the fig leaves made fashionable since John F. Kennedy promised in 1960 to surgically sever his politics from his Catholic conscience. Archbishop Chaput does a masterful job of dissecting the self-interested distortions of terms such as “conscience,” “pluralism,” “tolerance,” and “separation of Church and State” — favorite slogans that waft airily through the evasions of pro-choice Catholic politicians. No lesser issues — no prudential agreement with a politician’s views on helping the poor, or balancing the budget, or fighting terrorism — can trump the sanctity of life.

The archbishop delves deeper than most books dealing with these questions, and actually mentions the heresy of Americanism — although his treatment of its proponents is too generous. He offers a lucid reading of John Courtney Murray and the Vatican II document Dignitatis Humanae, giving rather too much credence to Murray’s own later writings. As Rev. Brian Harrison has pointed out, after the Council ended, Murray displayed a distressing habit of overlooking the key qualifications inserted by the Council fathers into the document he helped to write — provisos that tried to harmonize aspects of the American experiment with classical Catholic teaching on Church and State. Viewed one way, Render Unto Caesar seems to imply that the Church’s embrace of religious liberty and willingness to live with a secular state is a judgment on every previous Church-State relationship. We are tempted to “read back” the history of every Catholic confessional state and see it as an imperfect approximation of the ideal — which is the American system, canonized at Vatican II.

Ironically — as a subsequent chapter in the book, “What Went Wrong,” points out — less than decade after Murray wrote, the delicate balance between a secular state and a Christian people in America was hopelessly disrupted. And no correction is yet in sight. It’s telling enough that an important American archbishop has to cite the example of St. Thomas More, a martyr for papal authority, to coax practicing Catholic politicians into opposing the mass execution of unborn Americans. Perhaps a frank discussion of the natural law isn’t enough to win people over to respecting human life, at least not when it really endangers what we want. It may be that in the cold light of fallen reason, humanity doesn’t look so dignified after all.

Certainly, the recent American experience with secularity is unlikely to inspire statesmen in future contexts, in overwhelmingly Catholic countries, that their states should shrug off any official relationship with the Church. While they’ll never again have Church support for persecution of non-believers, in other matters they will more likely look to Constantine than Courtney Murray; the “honeymoon” of Constantinian Christianity lasted for more than a millennium. For all its flaws, it built Christendom.

Archbishop Chaput works very hard to make this book non-partisan; indeed, the book seems aimed at precisely the people least likely to read it: Catholic Democrats who support pro-choice politicians because of their positions on other issues. The archbishop says he was inspired to write it by the experience of a friend who ran for office as a Democrat, but lost the election in part because of his pro-life stance. Such a risk Archbishop Chaput calls on each of us to take: to put our civic influence, and if not our lives perhaps our livelihoods on the line. A Catholic senator in a liberal state should be willing, if need be, to lose his seat. A Catholic journalist ought to speak his mind, even if it limits his career options — as it has certainly curtailed that of most writers on this site. (You try applying for a job at a secular paper with a trail of pro-life articles some 20 Google search pages long. See what happens.)

And what should a Catholic bishop do? Should he act so decisively that he endangers his own public standing? (He’s unlikely to lose his livelihood.) Archbishop Chaput addresses this question at the very end of the book, and his answer leaves me unsatisfied. On one key question that faces every bishop — should he allow Holy Communion to those most public of sinners, politicians who vigorously campaign for legal abortion — Archbishop Chaput, I regret to say, doesn’t go as far as his friend, the unelected Democrat. The archbishop writes that he would apply Church sanctions to any pro-choice politician from Denver, but would not deny Holy Communion to public sinners from another diocese — leaving that decision up to the archbishop of Boston, or New York, etc. “I would not refuse him communion. I would assume his honesty and goodwill,” the archbishop writes (p. 227).

To which one must pose the question, “Why?” If Rudolph Giuliani, or Bob Guccione, or Ted Kennedy appears at the altar rail, does the fact that they hail from another part of the country snuff out the scandal caused by offering the Sacrament to a public sinner who has not repented publicly? Must every vigilant bishop wait on the courage of the weaker links in the hierarchy? That is not the import of Canon 915, at least as a growing number of other bishops (e.g., Burke, Bruskewitz, Donoghue) have read it.

Given the wholesome spirit that pervades the book, I’ll speculate that Archbishop Chaput was here trying to apply gentle pressure to local prelates who govern such black sheep to cull their flocks. He was perhaps too tactful to quote Archbishop Raymond Burke, who has written:

No matter how often a Bishop or priest repeats the teaching of the Church regarding procured abortion, if he stands by and does nothing to discipline a Catholic who publicly supports legislation permitting the gravest of injustices and, at the same time, presents himself to receive Holy Communion, then his teaching rings hollow.


  • John Zmirak

    John Zmirak is the author, most recently, of The Bad Catholic’s Guide to the Seven Deadly Sins (Crossroad). He served from October 2011 to February 2012 as editor of Crisis.

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