Resisting the Temptations of Power

Render Unto Caesar: Serving the Nation by Living Our Catholic Beliefs in Political Life
Charles J. Chaput, Doubleday, 258 pages, $21.95

Twenty years ago, Richard John Neuhaus foresaw a new era of Catholic engagement with American society and politics. “This can and should be the moment in which the Roman Catholic Church in the United States can and should assume its rightful role in the culture-forming task of constructing a religiously informed public philosophy for the American experiment in ordered liberty,” Neuhaus argued in The Catholic Moment: The Paradox of the Church in the Postmodern World.

Did U.S. Catholics come close to fulfilling Neuhaus’s vision? Not according to Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver, whose compelling new book, Render Unto to Caesar: Serving the Nation by Living Our Catholic Beliefs in Political Life, delivers this somber assessment: “The cultural and political assumptions of the Catholic Church in the United States have largely failed.”

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More than a quarter of the U.S. population may claim membership in the Catholic Church, but Archbishop Chaput perceives a “weakened spiritual identity” that renders “the American Catholic witness to the Gospel partial and unsure.” Despite Pope John Paul II’s exhortation that his flock build a “civilization of love,” Catholics in this nation haven’t provided a “credible alternative to a way of life that every day seems to grow more remote from the Christian ideal.”

Months before the next presidential elections, with Democratic Party strategists openly discussing their plans for winning back the “Catholic vote,” Archbishop Chaput’s judgment may well provoke some puzzlement. After all, Catholic teaching on abortion and the responsibilities of citizenship continues to generate headlines and may well influence the selection of vice-presidential candidates for both parties. Every year, a growing number of Americans oppose abortion.

Further, Sen. Bob Casey (D-PA) has been invited to speak at his party’s convention in Denver. Reportedly, the move is designed to calm the ill-will of Catholic voters still angered by the party’s refusal to permit his pro-life father, Pennsylvania Governor Robert Casey, from speaking at the 1992 convention.

Archbishop Chaput himself has been drawn into one recent election-year dustup: When Doug Kmiec, a pro-life professor at Pepperdine University Law School, announced his decision to vote for Sen. Barack Obama, he cited the archbishop’s views to support his position. Catholic bloggers, including Father Neuhaus, quickly disputed Kmiec’s statements, but the skirmish suggests that Catholics still throw their weight around in U.S. politics.

The archbishop of Denver, however, isn’t impressed or flattered by the sporadic media attention. The 24-hour news cycle hungers for stories that recapitulate time-worn conflicts: church and state, dogma and dissent, conservative and liberal, pro-life and pro-choice. Though important, such debates are no substitute for a courageous personal life of faith, hope, and charity — the foundation of all Gospel-based social and political transformation. This is the author’s essential message: Faith matters most and everything else flows from that. Render Unto Caesar will help confused college students — and their parents, too — establish priorities for thinking about public policy and selecting candidates.

Numerous polls confirm the thorough cultural assimilation of U.S. Catholics, most of whom lack the formation — or the nerve — to launch a spirited defense of Church teaching in the public square. Archbishop Chaput may preside over a booming seminary, but he believes the data — much as he might wish it were otherwise.

How did this state of affairs come about? What guidance does the Church provide for political engagement? And what should American Catholics do now? These are the questions Archbishop Chaput addresses with considerable passion and without a hint of the curmudgeon’s delight in grim tidings. Toward the end of this concise, practical analysis, he arrives at the issue that presently occupies the chattering classes: Should pro-abortion politicians be permitted to receive the Eucharist? When the archbishop outlines his own thinking on this hot-button topic, he has already armed the reader with a philosophical framework that illuminates the often misunderstood elements of Church tradition.

But in Catholic, pro-life circles, a hard-fought presidential election isn’t the only reason the public scandal of pro-abortion politicians receiving the Eucharist has provoked renewed attention. Render Unto Caesar arrives at a time when Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA), the surviving scion of a Catholic political dynasty and a fervent abortion-rights supporter, confronts his own mortality in his battle against an aggressive brain tumor. Many of Kennedy’s long-time opponents in the pro-life movement hope and pray for his change of heart, a shift that could reinvigorate Catholic witness on life issues.

Senator Kennedy’s “personal opposition” to abortion — while advancing abortion-rights legislation and attacking Supreme Court nominees who threaten Roe v. Wade — brings the archbishop to the decisive turning point in the nation’s political culture: his brother John F. Kennedy’s pledge to isolate his presidential decisions from Church influence.

Archbishop Chaput acknowledges the political necessity that drove John Kennedy to confront the deep historical strain of anti-Catholicism present at the founding of the first colonies and still surviving in various manifestations to this day. But Kennedy’s pledge suggested the possibility, even the advisability, of privatizing faith. According to this equation, Catholic morality is rendered suspect when it migrates from the individual conscience to public discourse.

John Kennedy’s argument ignored the rich storehouse of Catholic political philosophy built on almost two millennia of Christian experience and moral reflection. Kennedy’s position also exposed a naïveté regarding the Church’s inherently subversive nature. Christ told his followers to “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s,” but, in doing so, He implicitly acknowledges that “Caesar” does not and cannot possess total authority. As Archbishop Chaput observes, if power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, than authentic Catholic leaders must not allow political attacks to derail their confident advancement of inconvenient moral truths.

The author traces the development of Catholic political philosophy from the persecution of the early Church through the medieval world and into modern times. With the conversion of the Emperor Constantine, the church itself experienced the temptations of absolute power. But the evolution of church-state interaction in Europe encouraged Catholicism’s accommodation of political freedom independent of religious sanction. At the same time, the Church celebrated the martyrdom of Catholic public figures, such as Sir Thomas More, who would not render unto Caesar what belonged to God alone.

Just as the early Church flourished despite, not because of, state power, so American Catholics first engaged the political process as outsiders. Thus, it may have been inevitable that an American priest and political philosopher, John Courtney Murray, powerfully shaped the Second Vatican Council’s statement on religious liberty.

Murray called for Catholics to adopt a “new and genuine religious maturity,” in Archbishop Chaput’s words, that upheld the religious freedom of all believers without confusing such tolerance with moral relativism or using the mantra of religious freedom as an excuse for political passivity.

Today, the widespread confusion of American Catholics on these points correlates with a break in the continuity of both effective Catholic formation and inculcation in the moral wisdom pervading the Western canon. The result is a wholesale cultural retreat from the path to moral and civic maturity. The “illusion is dangled before us that a man can find himself without first conquering himself,” observes Pope Benedict XVI.

Archbishop Chaput’s primary concern remains the salvation of souls. As a Catholic bishop, he hopes to nurture his flock’s desire to receive all the graces and moral formation available through membership in the Body of Christ. He does not wish his readers to confuse his episcopal mission with a political agenda, and even argues that the politicization of internal Church disputes is further evidence of a decline in faith and moral clarity.

But the archbishop remains committed to what Father Neuhaus calls “the culture-forming task of constructing a religiously informed public philosophy for the American experiment in ordered liberty.”

“We need to cultivate the ability to distinguish between legitimate compromise and cowardice; between prudence and weakness in ourselves and our elected officials,” the archbishop asserts. “In the United States, the law currently allows abortion on demand. We live under that unjust law, but we sin only if we give up the struggle to change it. ”

Thus the author arrives at the contentious matter of pro-abortion politicians receiving the Eucharist. Though some U.S. bishops seek to establish a common position, Archbishop Chaput makes an excellent case for protecting the autonomy of individual bishops to act freely, after initiating a full dialogue with the politician in question.

The archbishop leaves no doubt that he would advise a recalcitrant politician to desist from receiving the Eucharist. If said politician refuses to do so, the archbishop vows he would order priests in his diocese to enforce his judgment and publicly explain his reasons for doing so.

Father Neuhaus always insisted that his talk of a “Catholic moment” did not constitute a “prophecy but the outline of a possibility” — made increasingly viable by the profound impact of John Paul II’s witness and teaching. Archbishop Chaput also gains inspiration from the late pope, along with his successor Benedict XVI. In early adulthood, both men demonstrated the courage of their religious convictions during a frightening, ideologically driven era. Few American Catholics today have been so tested. But Archbishop Chaput asks his readers to put aside their complacent “pseudo-faith” and begin again.


  • Joan Frawley Desmond

    Joan Frawley Desmond has written for the Wall Street Journal, First Things, and the National Catholic Register, among other publications.

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