A few Sundays ago, we heard in the Gospel about one of our Lord’s many encounters with the Pharisees. On this particular day, Jesus responded to the Pharisees’ question about paying taxes in a memorable way: “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
For a homilist in the midst of an election year — and this election year! — it was like a fastball right down the middle. Too easy to pass up.
Except that batters swing and miss at fastballs down the middle all the time. And indeed, I have witnessed “politics homilies” go really badly. I mean, really, really badly.
My point is this: priests and pastors are not politicians. When we try to be, as in the case of two priests who were elected to Congress in the 1970s, it often goes awry. Our duty on political questions is not to endorse candidates or deliver stump speeches, but to form the consciences of those who have a role in shaping public policy — first of all Catholics, and then insofar as possible, all people of good will.
The Second Vatican Council championed the vocation of the laity to pursue holiness for themselves and thus to sanctify the world. The lay vocation, by definition, is focused outwardly toward the world and its affairs — whether expressed in marriage, parenthood, public service, honest labor — or any combination thereof (now Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett is an excellent example of this and should be a role model for young women in our parishes).
As a priest and pastor, my role is to vigorously promote the church’s teaching with respect to faith and morals, and encourage the faithful to put those teachings into practice in their lives, whether in their families, their jobs, voting booths, or the halls of Congress.
By that measure, we pastors must not be doing such a great job. Polls demonstrate that many Catholics reject the bishops’ teachings on a whole number of issues regarding faith and morals. Polls, I know, are not always helpful or correct.
More illustrative are the countless examples of Catholic politicians and public leaders taking positions that are fundamentally at odds with what our church teaches. Sadly, there are many Catholics who consistently and without apology take positions fundamentally opposed to Catholic moral teaching.
And you can see why, when good Catholics like Congressman Dan Lipinski — and, in a former era, Bob Casey Sr. — are literally pushed off the stage when they stand up for what they believe in. The fact, though, is that at every time and in every place, authentic Christians live as exiles even in their homeland. The Gospel always faces resistance from the powerful and proud, precisely because it forces us to reorient our lives in a radical way.
Yes, the concerns and affairs of state are important, and we are called to be good citizens by voting, paying taxes, and serving our communities in a spirit of patriotism. But in the end, what we owe to God is everything — our life, our time, our energy, all that we have and possess. Jesus’ teaching does not take away our legitimate obligations to our communities and those who rule over us. But it does relativize them. This is liberating for us.
The Roman government of the first centuries after Christ sought to establish itself as the most important thing in people’s lives. It’s not. We shouldn’t forget that Christians were martyred because they refused to burn incense in worship of the emperor. When our lives become consumed with partisan affairs, this can alienate our hearts from God and cause division among one another.
I would encourage everyone to read an article from First Things magazine called “The Three Necessary Societies” written by Russell Hittinger in June 2017. The title of the article is a reference to the teaching of Pope Pius XI on the family, state, and church as the three essential communities for human flourishing.
Two of these, the family and state, are necessary on the natural level, while the church is necessary on a supernatural level. I believe the work of our time and perhaps for the next hundred years or more is the restoration and renewal of these three societies.
Young people in particular should strive to make renewal in these areas central to their lives — knowing that their efforts may not be fully appreciated for a hundred years or more.
No matter how you come down on the issues at stake in this election, we need to recall what James Madison and the other Federalists warned when the Constitution was being ratified: a well-functioning Republic depends upon the virtue of the citizenry. No political system will be perfect; in fact, those who have promised such a utopia have often been the worst offenders of human rights.
Nevertheless, we should be very concerned about having political leaders who speak and act in ways that coarsen our public discourse. Our political leaders represent us. In the case of the head of state, he or she is us in a certain way. If we want better politicians, then we need to have better families, and we need to entrust ourselves more fully to Christ the King.
Advancing our church’s teachings on the right to life, the protection of the family, the promotion of religious liberty, respect for migrants and workers, adequate health care, and concern for the environment does not take place only or even perhaps primarily in the voting booth. Many other decisions can have far greater consequences: where we shop and what we shop for, where we send our children to school and what media we let them consume. These and a thousand other little decisions are what transform cultures.
In the end, the church’s mandate is religious, not political. We are always strangers in a strange land, no matter who the emperor of the day is. So, as we prepare to vote, let us also pray: for those who govern us; for those seeking election; and for our brothers and sisters in Christ who serve in public office, that their Catholic faith will guide all their decisions.
And let us remember that we are most perfectly united when we worship God, especially at Mass. That is when we most perfectly render to God the things that are his.
A version of these remarks was given at the conversation on Faith-Filled Citizenship at St. Bede the Venerable Church in Holland on Oct. 27, 2020.
Father Eric J. Banecker is parochial administrator of St. Francis de Sales Parish, Philadelphia.
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