Render unto Caesar

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A couple of months ago, there was a book that was selling so fast that they couldn’t keep it in the bookstores. It wasn’t another bestseller by Dean Koontz or Stephen King. Rather, this was an unexpected bestseller from an “unknown” author: Render Unto Caesar by Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver.

As we all know, this has been an extraordinarily intense and significant election season for Catholics. Though the Church’s teaching is clear on abortion, several publicly Catholic intellectuals have supported a candidate for president, Barack Obama, who is surely – in his support of public funding of abortion and the removal of any and all regulation of it – the most radical “pro-choice” presidential candidate in history. Yet those intellectuals argue that Catholics can, in good conscience and in good graces with the Church, vote for Obama for president because his positions on many other issues are in accordance with Catholic teaching and that these positions, in the aggregate, are more “pro-life” than John McCain’s. That, of course, is nonsensical. The Church teaches abortion is a more fundamental issue than other issues that involve prudential judgments about, for instance, whether to expand welfare or farm assistance programs.

And it has been bracing to see so many Catholic bishops speaking out on this point. As one of those bishops, Bishop Martino of Scranton put it, “come on people, there have been 50 million killed by abortion.” As he noted, it simply dwarfs any other issue. There is no proportionate reason in fact to support a pro-abortion candidate for president. (The only proportionate reason I can even imagine would be if the other candidate were publicly committed to pursuing genocide against some group.)

Archbishop Chaput himself has been involved in this dispute. Speaking publicly, but as an individual, he noted a few weeks ago: “To suggest – as some Catholics do – that Senator Obama is this year’s ‘real’ pro-life candidate requires a peculiar kind of self-hypnosis, or moral confusion, or worse. To portray the 2008 Democratic Party presidential ticket as the preferred ‘pro-life’ option is to subvert what the word ‘pro-life’ means.” The irony is that some of these pro-Obama Catholic intellectuals claimed Archbishop Chaput’s Render unto Caesar actually supported them. As Chaput noted about one such person, “he either misunderstands or misuses my words, and he couldn’t be more mistaken.”

Indeed, it is hard to imagine how anyone could read Render unto Caesar so as to support a pro-abortion candidate for president. As he says in the book, “we sin if we support ‘pro-choice’ candidates without a truly proportionate reason for doing so – that is, a reason grave enough to outweigh our obligation to end the killing of the unborn.”

It is a shame in some ways that the book has been misused, intentionally or not, by pro-Obama Catholic intellectuals. However, their very public dispute with Chaput about his book may cause more people to read it (if they can find it in the bookstores!), which is all to the good, for it is full of solid Catholic teaching, a deep understanding of American history and the obligations of citizenship, and interesting (and important) information that I have not seen gathered in such an accessible text.

The book, I would say, is an extended essay. It looks at the question of the involvement of Catholics in politics from a number of complementary angles. One of its basic conclusions is that Catholics are obligated to be involved in politics because of our obligations to our fellow citizens, our fellow human beings, to seek a justly ordered society. His book is clear that our Catholic faith, as well as our American traditions, require us to engage in politics not to seek power, but to pursue justice.

It is astounding to recall, as Chaput notes, that the famous American Jesuit John Courtney Murray believed that natural law, since it can be discerned by anyone, offered the perfect basis on which people of any, or no, religious persuasion could discuss, argue, and persuade in a democracy. Yet, in a supreme irony, anyone who speaks about issues of natural law today is accused of masking a religious argument, and it is often asserted they should be disqualified on that basis from participating in the public square. Chaput notes that talk of “separation of church and state” is often used as a weapon to shut down debates. “The secularism proposed today…is not religious neutrality. It is anti-religious.”

The point of Jesus’ saying about “rendering unto Caesar” is that some things should be rendered to Caesar, but not all. Some things “belong to God.” Our job is to figure out which is which. In fulfilling that task, Render unto Caesar is a reliable guide and a great read.

William Saunders is Senior Fellow at the Family Research Council. A graduate of the Harvard Law School, he writes frequently on a wide variety of legal and policy issues.

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  • Joe

    I jhave to agree 100% — found this book to be very inspiring — making me want to to the Catholic thing ( as it were). I bought it over Amazon. Great book.

  • Frank Arundell

    Mass murder of the innocent is a pulpit issue if there ever was one!

  • Thomist

    Pro-Life Prudentialism
    Abortion rates are higher in restrictive, poor Latin America than in permissive, prosperously socialist Sweden. I agree that abortion is the ONLY important issue in this election, but I believe socialist Obama will unintentionally rescue more unborn babies than pro-life, Reaganite capitalist economic failures like McCain. Chaput is right on intrinsic evil, but should leave economics to Pope Leo XIII and HOW to end infanticide to laypeople. Argue against this instead of strawmen!

  • Grover799

    Can anyone explain the post by Thomist? It is beyond me how you can twist a simple concept of murder being murder to Obama being pro-life in any way shape or fashion. No matter how you try to play it, the ends do not match up. Abortion is murder, plain and simple.

  • Jud Wyant

    Leaving aside his gratitous, misplaced suggestion that free market economy does not create prosperity, Thomist argues Obama’s economic policies will cause others to select birth over abortion thereby justifying his expansion of abortion rights. It is not Saunders tilting at strawmen.

  • Nel

    The notion that a candidate should be judged for fitness for office on the basis of one issue is disturbing and against the best interests of our country, especially when the issue is a religious one. All people have an moral duty to choose leaders for the greater good, not a victory on one issue, even if it is very important. The constitution guarantees the right to practice your religion freely, but not to inject its consideration in governance. Please consider this when voting. Thank you.

  • patrick

    most important issue?
    I don’t understand how abortion can be considered much of an issue in the presidential election much less the most important issue. The US Supreme Court has decided — wrongly, yes, I agree — that abortion should be legal. Are we to encourage the president to usurp this power and somehow make abortion illegal again? This simply cannot happen under the US Constitution. It would be better for pro-lifers to convince through argument rather than impose their will through the law.

  • Grover799

    "Most Important Issue"
    Patrick, it is not a matter of usurping anyones power. The way the President can have Roe v. Wade overturned is in appointing Judges to the Supreme Court who might in the future rule in cases in a manner which could turn the previous ruling around. It has happened often enough in other ruling by the Court. This is why if you feel Roe v. Wade is wrong, McCain is the better choice.

  • Eric

    The Supreme Court once ruled that some humans were property, a ruling that was upended by Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Yes, we should oppose a gravely immoral law by any means at our disposal.