Render unto Caesar

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 Vice President of Legal Affairs at Americans United for Life. A graduate of the Harvard Law School, he writes frequently on a wide variety of legal and policy issues.