Homily, 29 Ordinary Time A (10-16-2011, SJCC, PDW)
This past week, I spent some valuable time with my best friends while I was on vacation. Naturally, when we get together, we discuss the issues of the day, and many of our discussions can be quite animated, and my friends and I have strong opinions. We often disagree on some political issues, but we remain friends. Many of you have probably experienced the same thing: being close friends with someone who has political views that are totally opposite of yours. I call it the “beer and pizza” analogy: with a good friend, you can sit down and argue, disagree, raise your voice and wave your hands in the air, yet still go home at the end of the evening as close friends.
Well, how should a Catholic Christian view politics? What Jesus says in today's Gospel is a guideline that the Church has used throughout the centuries, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” Each has its proper place. The Christian is to be both a good citizen on earth and a good citizen of heaven. The two do not necessarily conflict. But a deeper understanding of what this means is required. For example, the Catholic Church itself does not endorse specific candidates or parties, but we do take stands on issues: respect for life and marriage, social justice, human rights, poverty, and so on.
Why is this? Well a seminary professor of mine explained it to me this way. A Christian looking at worldly matters ought to be guided by three things: principles, policies, and practice. Now principles are those universal truths that guide all of our actions. This is the level of religion, because these truths come from divine revelation (Scripture and the teaching of the Church), or from natural law (those truths that we know from our human nature and the order of creation). These truths form the basis of all that we are and hold dear. Examples of principles would be: belief in the dignity of all human beings, regardless of race, class, nationality, or religious beliefs; respect for life; the call to help the poor and the needy; the need for peace between nations and an end to war; and so on.
Then flowing from those principles are policies which help us make these principles a reality. And this is the level of politics. Different political parties and views can have the same principles, but differ in how they go about achieving them. For example, one party may believe the government ought to help the poor in one way while the other party may believe the government ought to achieve the same goal in a different manner. Neither is right or wrong in the universal sense as both want to help the poor. But, either may be right or wrong in a practical sense. In other words, two good and sincere people can hold different beliefs about the policies necessary to go about serving the poor, and it remains to be seen which one actually succeeds at achieving the goal in a way that respects our principles.
And this leads then to the level of practice. While policies can provide us with general guidelines about how to go about achieving our principles, our policies cannot be absolute and unyielding. There may be certain circumstances and cases where exceptions may need to be made or mercy granted. At the level of practice are those concrete situations on a day to day basis where, guided by our policies we actually go about the work needed to achieve our goals, using our judgment and discretion in individual cases. So, those are the three p’s: principle, policy, and practice.
Looking at it this way, we can see then the role that our Christian faith plays in the political arena. We, as Christians, are guided and motivated by the principles of our faith, and we seek to make those principles a reality in the world by the policies of our various political parties. And our faith demands then that we be active and work on a daily basis for the practical aspect of our political views. We can’t simply sit back and believe and hope in our principles. Instead we need to be active and participate in the political process to bring them about. That’s why the Church encourages us to be good citizens, voting and contributing to society. Thus, in our Church we can have Democrats and Republicans, Libertarians and Independents, all in the same pew, worshiping together, holding the same universal principles, yet perhaps disagreeing on the levels of policy and practice.
Archbishop Chaput reminds us that this is right and a duty of all Christians, "The Church claims no right to dominate the secular realm. But she has every right - in fact an obligation - to engage secular authority and to challenge those wielding it to live the demands of justice. In this sense, the Catholic Church cannot stay, has never stayed, and never will stay 'out of politics.' Politics involves the exercise of power. The use of power has moral content and human consequences. And the well-being and destiny of the human person is very much the concern, and the special competence, of the Christian community." (p. 217, see below)
However, there are a few dangers, a few pitfalls that may trip us up if we’re not careful. C. S. Lewis, in his novel, “The Screwtape Letters”, points them out. If you’ve never read it, I highly recommend it. His book is a fictional collection of letters from a demon supervisor named Screwtape to a demon in training named Wormwood. He tells his young associate how to go about the task of leading their “client”, a person, into the arms of their “father below”, namely the devil in hell. And in one of the letters, he recommends this: tempt the fellow to make his politics a religion. In other words, have him embrace a political party and then elevate it to the level of principle, as if the policies of that party are divinely revealed and absolute. If he can do this, then his political opponents become “the enemy”, enabling him to demonize them as if they’re heretics, violating the law of charity and mutual respect. On the other hand, if that doesn’t work, Screwtape explains to Wormwood, have him reduce his religion to the level of politics. In other words, have him make his Christian faith merely an extension of and justification for his political views, working only for a worldly kingdom, forgetting the goal of our religion, namely preparing ourselves for heaven.
Certainly, we see many people falling into these traps today. When I see one political party or candidate demonizing another, they have elevated their politics to the level of religion, where their political views are absolute and anyone who sincerely disagrees with their policies can be portrayed as the enemy or the devil. Or, when I see someone using their Christian faith to justify their political views, they have reduced their religion to mere politics. And I see this happening on both ends of the spectrum, liberal and conservative, especially when I see politicians speaking in churches. The Catholic church doesn’t allow that, perhaps because we learned our lesson in the Middle Ages when the Church was overly involved in politics. But it seems that sometimes many forget the lessons we learned and the wisdom of the founding fathers who wanted a separation of Church and State. Separation of Church and State doesn’t mean the absolute exclusion of religion from public life. On the contrary, it means that our faith should form the principles we believe in, that we should be active in the public arena with mutual respect.
The keyword in Jesus' expression, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God” is “give”. What lies at the heart of being a good citizen on earth and in heaven is service, “love God and love your neighbor as yourself.” It was through the gift of himself on the Cross that Jesus taught us what true love, true service means: laying down your life for your friends, indeed even for your enemies. As Jesus said, “the Son of man came to serve, not to be served” and “if anyone wishes to be first, he shall be the last of all and the servant of all.” So our involvement in worldly affairs should always have service of the good of others at the forefront. Too often, I have observed, politics is reduced to “what is best for me.” A Christian cannot live that way, nor can he separate service of God from service of neighbor.
A good example of a Saint who demonstrated this authentic Christian view of service and politics was King St. Louis of France. Though he was a man of great worldly power and influence, he was a man who knew Christ as his King. He lived a prayerful and devout life and considered sin his worst enemy. He once said that he would rather be a leper than commit a single mortal sin. But he was also a wise and just ruler, who worked to end the political squabbles and feuds among his people. And he knew that to be a Christian meant working to help the poor and the needy, so he established many institutions for doing so. But more importantly, he did it himself, allowing some indigent people to live in his palace and daily serving meals to the poor nearby, often serving them in person.
But I like the story of St. Louis for this reason. Near his room in the palace, he had a chapel built where many of his ancestors were buried. And each morning he would rise to visit the chapel where he himself would one day be buried. He did this simply to remind himself of death, that he would one day be accountable to his Maker and would be judged on how wisely and lovingly he had used his gifts. The story is told that one of his successors wanted the chapel moved, not wanting to be reminded of death, but the workers refused to move the remains of a Saint, so his successor simply built a palace elsewhere. But St. Louis knew why he was on this earth: to prepare himself for the Kingdom of Heaven.
And we can do the same if we live a life of service to others, working for true justice and peace, reconciliation among peoples and respect for the Gospel of Life, then perhaps we may hear the consoling words of our Lord, “Well done, good and faithful servant... inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”
Check out Archbishop Chaput's book, "Render Unto Caesar" Serving the Nation by Living Our Catholic Beliefs In Political Life.
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