Give to Caesar…

by Fr. Charles Irvin

October, 1996

[These observations were written for a homily given on October 20, 1996, the Twenty-Ninth Sunday of the Year, in the Lectionary’s A-Cycle, the scripture passages being taken from Isaiah 45:1,4-6; 1 Thessalonians 1:1-5; Matthew 22:15-21]

One of the most vexing issues of our time, and certainly one of the most fascinating subjects I studied while in law school (and subsequently) is the relationship between Church and State. These two great institutions occupy the same territory and play fundamentally parallel roles in the lives of the same people. Neither can pretend that the other doesn’t exist. The remarkable reality of the Vatican’s diplomatic service, with it’s network of ambassadors and embassies to virtually every nation in the world give ample witness to the world-wide mutual existence of Church and State. Perhaps I would better say: the mutual existence of Church and States (plural).

Both Church and State deal with questions swirling around one fundamental question: “How shall people live together in peace and justice? ” The issues all deal with what is right and what is wrong behavior, what is good human behavior and what is bad human behavior. What is permissible and what is impermissible in our relations with each other? Furthermore, both deal with the setting of public policy – otherwise known as politics. And while individual politicians are often held in contempt, we must always acknowledge that politics, government service, is a noble profession, one that should be esteemed. Why? Because, like the priesthood, public service it involves the care of people, the care of the human spirit, the care of human souls.

But what should be the nature of the relationship between Church and State? Some would suggest that there shouldn’t be any relationship at all! In our times we face and even more fundamental question: What should be the relationship between religion and society, a question that is one level deeper than the question dealing with Church and State.

This vast field of human concern was the ground upon which stood the question put to Jesus in today’s Gospel: “Is it lawful to pay tax to the Caesar or not?” It was a tricky question – and remains a question even unto our times. It deals with the fundamental question: Who has power and authority over our lives? Who is the guarantor of our rights? Who protects us from each other’s selfishness, greed and lusts for power and control?

In Islam the answer is Allah. In Islam church and state are the same – religion belongs to society and society belongs to religion because both are Allah’s gift to us.

In Judaism the answer all depends upon which Jew you are talking to. But at the time of Jesus the pharisees and the rulers over the Hebrews had a clear answer – an answer much the same as the one found in Islam. In Israel, as in Orthodox Judaism even today, Yahweh is the King of Israel. The Law is God’s; Israel’s King is God and God alone.

Which is why the question was put to Jesus the way it was by the Pharisees, joined in this instance with the Herodians, whom they hated. For if Jesus answered by saying that it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar then Jesus could be accused of teaching that Caesar was king of Israel and not God. Thereupon He could charged with blasphemy. And if He said that it was not lawful then He could be denounced to the Roman authorities for being a subversive, a dissident revolutionary and an anarchist.

We need to note pay close attention to the scene at the fraudulent trial of Jesus before Pilate. It was these same Pharisees who cried out the ultimate blasphemy for Jews: “We have no king but Caesar!” The terrible irony is that they who shouted the ultimate blasphemy any Jew could utter thereupon accused Jesus of blasphemy! And then they went on to successfully convince Pilate that Jesus was a civil anarchist whose religious teachings would bring chaos and destroy civil society. In other words that Jesus was a right-wing fanatic, a religious nut who had to be silenced.

Which is what Dr. Death’s attorney, Geoffrey Fiegher, repeatedly shouts about all who oppose Jack Kevorkian’s Right to Die crusade. Fiegher has even advocated that Cardinal Maida, Archbishop of Detroit, be enjoined by the courts from further public speech indicating that assisted suicide is immoral.

All of which brings us back to the question: What role does religion have to play in our society, only a marginal, private and individual role? Or does it in fact serve a civil and public purpose?

The First Amendment to our American Constitution does not use the phrase: “Separation of Church and State.” That phrase was first found within one sentence penned in a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote to the Baptist Ministerial Association of Boston. Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black, an avowed anti-Catholic, incorporated that one phrase into his opinion in 1947, in the famous case of Everson v. Board of Education. That case set our U.S. Supreme Court down an entirely new path in dealing with First Amendment Church/State issues. Let me be clear about what I am saying here. The doctrine concerning the so-called Wall of Separation Between Church and State, a phrase which has achieved the level of dogma in American legal jurisprudence, did not appear in the literature of our U. S. Supreme Court until recent American history, the year 1947 to be exact. We should note, too, that Supreme Court justices who wrote dissenting opinions to that of Justice Hugo Black vigorously noted this departure from the previous history of Supreme Court doctrine on the subject.

The fundamental question is still debated down to our time. But to be quite candid and frank with you, it appears to me that the fundamental flow of thinking has shifted. Earlier in our American history, the First Amendment was used to guarantee freedom of religion and freedom of religious expression. The great civil rights movement led by the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was built upon religious beliefs and their expression. So was the question of the emancipation of slaves, which led to the American Civil War. Religious beliefs about the nature of the human person were at issue. And they still are at issue in our public policy debates.

These days, however, the arguments are more and more dealing with how religion and public religious expression can be restricted. The talk now is how to restrain churches and the public expression of religious belief. A monumental shift has taken place and we find our public officials siding more and more with Pontius Pilate, fearing that religion will be the undoing of civil order – that religion is divisive and so is to be feared.

You and I are nevertheless believers in the rights and in the dignity of God. You and I believe that God has His legitimate claims to our allegiance, our love and divine claims over how we behave toward others. And given the condition of things in the culture that surrounds us, the overriding question we need to tend to remains: “Having given Caesar what he forces from us, what do we want to give to God out of love?”


About Charles Irvin

Fr. Charlie was ordained a priest June 3, 1967 and has served as pastor of St. Mary Student Chapel in Ann Arbor, founded Holy Spirit parish in Hamburg, MI, served as pastor of St. Francis of Assisi parish in Ann Arbor and was pastor of St. Mary parish in Manchester, MI when he entered Senior Priest status in 2001. In 1999 he was appointed Founding Editor of FAITH Magazine which has grown into Faith Catholic Publishing located in Lansing, MI. He is now very active in his “retirement.”