Reflections Unto God – February 2011


Unto Caesar, Unto God

In October’s Reflection, we discussed the consonance of two concepts of Catholic teaching — the dignity of the human person and freedom with responsibility — with core principles upon which America was founded. Here we will discuss the accord that exists on two other concepts: the balance between union and separateness, and the relationship of church and state.

This nation was formed as individual states united. The 13 colonies did not possess sovereignty of their own. They owed their existence and legality to Great Britain. When they declared themselves to be “Free and Independent States,” they did so as “the united States of America.” After gaining independence, they adopted the Articles of Confederation to “enter into a firm league of friendship with each other.” The confederation of separate sovereignties did not work, and in 1789 was replaced by a Constitution that formed a single nation. In doing so, the states surrendered their external sovereignty in matters of war and commerce, but maintained their internal sovereignty with regard to their individual citizens.
Thus, as citizens of the United States of America, we are citizens of both the nation and the state in which we reside. We are subject to the laws and regulations of the federal government, which apply to all people throughout the nation; we also are subject to the laws and regulations of our home state, which may differ from those of other states.

In an analogous, but not identical manner, the Catholic Church reflects diversity within unity. Oneness is the very essence of the Church. As St. Paul said in his Epistle to the Ephesians, there is “one Lord, one faith, one baptism.” The unity was established and is maintained by Christ, who “reconciled all men to God by the Cross.” St. John tells us that Jesus, at the time of his Passion, prayed for His disciples, “so that they may all be one, as you, Father, are in me and I in you, that they may also be in us.”

The Church has one ruler, Christ, whom the Father made “as head over all the church.” Before He returned for the Father, however, Christ appointed a visible head for the Church when He said to Simon, “thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church.” Peter’s mandate and authority have been handed down to his duly appointed successors. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains, the pope, as Peter’s successor, “has full, supreme, and universally power over the whole Church, a power which he can always exercise unhindered.”

The liturgical and ecclesiastical aspects of the Church, however, are not universally identical. Although the Church is one in its body of faith and in its supreme governance, when the Apostles went forward to teach the Gospel to the Corinthians, the Galatians, the Colossians, the Thessalonians, and others, they encountered people of different cultures, historical understandings, and social practices. As a result, although they taught a single body of faith, there evolved a variety of ecclesiastical disciplines, liturgical rites, and spiritual heritages, which were proper to the local churches.

Today, the local churches or diocese are governed by bishops, who are the successors of the Apostles. They exercise their pastoral authority over the portion of the Church assigned to them. Their authority, operating in communion with the Pope, is definitive in their own dioceses. Thus, Catholics are members of a diocese and are subject to its practices and the authority of the local bishop, as well as members of the universal Church and subject to the supreme authority of the Pope.

American political principles and Catholic teaching also coincide on the relationship between church and state. In the ancient world, religion and the state were inseparable. The emperor stood as head of both. Religious practices were developed and mandated to support the political strength of the state. With arrival of Christianity, a doctrine of dual authority arose. When asked whether it was lawful for Jews to pay taxes to Caesar, Jesus replied: “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s.” This distinction spread with the growth of Christianity and gained formal pronouncement in a letter from Pope Gelasius I to Emperor Anastasius in 494.

The Pope identified a separation of powers, with priests being subject to the emperor in secular affairs, and the emperor being subject to religious leaders in spiritual matters. It recognized that there is a God who is superior to the emperor, and a divine law which is reflected in nature itself that supersedes any man-made edicts. This division was fundamental to the development of Western society, and is a dominant principle in America’s founding political philosophy. The state and the church exist as distinct entities, neither merged one with the other nor one subservient to the other. Religion is meant to be separate from government, but not excluded from the public square.

Many American colonies were settled to gain religious freedom. When America declared its independence, the Founders could have proposed a totally secular state, especially with the diversity of religious groups that were resident. They recognized, however, that to create a government of the people required a strong moral foundation in society, which could be maintained only through the practice of religion. In order to assure that religion would not be infringed upon by government, the Founders separated church and state. But convinced of the importance of religion to the state, they wished to allow individual denominations to practice and promote their own religious beliefs.

The protection of religion was set forth in the First Amendment to the Constitution, which prescribes that the government shall not interfere with the right of the people to practice religion by either supporting the establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. In this manner, the political and religious spheres are meant to be distinct. The state is not to interfere in the activities of the church, and the church is not to dictate policy to the state. The First Amendment does not mean that any mention of God or the expression of religious beliefs cannot be made in the public sphere, but rather that the state is to remain neutral toward religion, neither promoting a given set of religious beliefs nor interfering in their practice.

We are blessed to live in a country in which Catholicism has thrived, where we can practice our faith openly. But freedom is fragile, and once lost is rarely regained. As Knights of Columbus, our individual vigilance and organizational voice is needed to maintain that freedom.

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