“Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” – Mt 22:21
One of the first things we might think of with this famous verse in today’s Gospel is the separation of church and state. We have heard it referenced by politicians and pundits, but it’s usually to argue for the church to stay out of the state’s affairs and laws. But, did you know that our government has infringed on church laws for years now? One day, I was speaking to a man at our Outreach Center, and he said that “(President) Trump is going after the Catholic Church.”
When I responded that it was actually under President Obama that the federal government was forcing the Little Sisters of the Poor, the Archdiocese of Washington, and other Catholic institutions to comply with a HHS mandate which went against their consciences, he was shocked. Just this month, the current administration rescinded this mandate which Cardinal Wuerl proclaimed as “good news” and “protection of First Amendment freedom of religious exercise.” Basically, it means that the authority of the state (Caesar) remains distinct from the authority of the Church (God) on this issue.
How can we as Catholics and Americans know what it means to repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God in specific situations or issues? The best resource I can recommend is the USCCB (United States Conference of Catholic Bishops). If you go to usccb.org, you will get help to answer the general call of this verse to live as faithful citizens as well as faithful followers of the Lord.
The USCCB is as objective about politics, government, and issues as we are going to find. They are non-partisan and do not endorse particular parties, candidates, or platforms. While the bishops don’t speak infallibly on political issues (they only speak infallibly on doctrinal issues involving faith and morals), they do give a consistent perspective that seems very Christ-like. They simply offer a perspective on a wide range of current issues that gives us confidence that it’s the perspective of
Jesus. Remember what the Lord said to the first bishops (Apostles): “whoever listens to you, listens to me” (Lk 10:16).
Here are some of the USCCB’s statements regarding current issues:
Human life and dignity
As a gift from God, every human life is sacred from conception to natural death. The life and dignity of every person must be respected and protected at every stage and in every condition. The right to life is the first and most fundamental principle of human rights that leads Catholics to actively work for a world of greater respect for human life and greater commitment to justice and peace.
A rich body of Church teaching, including Papal encyclicals, Bishops’ statements and pastoral letters, has consistently reinforced our moral obligation to treat the stranger as we would treat Christ himself. In the 2001 pastoral statement, Welcoming the Stranger Among Us: Unity in Diversity, the Bishops of the United States called upon the Catholic faithful to a conversion of minds and hearts, imploring us to communion and solidarity with diverse newcomers, and entreating us to find new and meaningful ways to welcome our immigrant sisters and brothers into our parishes, schools and communities. In 2003, the Bishops of the United States, together with the Bishops of Mexico, in the pastoral statement, “Strangers No Longer: Together on the Journey of Hope” / “Juntos en el Camino de la Esperanza Ya no Somos Extranjeros” acknowledged that the current immigration system is badly in need of reform and offered a comprehensive set of recommendations for changing U.S. laws and policies to bring about a more humane and just immigration system in the United States.
Death penalty / capital punishment
The leaders of the Catholic Church have called, time and again, for an abolition of the death penalty here in the United States and around the world. The Church stands with victims of atrocious crimes and their families and urges justice. Those who mourn the loss of dear friends and family members experience deep wounds, and the Church stands in solidarity with them in their intense suffering. Indeed, serious criminal activity must be met with appropriate punishment. Yet, as Saint John Paul II wrote in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae, “the problem of the death penalty” must be viewed
“in the context of a system of penal justice ever more in line with human dignity and thus, in the end, with God’s plan for man and society.” Although “[p]ublic authority must redress the violation of personal and social rights by imposing on the offender an adequate punishment for the crime,” such punishment “ought not go to the extreme of executing the offender except in cases of absolute necessity: in other words, when it would not be possible otherwise to defend society” (no. 56). In developed nations such as the United States, where maximum security prisons can neutralize an incarcerated person’s threat to the general public, such exceptional circumstances do not exist because “[m]odern society in fact has the means of effectively suppressing crime by rendering criminals harmless without definitively denying them the chance to reform” (no. 27).
Refugees are individuals who have fled their countries of origin and who meet the United Nations’ criteria of having a “well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.”
Each year the President of the United States authorizes the admission of a certain number of refugees into the country. This determination is based on a consultative process between Congress, the President and various federal agencies. In recent years, the US has accepted between 50,000 to 75,000 refugees per year. Before admission to the US, each refugee undergoes an extensive interviewing, screening and security clearance process.
Refugees, having suffered great loss, including loss of their homes, livelihoods, possessions and oftentimes families, need assistance starting over in a new country.
“The Administration’s decision to provide a broad religious and moral exemption to the HHS mandate recognizes that the full range of faith-based and mission-driven organizations, as well as the people who run them, have deeply held religious and moral beliefs that the law must respect. Such an exemption is no innovation, but instead a return to common sense, long-standing federal practice, and peaceful coexistence between church and state. It corrects an anomalous failure by federal regulators that should never have occurred and should never be repeated.