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Repay to Ceasar

“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 Just this month, the current administration rescinded this mandate which Cardinal Wuerl proclaimed as “good news” and “protection of First Amendment freedom of religious exercise.”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.

Immigration

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

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.

HHS mandate

“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.

What the Bible says about slavery

In the midst of the tense national discussion about removing public statues of historical American figures vis-a-vis slavery, you might have received questions about the Bible regarding slavery. If not, there’s a good chance that those questions are coming. In fact, I would guess that the focus of the movement will turn its attention ultimately to remove the Bible from the public square. This is something that has been in the works for years from secularists and atheists for other reasons, as you know. You also know that many people think that the Bible does not condemn slavery and thus tacitly approves of it. The article below from catholic.com addresses this and other key points to know about the Bible with regards to slavery. I hope this helps us understand the Word of God better, and to teach others the truth. Please be at peace “in receiving the Word of God …not as the word of men, but as it truly is, the word of God” (1 Thes 2:13).

May you know the peace of Christ,

Fr Greg

Many opponents of Christianity say the Bible condones slavery. Others say the fact that none of the inspired writers (indeed, not even Christ himself in the Gospel accounts) condemn slavery outright shows an implicit acceptance of it. But the fact is, the Bible promotes an ethic of equality and mercy to the downtrodden, including those who were enslaved in the ancient world.

A “slave religion”

In his letters to Christian communities, St. Paul described himself as a slave who belonged to Christ (see Romans 1:1, Philippians 1:1), exhorted his listeners not to be slaves to sin (see Romans 6:15-23), and encouraged them to be slaves to one another

(see Galatians 5:13). Paul even said that Christ took on the nature of a slave and became poor for our sake (see 2 Corinthians 8:9, Philippians 2:7).

His audience knew what it meant to be a slave—not surprising, since Christianity’s compassion for the lowly earned it a reputation as a “slave religion.” The second-century pagan critic Celsus once described converts to the Church as “foolish and low individuals” like “slaves, and women, and children” (Origen, Against Celsus, 3.59).

However, this language of Paul’s does not mean he endorsed slavery or that he thought it should be a part of God’s kingdom. To understand why this is the case, let’s look at the specific exhortations Paul gives to slaves, starting with one passage critics of the Bible often cite:

Slaves, be obedient to those who are your earthly masters, with fear and trembling, in singleness of heart, as to Christ; not in the way of eye-service, as men-pleasers, but as servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to men, knowing that whatever good any one does, he will receive the same again from the Lord, whether he is a slave or free (Eph. 6:5-8).

Many critics of the Bible say these words are indefensible. And yet what advice should Paul have given Christian slaves in the Roman Empire? To rebel against their masters? A hundred years before, a slave named Spartacus had led a rebellion in southern France that scored a few victories but was defeated by the Roman general Marcus Crassus. Spartacus died in battle, and 6,000 of his comrades were crucified along the Appian Way. A similar fate would have awaited any Christian slave uprising.

Maybe instead of encouraging outright rebellion Paul could have said that slavery was wrong and encouraged slaves to simply revile their masters. But even that advice would have risked the persecution of the whole Church had the Roman authorities become aware of it.

Paul was more concerned about people being enslaved to sin than their being enslaved to other people (though, as we will see, Paul was also concerned about human slavery). This attitude parallels Jesus’ warning that sinners become “slaves to sin” (John 8:34), as well as his exhortation to fear the one who can kill the body and the soul in hell and not just the one who can kill the body (see Matthew 10:28).

Paul’s advice to slaves

Paul’s advice to Christian slaves was to endure their unjust condition by persevering in holiness. For example, Paul told Titus, “Bid slaves to be submissive to their masters and to give satisfaction in every respect; they are not to talk back, nor to pilfer, but to show entire and true fidelity, so that in everything they may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior” (Titus 2:9-10).

A slave may not have had control over whether he would be enslaved in this life, but he could control whether he would be enslaved to Satan in the next. St. Peter also taught this when he told slaves, “Be submissive to your masters with all respect, not only to the kind and gentle but also to the overbearing. For one is approved if, mindful of God, he endures pain while suffering unjustly” (1 Pet. 2:18-19).

Peter and the other apostles knew that slavery was wrong, but they also knew that it was better to conquer evil with good (see Romans 12:21) than to commit evil in order to achieve good. That’s why Peter asks what good it does for a slave to commit evil against his master and then be beaten in return. At least, when a slave is beaten for no good reason and does not respond with evil (in imitation of Christ, who endured similar abuses without retaliation), he will stand blameless before God (see 1 Peter 2:20).

Loyalty to a master was also a common way for slaves in the Roman Empire to earn their freedom. After serving a master faithfully, a slave would be released as a libertus who served his master in a new capacity as a freeman (we will see what that entailed shortly). Paul may even have exhorted slaves to acquire their freedom in this way:

Every one should remain in the state in which he was called. Were you a slave when called? Never mind. But if you can gain your freedom, avail yourself of the opportunity. For he who was called in the Lord as a slave is a freedman of the Lord. Likewise he who was free when called is a slave of Christ. You were bought with a price; do not become slaves of men. So, brethren, in whatever state each was called, there let him remain with God (1 Cor. 7:20-24).

This passage shows that Paul didn’t think slavery was a good thing. In fact, he implicitly argued that men could not own other men because God owns all humans by virtue of having redeemed them on the cross (see 1 Corinthians 6:19-20, 7:23). Being enslaved to men was an unjust part of this life that had no place in the kingdom of God.

In that kingdom, everyone, regardless of socioeconomic background, is a slave of Christ, our true Lord and Master. That’s why Paul says, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28).

This was a revolutionary idea, given that Roman intellectuals, while lamenting some aspects of slavery, generally held slaves to be of lesser worth than free men. One example of this is the philosopher Seneca who, although he discouraged merciless corporal punishment, compared slaves to valuable property like jewels one must constantly worry about.

According to Joshel, “Seneca sees slaves as inferiors who can never rise above the level of humble friends” (Slavery in the Roman World, 127). In contrast, slaves in the early Church were not stigmatized. In fact, some—like Pius I (A.D. 140-155) and Callixtus I (218-223)—even held the office of pope.

So, however one considers the deeply troubling history of slavery in the U.S., even of slaveholders who deemed themselves Christians, one cannot appeal to Christianity to justify this ancient and immoral practice.