Speaking in Ireland on Saturday, Denver Archbishop Charles J. Chaput discussed the importance of truth in the public square and exhorted his listeners to bring Jesus to the world by being “vigorous and unembarrassed about our Catholic presence in society.”
Addressing the John Paul II Society in Ireland, the archbishop began his talk titled, “Render Unto Caesar: Personal Faith and Public Duty,” by noting that while there are differences between his usual audience of American Catholics and the current crowd of Irish Catholics, “being a ‘Catholic’ – and I mean genuinely Catholic -- makes us much more similar than we are different.” Yes, the mission of a Christian “changes it its details from country to country and age to age,” but the “basic mission is always the same – to bring the world to Jesus Christ; and Jesus Christ to the world,” he said.
The archbishop explained that his talk would address the “heart of the problems” Catholics “face in living our Christian vocation in the modern world.” We are being told two things: The Scriptures remind us to “make disciples of all nations,” and the mass media and political leaders tell us to “be ‘tolerant,’ to fit in, to ‘grow up’ and to stop making a lot of religious noise.”
“Obviously we can’t follow both voices at the same time.”
The archbishop then recalled the words “Render unto Caesar” from Matthew 22, when the Sadducees and Pharisees attempted to trap Jesus by asking if it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar.
If he says yes, they’ll accuse him of being in collaboration with Rome, if he answers no, Rome “will see him as a rebel and troublemaker,” the Denver prelate explained. Jesus asks for a coin “with the image of the Emperor Tiberius” and says:
“Whose likeness and inscription is this?’ They said, ‘Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, ‘Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”
Through his actions and words in the passage, the archbishop noted, Jesus “acknowledges that Caesar does have rights,” but his rights are not over things that belong to God. It is our job, to determine what belongs to God and what belongs to Caesar, he summarized.
Acknowledging that this can be difficult, the archbishop pointed Christians toward the Scriptures, where we learn that “we owe secular leaders our respect and prayers; respect for the law; obedience to proper authority; and service to the common good,” not to be confused with “subservience, or silence, or inaction, or excuse-making or acquiescence to grave evil in the public life we all share.”
He went on to say that the “more we reflect on this biblical text,” the more obvious it is that everything about our life “belongs not to Caesar but to God: our intellect, our talents, our free will, the people we love, the beauty and goodness in the world, our soul, our moral integrity, our hope for eternal life. These are the things worth struggling to ennoble and defend, and none of them came from Tiberius or anyone who succeeded him.”
Archbishop Chaput, always seeking to make the faith applicable, then asked, “So what does that imply for our actions right now, today, in public life?”
He explained that Catholics must speak and act in truth, they must live out the true description of a “Catholic,” they must be faithful to the Church, form their conscience properly, remember that the Church is non-partisan, defend life, treat others with charity and remember that being a more faithful Catholic leads to becoming a better citizen of one’s country.
He also emphasized that we cannot “call ourselves Catholic, and then simply stand by while immigrants get mistreated, or the poor get robbed, or unborn children get killed. The Catholic faith is always personal, but it’s never private. If our faith is real, then it will bear fruit in our public decisions and behaviors, including our political choices,” he stressed.
After listing the ways to be a more faithful Catholic in the public life, the archbishop reminded his audience that even if they haven’t adhered to the Church’s teachings in the past, “every breath we take is an opportunity for conversion and a new beginning.”
“Our task today, as fellow Catholics – here in Ireland, in the United States and everywhere the Church preaches the Gospel of Jesus Christ – is to make ourselves helpers of God as He builds a culture of justice, mercy and life.”
Lest some balk at the seeming impossibility of building a culture of life in today’s society, Archbishop Chaput employed an example:
“Let’s imagine a society, with a complex economy and a strong military. It also includes many different religions, although religion tends to be a private affair or a matter of civic ceremony.”
“Within this society,” he continued, “not enough children are born to replenish the adult population or do the work to keep the society going.” Promiscuity, bisexuality, birth control and abortion are not only “widely practiced” but also “justified by leading intellectuals.”
“What society am I talking about? he asked. “Most of the Western world would broadly fit this description,” but “I just outlined the state of the Mediterranean world at the time of Jesus Christ.”
The archbishop then linked our current “post-Christian” society with the “pre-Christian” world. “The truth is, the challenges we face as European and American Catholics today are very much like those facing the first Christians.”
With these similarities, the prelate continued, “it might help to have a little perspective on how they went about evangelizing their culture. They did such a good job that within 400 years Christianity was the world’s dominant religion and the foundation of Western civilization...”
Early Christianity spread because “the Apostles and their successors, preached the Gospel of Jesus Christ. People believed in that Gospel,” which “meant changing their whole way of thinking and living. It was a radical transformation -- so radical they couldn’t go on living like the people around them anymore.”
“The early Christians understood that they were members of a new worldwide family of God more important than any language or national borders.” “They saw the culture around them, despite all of its greatness and power, as a culture of despair, a society that was slowly killing itself,” Archbishop Chaput said.
“Here’s the point I want to leave you with,” the archbishop said as he brought his address with a close. “If the world of pagan Rome and its Caesars could be won for Jesus Christ, we can do the same in our own day. But what it takes is the zeal and courage to live what we claim to believe.”
“Each of us has the vocation to be a missionary of Jesus Christ where we live and work and vote. Each of us is called to bring Christian truth to the public debate, to be vigorous and unembarrassed about our Catholic presence in society, and to be a leaven in our nation’s public life,” he charged.
“All of us here today already have that hunger to make a difference in our hearts. Now we need to act on it. Now we need to live it. So let’s pray for each other, and encourage each other, and get down to the Lord’s work.”