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Render unto Caesar

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Oct 21, 2008

Archbishop Charles Chaput has written an outstanding book on Catholic citizenship. The book deserves the widest possible audience, and should be required reading for Catholic politicians. Entitled Render unto Caesar and subtitled “Serving the Nation by Living Our Catholic Beliefs in Political Life”, Archbishop Chaput’s book is the clearest statement I’ve seen on what it means to be Catholic in the public square.

Charles Chaput is a Capuchin Franciscan who is also the Archbishop of Denver. His Franciscan detachment shows in every word he writes. He does not seek to curry favor with media elites by filling his book with fashionable slogans. Instead, he provides a clear-headed analysis of the purpose of life, what it means to be Catholic, why Catholicism impacts public life, how the Church’s relationship with the secular order has developed over the centuries, and what it means to take one’s faith seriously in politics. Along the way Archbishop Chaput gives a short history of the contemporary Church, including the hopes and purposes of the Second Vatican Council, the rapid secularization in subsequent years (which the Church was unprepared to handle), and the pressing need to reassert a distinctive Catholic voice for the common good.

The book is filled with wisdom expressed in an engaging personal style. Archbishops Chaput draws on years of reading, pastoral experience, prayer and reflection to frame strong arguments, arguments never once impeded by academic pedantry, irrelevant research, or jargon. The text is very pointed in its effort to make Catholics understand what their Faith ought to mean to the public order. And despite the sensitivity of the terrain, the book is a thoroughly enjoyable read.

Here are a few samples out of many sterling possibilities. From Chapter 2, “Men without Chests”:

Secularism as a cult—the kind of rigid separationism where the state treats religion as a scary and unstable guest—hollows out the core of what it means to be human. It treats the most important part of life, the moral and religious, as a private quirk. It starves a nation’s spirit. And it has never been a natural step toward democratic maturity. (30)

From Chapter 3, “Why We’re Here”:

For Christians, love is a small word that relentlessly unpacks into a lot of other words: truth, repentance, forgiveness, mercy, charity, courage, justice. These are action words, all of them, including truth, because in accepting Jesus Christ, the Gospel says that we will know the truth, and the truth will make us free (John 8:32)—not comfortable; not respected; but free in the real sense of the word: able to see and do what’s right. (38)

And a little further on:

If we look for opportunities to share our faith with others, God always provides them. This is why self-described Catholics who live so anonymously that no one knows about their faith, Catholics who fail to prove by their actions what they claim to believe with their tongue, aren’t really living as “Catholics” at all. It’s also why asking Catholics to keep their faith out of public affairs amounts to telling them to be barren; to behave as if they were neutered. Nothing could be more alien to the meaning of baptism. (43)

The last few sentences are particularly significant in that one of the main reasons Archbishop Chaput wrote the book is that he was tired of Catholics being told not to “impose their views” on others—tired, that is, of Catholics being told to shut up. His book makes crystal clear why this and other similar barbs directed at Catholics are not only wrong, but a disservice to the State itself.

Render unto Caesar is a remarkable and spirited work from a remarkable and spirited man. The best Catholics will certainly both enjoy and benefit from the book. But taking a cue from the chapter called “Conscience and Cowardice”, I would say it most needs to be read by all the remarkably dispirited Catholics who no longer have the courage of their convictions, or perhaps no longer have any convictions which require courage at all.

[Charles J. Chaput, Render unto Caesar: Serving the Nation by Living Our Catholic Beliefs in Political Life (Doubleday, New York: 2008) 258pp. Hardback. $21.95. Or help Trinity by purchasing for $14.93.]

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