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Book Review: Render Unto Caesar (Charles Chaput)

Charles Chaput, now archbishop of Philadelphia, is probably the most prominent traditionally orthodox Catholic prelate in America. There exists, of course, more than one traditionally orthodox prelate (though fewer now, given that Pope Francis is deliberately reducing their numbers). But Chaput has the talent and drive to operate in the public square, to write and talk on the intersection of Catholic doctrine and public life. In fact, as of this week he has been in the news for a speech on this topic at Notre Dame. And next year, in 2017, he has a new book coming out on “Living the Catholic Faith in a Post-Christian World.” This book, “Render Unto Caesar,” nearly ten years old, was his first book-length foray into the struggles faced by Christians against attempts to exclude them from the public square. This is a topic that has only become more pressing, and timely, because the day is already late.

I found “Render Unto Caesar” to be a good book, but somewhat drily written, and mostly compelling to those who already agree with Chaput. The bishop is not a polemicist. He is a man who uses carefully parsed reason to persuade. Such men are necessary, of course, but perhaps today not sufficient. When the snake has bitten your foot, perhaps it’s time to amputate the foot and cauterize the wound, after killing the snake, rather than parse the taxonomy of the snake as the venom reaches toward the heart. It seems to me, therefore, the main benefit of this book is to strengthen the will and reason of readers who already agree with Chaput, and to provide them ammunition in the (metaphorical, we hope) wars to come.

Chaput’s focus is more on Roman Catholics than on Christians generally, although naturally many of his thoughts apply to Christians as a whole. But much of his thought turns on specifically Catholic doctrines and history. Chaput’s basic thesis in this short book is that it is a pernicious error to suggest that Catholics should not be informed by their faith in both the public policies they advocate and in the actions they take to implement public policies. In other words, a wholly private faith is, or should be, an oxymoron.

However, this is not at all a book of religious doctrine, although it is informed by, or rather suffused with, Chaput’s Catholicism. Chaput instead tries to reconcile the Bismarckian reality, that “politics is the art of the possible,” with the equally valid reality that to a person of conscience, ideal political choices are frequently dictated by conscience, and accepting anything less than total victory seems like a wrong. This reconciliation is a valuable exercise, because traditionally orthodox Christians, as with any group with transcendent beliefs, tend to approach politics with a Manichean view, and the more strongly they hold their beliefs, the more Manichean their approach. Chaput attempts to curb that approach while realizing the validity of its origin.

The idea that political actions should be informed by religious faith is, of course, is even less fashionable an opinion today than it was ten years ago. (Doubtless Chaput’s upcoming book, judging from its title, recognizes the changes since then.) The organized campaign to exclude all Christian belief from the public square is vastly more advanced today than it was then. If you asked a random person on the street if a Christian, or any religious person, is allowed under US law to advocate for public policies wholly derived from his religious beliefs, most would say he is not allowed to do so. Elite opinion would not only agree, but would, and does, stridently demand that Christians shut their mouths, or be punished. (Of course, Christians who agree with whatever the left-liberal flavor of the day is are allowed to speak, as useful to the secular powers that be.) But this, of course, is not only flatly incorrect, but it is a total reversal from the pillars of America’s founding, and our bedrock law—not to mention the law of Nature and Nature’s God.

Chaput begins with a brief review of modern American life, with a focus on the growing fashionability of aggressive atheism and its concomitant push to exclude Christian (or other religiously based) thought from legitimacy. Even those who do not agree tend now to believe that “pluralism” means believing that religious believers must make any public policy arguments without reference to their beliefs. And he notes that although Americans still claim to be religious, it is a pretty weak brew by historical standards, concluding that we suffer from what early Christians would have called acedia: “a stagnancy or sloth of the soul that show itself in an unwillingness to ‘judge’ in the name of false compassion; a disregard for moral conviction that hides behind flexibility and openness.” Chaput’s solution? “Our problems can only be solved by people of character who actively and without apology take their beliefs into public debates. . . . If we really believe that the Gospel is true, we need to embody it in our private live and our public choices.”

Chaput then turns back to the beginning, to the obligations of being a Christian, i.e., “Why We’re Here.” Quoting Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl, “The salvation of man is through love and in love,” Chaput notes that “Real love is an act of the will; a sustained choice that proves itself not just by what we say but by what we do.” He does not mean, of course, the undemanding love of Hallmark cards or the politically oriented sophistry of “love wins.” Instead, “[L]ove 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.” This means being clear and obvious in our faith, whether that’s easy or not. But this is not a solipsistic choice; it implies behavior directed outside ourselves. Christ told us to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, “[b]ut Christ never absolved us from resisting and healing the evil of the world, or from solidarity with the people who suffer it. Our fidelity is finally to God, but it implies a faithfulness to the needs of his creation. Like it or not, we are involved—and there is, after all, a war on (Ephesians 6:12). . . . We can choose our side. We can’t choose not to choose.”

The bishop continues with a history review, “Constantine’s Children,” in which he discusses (after noting that Americans tend not to like history) that the West has traditionally been neither theocratic nor caesaropapist, but had a continual tension ranging between the poles of viewing faith as purely private and viewing the state as subordinate to the church. Whatever the current state of the balance, though, believers are necessarily forced both by political realities and by the fact that God works through humans to “actively engage the world . . . all of it, including its social, economic, and political structures.” But, “We will never build God’s kingdom here on earth. When people have messianic expectations of the state, when they ask politics to deliver more than it can, the story ends badly.”

Chaput then extends the history review, turning to our country specifically in “The American Experiment.” Despite the free exercise guarantees of the Constitution, Catholics suffered a variety of disabilities until the 20th Century, but thrived anyway. However, a split developed among the Catholic hierarchy in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, as to whether Catholics should embrace American democratic ideas. Here, Chaput directly addresses one of the difficulties modern Catholics face, in that Leo XIII and Pius IX both stridently attacked democratic ideas as anti-Catholic and celebrated the idea of Church supremacy over secular states. This is inconvenient for Chaput and conservative American Catholics generally, and it is to his credit he addresses it. He distinguishes Leo’s thought as a failure to understand that “In practice, American freedom meant freedom for belief. Continental freedom implied freedom from religion. . . . Leo’s very real struggle [was] against European laicism—a belligerent, antireligious secularism that swallowed all opposition by identifying society and the public good exclusively with the state.” “Catholic resistance to modern thought was caused by the persecution of the church after the French Revolution and fears that popular governments elsewhere might do the same.” Chaput might have, but does not, mention Bismarck’s Kulturkampf in this context. He then follows with a discussion of “A New Dispensation”—how Vatican II, though largely misunderstood today, modified this anti-democratic stance, quoting Joseph Ratzinger’s 1966 words, “Few things had hurt the Church so much in the last 150 years as its tenacious clinging to outmoded politico-religious positions.” The new direction, set out in the conciliar document “Gaudium et Spes,” was that, in Chaput’s words, “Catholics should work with all persons of goodwill to build mutual understanding and a just society.” But Catholics should so work, which implies political engagement.

Unfortunately, in Chaput’s telling, after Vatican II the focus shifted too far toward politics and social progress divorced from religious imperatives, and away from a personal struggle against personal sin, with a concomitant political drive derived from that struggle. In America, at least, this was exacerbated by the position taken by John Kennedy and others, explicitly or implicitly, that religious beliefs must not inform political action, a position taken under the guise that to do otherwise meant that religious leaders were somehow imposing their will in an undemocratic fashion. Chaput’s response is that “Both religion and politics, however, address the question of how to live in the world. They always influence each other, and should.”

All this is history. Chaput finally focuses on today, in “Conscience And Cowardice.” He complains of the corruption of language (citing Orwell, of course). We view pluralism and tolerance as essential. But pluralism “is a demographic fact, nothing more. . . . . It does not imply that all ideas and religious beliefs are equally valid, because they’re not.” Similarly, tolerance “is not an end in itself, and tolerating or excusing grave evil in a society is itself a grave evil. . . . And it is not a Christian virtue. Catholics have the duty not to ‘tolerate’ other people but to love them, which is a much more demanding task. Justice, charity, mercy, courage, wisdom—these are Christian virtues; but not tolerance.” That is, it is our duty as Christians to act politically to move society in the direction of Christian virtues, as dictated by our (well-formed) consciences. This may, in fact, mean not just working toward political goals, but even disobeying unjust laws, as Martin Luther King and Thomas More did.

It is really More around whom this book turns. Chaput sees that “In More, we recognize the person we secretly wish we were; the person that God created us to be.” And that is not someone who shrinks from politics; rather, it is someone who uses his gifts to pursue God’s will in every arena—in overcoming his own faults and sins, and in public life. In public life, the goal is not to achieve societal perfection at any cost, but rather to do what one can. As More said, “That which you cannot turn to good, so to order it that it be not very bad.” Or, as Chaput says, “Not all evil things can or should be illegal. Not all issues have the same gravity. A healthy culture can tolerate some forms of evil in the interests of social peace.”

Chaput applies More’s dictum to the most obvious candidate in America today, abortion law. Much of Chaput’s discussion is pointless, or rather purely theoretical, because the reality is that abortion law has been wholly removed from the political realm, and a uniquely radical pro-abortion regime imposed by diktat by the Supreme Court in violation of the Constitution. Leaving that aside, Chaput compares Mario Cuomo and Bob Casey as serious men, who both “sought to live their Catholic faith in a serious way,” yet came to opposite conclusions about the desirability of legalized abortion. Not that Chaput thinks that both conclusions are correct—Cuomo’s, in his view, is incorrect. “Some acts are so evil that tolerating them itself becomes a poison that weakens the whole of society.” Neither man, however, maintained that it was in any way illegitimate for his Catholic faith to be a determining, if not the only, factor in his opinion about the correct public policy with respect to abortion.

So, says Chaput, “What Needs To Be Done”? Catholic spiritual identity has been weakened over the past forty (now fifty) years, and “rendered the American Catholic witness to the Gospel partial and unsure.” Catholics (and more broadly, perhaps, Christians) are largely indistinguishable from their neighbors with respect to their public policy views. Chaput calls for each Christian to live a life of witness, and for that witness to include, but not be limited to, explicit advocacy for public policy positions based on each Christian’s faith. The demand has been, lately, and continues to increasingly be, that Christians should shut up, “ostensibly for everyone’s freedom of conscience; but often because of a particular contempt for Christianity and a distrust for serious faith in general.” But as Chaput quotes Pope Liberius, before a hostile Roman Emperor, “The truth of the faith is not lessened by the fact that I stand alone.”

Chaput’s own moderation in application of principles is shown by his discussion in the Afterword as to what he, personally as bishop, would do if a pro-abortion Catholic politician presented himself for Communion. If from outside his diocese, “and I receive no contrary guidance from his own bishop, I would not refuse him Communion. I would assume his honesty and goodwill.” If from his own diocese, though, he would privately discuss the matter with the politician; then publicly ask him not to take Communion—and only then, if he continued to publicly press the issue, refuse him Communion. On elections more generally, again, Chaput advises us to “remember that the ‘perfect’ can easily become the enemy of the ‘good.’”

While Chaput’s analysis is compelling, it does not squarely address an issue that has only been brought to the foreground recently—whether, in an increasingly post-Christian world, mere Christian witness and life is itself the best political action. (Again, the title of his upcoming book suggests that perhaps he intends to address this issue.) When Christians, as Christians, have daily diminishing political power, and conservative Christians have become entangled in an unseemly manner with partisan politics not clearly Christian in basis, perhaps stepping back is the right move. Instead, many prominent politically involved Christians, from Jerry Falwell Jr. to James Dobson have aggressively thrown their lot in with Donald Trump, whose basic behavior is totally antithetical to Christianity (though no more so than Hillary Clinton’s), in a manner that suggests their goal is to maintain their own political power, not advance the Cross of Christ. (There are voices pushing back against this, of which Russell Moore, the Southern Baptist leader is the most prominent).

Perhaps, today, mere Christian witness is both necessary and sufficient. From such witness, and a consequent automatic strengthening of Christian communities, aided by deliberate focus on organized (but not isolated) Christian community along the line of Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option, a core of knowledge and faith can be kept that will more influence public policy in a future, more receptive society, once neo-paganism has bottomed out. Or, as Joseph Ratzinger predicted decades ago (though not quoted by Chaput), “The church will become small and will have to start afresh more or less from the beginning. . . . But when the trial of this sifting is past, a great power will flow from a more spiritualized and simplified Church. Men in a totally planned world will find themselves unspeakably lonely. If they have completely lost sight of God, they will feel the whole horror of their poverty. Then they will discover the little flock of believers as something wholly new. They will discover it as a hope that is meant for them, an answer for which they have always been searching in secret.”

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