"Render unto Cæsar that which is Cæsar's, and unto God that which is God's…."1
This phrase of our Lord, uttered in dealing with the entrapment of the Pharisees is one of those that are known even by people who don't have much exposure to the Scriptures. While it makes a point that is very logical, it is sometime misinterpreted by secular people to demand a complete separation of civic affairs from religious affairs. In these United States it is cited to argue the fiction that our Constitution requires what the secularists call "a separation of Church and State." I am not going to preach about the Constitution today -- although I strongly urge you to read it for yourself every so often in order to know what it actually says. But a few words are in order to better understand the relationship of God and government in this or any society.
The Pharisees were trying to trap our Lord by making Him say something rash: If he sided with the Roman government and its taxes, it would seem that He was no friend of the Jewish people or of the Temple; maybe even that He was a traitor to His own people. On the other hand, if He denied the authority of the Romans to tax, He would very likely be subject to the penalties of Roman justice. Remember, one of the lies that the Pharisees told about Jesus before Pontius Pilate -- in spite of our Lord's clear statement today -- was that He had forbidden the payment of taxes to Cæsar.2 Our Lord's response, taking neither side, must have enraged the Pharisees, for it implied at least some degree of legitimacy in the Roman government. This was a sore subject for patriotic Jews, especially for the Pharisees who were the descendents of the Machabees who fought so hard and so long to drive the successors of Alexander the Great out of Israël. They did not like to be reminded that their ancestors were the ones who made alliances and invited into their country the Romans and the half-Jewish despotic family of the Herods -- the Machabees wanted powerful allies to dispossess the Persians, but powerful allies often demand a great deal in return.
When standing before Pilate, Our Lord made another significant statement about the Roman Government: "I have the power to crucify Thee," said Pilate -- to which our Lord replied, "thou would have no power at all over me if it were not given thee from above."3 The power of Government comes from God, our Lord was saying, and at least in some degree the Roman governor possessed that power.
Over the years the Church would recognize a variety of governments as legitimately possessing the power of God to govern their people. Republican Rome was fast becoming a military dictatorship run by pagans by the time of Christ. Rome would fall and give way to the rule of barbarian kings and feudal lords. Later the Church would see Christian kingdoms rule; then giving way to nation-states, and later to a variety of indifferent republics. All of these governments had their faults. What made them legitimate was that in varying measure their laws reflected God's natural law -- although imperfect, each of them worked in some manner to keep the peace, enable commerce, and to do justice among their subjects. How such governments got into power was less important than the fact that they exercised God's authority on earth, and came somewhat close to keeping His Commandments on a national basis. Authority to govern might be designated by popular vote, or by the will of a few aristocrats, or even by a dictator, a king, or an emperor -- but that authority did not come from any of these, but from God alone
One can debate endlessly about the "ideal form of Christian government," for their really in no such thing. Governments often must be formed or changed to meet the conditions at hand; sometimes there are strong and charismatic leaders available, and sometimes there are not. What is important is that any such government exercise the authority given by God to do the will of God on earth. Writing extensively on this subject, Pope Leo XIII tells us: "the right to rule may take this or that form, provided that it insures the general welfare…. Rulers must bear in mind that God is the paramount ruler of the world, setting Him before themselves as their exemplar and law in the administration of the State."4
Saint Paul was obviously speaking about good rulers when he wrote: "they have been appointed by God. Therefore he who resists the authorities resists the ordinance of God … rulers are a terror not to the good but to the evil … not without reason does the governor carry a sword."5 Still, we may be inclined to think Saint Paul a bit naïve. Certainly, we have seen evil governments -- and even more certainly, we can all point to evil actions taken by governments that we consider generally good. Mortal men in power are often subject to temptation to rule in ways that don't reflect God as "the paramount ruler of the world." This is why there must not be a wide separation between God and governments.
Again, Leo XIII reminds us "Legislation is the work of men invested with power, and who, in fact, govern the nation; therefore it follows that, practically, the quality of the laws depends more upon the quality of these men than upon the form of power. The laws will be good or bad accordingly as the minds of the legislators are imbued with good or bad principles, as they allow themselves to be guided by political prudence or passion."6 This is why it is incumbent on Catholics to understand the workings of their governments, to be familiar with the significant issues of the day, and to elect only those rulers who are "imbued with good principles."
The authority to rule comes ultimately from God. It is an authority that must be respected and supported. But it is also an authority that must pattern itself on the "exemplar" of God. We who are of God must render Cæsar his due, while making sure, in turn, that Cæsar knows and submits to the purpose of that authority which he holds from God.
1. Gospel: Matthew 22: 15-21.
2 Luke xxiii: 2
3 John xix: 10-11.
4 Pope Leo XIII, "Immortale Dei," page 109 in
The Great Encyclical Letters of Pope Leo XIII (TAN).
5 Romans xiii: 1-4.
6 Leo XIII, "Au Milieu des Sollicitudes," 16
February, A.D. 1892, page 259 in the TAN edition.
2 Luke xxiii: 2
3 John xix: 10-11.
4 Pope Leo XIII, "Immortale Dei," page 109 in The Great Encyclical Letters of Pope Leo XIII (TAN).
5 Romans xiii: 1-4.
6 Leo XIII, "Au Milieu des Sollicitudes," 16 February, A.D. 1892, page 259 in the TAN edition.