God, Not Caesar, Endowed Us With the Right to Life

Catholic moral theology recognizes that even the state is subject to the moral law.

Peter Paul Rubens, “The Tribute Money,” c. 1612
Peter Paul Rubens, “The Tribute Money,” c. 1612

The readings for the 29th Sunday in Ordinary Time cite the familiar Gospel passage of “rendering unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” That saying is especially relevant in an election year, but in ways that require a little unpacking.

The separate claims of God and Caesar are not foundations for a “wall of separation” between Church and state nor even their division. While Jesus recognizes that God and Caesar may have different claims, He certainly is not making either them or their claims equal. God is not Caesar’s peer even if, as the Pharisees would later observe on Good Friday, “anyone who makes himself a King becomes Caesar’s rival” (John 19:12). The Lord does not reciprocate the sentiments, because as the great American black writer James Weldon Johnson noted, “your arms are too short to box with God.” (Similar sentiments are to be found in Job 38 and Isaiah 45:9-12.)

We know the general story. The Pharisees are looking for ways to get Jesus in trouble, either with the people (for whom Roman authority was odious) or the authorities (if he opposed their taxes). The translation being used this year has Jesus being asked whether it is lawful to pay the “census tax.”

Now, apart from the fact that Israel chafed under Roman rule, symbolized by the Roman coin, Israel also had an allergy to censuses. That sensitivity is already to be found in the fourth book of the Bible — Numbers — and in the description of David’s attempt to conduct a census as a Satanic act “caus[ing] Israel to sin” (1 Chronicles 21: 1,3]. 

The reason for that hostility was simple: God’s people were God’s people, whose number he well knew. Jesus noted, after all, that God not only counted them but the hairs on their heads as well (Luke 12:7). Human authorities who sought to count God’s people in some sense claimed authority over who and what belonged to God. In some sense, that headcount reduced them to things and ciphers. It reified them.

When describing the census at the time of Jesus’ birth, the Polish writer Roman Brandstaetter put words of pious indignation on the lips of St. Joseph, as he wrestles with the moral quandary of Caesar Augustus’ enumeration: “[Israel] has become indignant with a great indignation which I share, because it is not allowed to count Israel like cattle grazed by shepherds on a meadow. Israel is not the property of the Emperor but of Elohim, to whom she belongs. He is her Lord and King, so let no one living dare to count the possessions of the Lord, for He who records God’s property enters into His mysteries and, like a thief, puts his hand out for them.”

Some might call it superstition, but there is a profound insight here. God, the Lord and Giver of Life, gives life freely but providentially — even if we do not recognize his hand in that doing (as Cyrus, in today’s First Reading, did not). When human beings start counting God’s gifts of life, they tend to become far less generous. They start murmuring against the “surplus population” (Ebenezer Scrooge), arrogating to themselves the right to opine about those “populations we don’t want too many of” (Ruth Bader Ginsburg) and even promoting measures towards “zero population growth” (Kingsley Davis and Paul Ehrlich, with probable approval of the aforementioned two). 

When Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettsyburg Address, he spoke of the Declaration of Independence as bringing forth a “new nation conceived in liberty.” America’s conception document, the Declaration of Independence, speaks of rights coming not from Caesar but from God: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life…” 

Jesus and Jefferson both must balance the claims of God and Caesar, Creator and King George III. They recognize that both have claims, but their claims are not co-equal: God and Creator take precedence over Caesar and King, especially as regards self-evident rights as life, which is the foundation of all human dignity. And when Caesar and King claim power not to protect or even destroy the latter, both Catholic theology and Jeffersonian philosophy acknowledge that it is right to “alter or abolish” such regimes — 100% Catholic, 100% American. 

The question of the right to life is particularly prominent in this year’s election. America’s Catholic bishops have rightfully called it the “preeminent issue” because — as Vatican II itself reminds us — “abortion and infanticide are unspeakable crimes” against God and man (Gaudium et spes, 51), not human rights. These are not questions of “separation of church and state,” “carrying out my oath of office,” or matters of private conscience versus public responsibility. All the latter are evasions, just like the Pharisees’ game to trap Jesus in the first century equivalent of a hostile soundbite. They themselves wanted Rome out of Israel, too.

Catholic moral theology recognizes that even the state is subject to the moral law: sovereignty is not an exemption from the Ten Commandments. While theology has refined the nuances of the discussion of how civil law can embody moral principles, it has certainly never held that fundamental human rights such as life are negotiable elements of civil moral responsibility.

This tracks remarkably with secular philosophy as well. Even as political philosophy, starting with Machiavelli but taking up speed in the age of Hobbes and beyond, tried to push God out of the question of what makes a state legitimate, they all recognized that a state’s legitimacy must at least depend on protecting man’s most basic rights.

Hobbes was no believer in God nor an optimistic view of man. For him, before man enters society (already a false start, since man is always social) the “state of nature is the state of war,” where everybody relentlessly and uncompromisingly pursues his own interests: homo hominis lupus (man is wolf to man). Without a ruler to enforce rules, there will be one victor on the top of the heap and lots of dead corpses. Since it’s not in the interest of the 99 corpses to have only one victor, everybody surrenders at least that much freedom to an absolute sovereign so that the sovereign protects him from death while he otherwise goes about pursuing his interests.

Jefferson (although he was hardly Hobbsean) merely completes the syllogism: if the sovereign neglects or undermines the task for which he received sovereignty — the protection of the most basic interest of a human being, i.e. his life — then he forfeits that sovereignty. Even the most relentlessly secular political philosophy, therefore, recognizes the responsibility of Caesar to protect the most basic right to be. And that is why Hamlet anticipated the 2020 election because, “to be or not to be: that is the question.”