“We can’t build a just society with the blood of unborn children”
Most Rev. Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap.
Archbishop of Denver, CO
From his lecture: “Rendering unto Caesar: The Catholic
Political Vocation” -- delivered on Monday, Feb. 23, 2009 at St. Basil’s Collegiate
Church on the campus of the University of Toronto.
I want to do three things with my time tonight. First, Father Rosica asked me to
talk about some of the themes from my book, Render Unto Caesar: Serving the
Nation by Living Our Catholic Beliefs in Political Life. I’m happy to do that.
Second, I want to talk about some of the lessons we can draw from the recent
U.S. election. And third, I want to talk about the meaning of hope.
As I begin, I need to mention a couple of caveats. Here’s the first caveat.
Canada and the United States have a long and close friendship as neighbors. It’s
so long and so close that Americans often forget that our histories, our
political structures and the ways we look at the world are, in some respects,
very different. Obviously I’ll be speaking tonight as an American, a Catholic
and a bishop – though not necessarily in that order. Some of what I say may not
be useful to a Canadian audience, especially those who aren’t Catholic. But I do
believe that the heart of the Catholic political vocation remains the same for
every believer in every country. The details of our political life change from
nation to nation. But the mission of public Christian discipleship remains the
same, because we all share the same baptism.
Here’s the second caveat. Not much of what I say tonight will be new. In fact,
I’ve been saying pretty much the same thing about faith and politics again and
again, every year, for the past 12 years. So if you’ve heard it all before,
please feel free to snooze. I’ve learned from experience, though, that Henry
Ford was right when he said that “Two percent of the people think; three percent
think they think, and 95 percent would rather die than think.”
Ford had a pretty dark view of humanity, which I don’t share. Most of the people
I meet as a pastor have the brains and the talent to live very fulfilling lives.
But Ford was right in one unintended way: American consumer culture is a very
powerful narcotic. Moral reasoning can be hard, and TV is a great painkiller.
This has political implications. Real freedom demands an ability to think, and a
great deal of modern life – not just in the United States, but all over the
developed world -- seems deliberately designed to discourage that. So talking
about God and Caesar, even if it wakes up just one Christian mind in an
audience, is always worth the effort.
The most important fact to remember about our discussion tonight is this: As
adults, each of us needs to form a strong and genuinely Catholic conscience.
Then we need to follow that conscience when we vote. And then we need to take
responsibility for the consequences of our vote. Nobody can do that for us.
That’s why really knowing, living and submitting ourselves to our Catholic faith
are so important. It’s the only reliable guide we have for acting in the public
square as disciples of Jesus Christ.
So let’s talk for a few minutes about Render Unto Caesar. When people ask me
about the book, the questions usually fall into three categories. Why did I
write it? What does the book say? And what does the book mean for each of us as
individual Catholics? This last question will be a good doorway into talking
about the U.S. election last year, but let’s start at the beginning first. Why
did I write this book, now?
One answer is simple. A friend asked me to do it. Back in 2004, a young attorney
I know ran for public office in Colorado as a prolife Democrat. He nearly won in
a heavily Republican district. But he also discovered how hard it can be to
raise money, run a campaign and stay true to your Catholic convictions, all at
the same time. After the election he asked me to put my thoughts about faith and
politics into a form that other young Catholics could use who were thinking
about a political vocation – and it really is a “vocation.”
That’s where the idea started. But I also had another reason for doing the book.
Frankly, I just got tired of hearing outsiders and insiders tell Catholics to
keep quiet about our religious and moral views in the big public debates that
involve all of us as a society. That’s a kind of bullying. I don’t think
Catholics should accept it.
Another reason for writing the book is that when I looked around for a single
source that explains the Catholic political vocation in a simple way, it just
didn’t exist. I found that very strange. Public life is a demanding vocation,
but it’s not voodoo or advanced physics. As citizens, we can never afford to
abdicate our shared civic life to a political or economic elite. A nation’s
political life, like Christianity itself, is meant for everyone, and everyone
has a duty to contribute to it. A democracy depends on the active involvement of
all its citizens, not just lobbyists, experts, think tanks and the mass media.
For Catholics, politics – the pursuit of justice and the common good in the
public square – is part of the history of salvation. No one is a minor actor in
that drama. Each person is important.
So what does the book say? I think the message of Render Unto Caesar can be
condensed into a few basic points.
Here’s the first point. For many years, studies have shown that Americans have a
very poor sense of history. That’s very dangerous, because as Thucydides and
Machiavelli and Thomas Jefferson have all said, history matters. It matters
because the past shapes the present, and the present shapes the future. If
Catholics don’t know history, and especially their own history as Catholics,
then somebody else – and usually somebody not very friendly – will create their
history for them.
Let me put it another way. A man with amnesia has no future and no present
because he can’t remember his past. The past is a man’s anchor in experience and
reality. Without it, he may as well be floating in space. In like manner, if we
Catholics don’t remember and defend our religious history as a believing people,
nobody else will, and then we won’t have a future because we won’t have a past.
If we don’t know how the Church worked with or struggled against political
rulers in the past, then we can’t think clearly about the relations between
Church and state today.
Here’s the second point, and it’s a place where the Canadian and American
experiences may diverge. America is not a secular state. As historian Paul
Johnson once said, America was “born Protestant.” It has uniquely and deeply
religious roots. Obviously it has no established Church, and it has
non-sectarian public institutions. It also has plenty of room for both believers
and non-believers. But the United States was never intended to be a “secular”
country in the radical modern sense. Nearly all the Founders were either
Christian or at least religion-friendly. And all of our public institutions and
all of our ideas about the human person are based in a religiously shaped
vocabulary. So if we cut God out of our public life, we also cut the foundation
out from under our national ideals.
Here’s the third point. We need to be very forceful in clarifying what the words
in our political vocabulary really mean. Words are important because they shape
our thinking, and our thinking drives our actions. When we subvert the meaning
of words like “the common good” or “conscience” or “community” or “family,” we
undermine the language that sustains our thinking about the law. Dishonest
language leads to dishonest debate and bad laws.
Here’s an example. We need to remember that tolerance is not a Christian virtue.
Charity, justice, mercy, prudence, honesty – these are Christian virtues. And
obviously, in a diverse community, tolerance is an important working principle.
But it’s never an end itself. In fact, tolerating grave evil within a society is
itself a form of serious evil. Likewise, democratic pluralism does not mean that
Catholics should be quiet in public about serious moral issues because of some
misguided sense of good manners. A healthy democracy requires vigorous moral
debate to survive. Real pluralism demands that people of strong beliefs will
advance their convictions in the public square – peacefully, legally and
respectfully, but energetically and without embarrassment. Anything less is bad
citizenship and a form of theft from the public conversation.
Here’s the fourth point. When Jesus tells the Pharisees and Herodians in the
Gospel of Matthew (22:21) to “render unto the Caesar the things that are
Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s,” he sets the framework for how we
should think about religion and the state even today. Caesar does have rights.
We owe civil authority our respect and appropriate obedience. But that obedience
is limited by what belongs to God. Caesar is not God. Only God is God, and the
state is subordinate and accountable to God for its treatment of human persons,
all of whom were created by God. Our job as believers is to figure out what
things belong to Caesar, and what things belong to God -- and then put those
things in right order in our own lives, and in our relations with others.
So having said all this, what does a book like Render Unto Caesar mean, in
practice, for each of us as individual Catholics? It means that we each have a
duty to study and grow in our faith, guided by the teaching of the Church. It
also means that we have a duty to be politically engaged. Why? Because politics
is the exercise of power, and the use of power always has moral content and
As Christians, we can’t claim to love God and then ignore the needs of our
neighbors. Loving God is like loving a spouse. A husband may tell his wife that
he loves her, and of course that’s very beautiful. But she’ll still want to see
the proof in his actions. Likewise if we claim to be “Catholic,” we need to
prove it by our behavior. And serving other people by working for justice,
charity and truth in our nation’s political life is one of the very important
ways we do that.
The “separation of Church and state” does not mean – and it can never mean –
separating our Catholic faith from our public witness, our political choices and
our political actions. That kind of separation would require Christians to deny
who we are; to repudiate Jesus when he commands us to be “leaven in the world”
and to “make disciples of all nations.” That kind of radical separation steals
the moral content of a society. It’s the equivalent of telling a married man
that he can’t act married in public. Of course, he can certainly do that, but he
won’t stay married for long.
Partly because I’m a bishop and partly because I’m older and a little bit wiser,
I don’t belong to any political party. As a young priest I worked on Bobby
Kennedy’s campaign. Later I volunteered with the 1976 and 1980 campaigns for
Jimmy Carter. So if I have any partisan roots, they’re in the Democratic Party.
But as I say in the book, one of the lessons we need to learn from the last 50
years is that a “preferred” Catholic political party usually doesn’t exist. The
sooner Catholics feel at home in any political party, the sooner that party
takes them for granted and then ignores their concerns. Party loyalty for the
sake of habit, or family tradition, or ethnic or class interest is a form of
tribalism. It’s a lethal kind of moral laziness. Issues matter. Character
matters. Acting on principle matters. But party loyalty for the sake of party
loyalty is a dead end.
I wrote Render Unto Caesar with no interest in supporting or attacking any
candidate or any political party. The goal of Render Unto Caesar was simply to
describe what an authentic Catholic approach to political life looks like, and
then to encourage Americans Catholics to live it. And that brings us to the 2008
election and its aftermath.
Three weeks before last November's election, I wrote the following words: “I
believe that Senator Obama, whatever his other talents, is the most committed
‘abortion-rights’ presidential candidate of either major party since the Roe v.
Wade abortion decision in 1973. [T]he party platform Senator Obama runs on this
year is not only aggressively ‘pro-choice;’ it has also removed any suggestion
that killing an unborn child might be a regrettable thing. On the question of
homicide against the unborn child – and let’s remember that the great Lutheran
pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer explicitly called abortion ‘murder’ – the Democratic
platform that emerged from Denver in August 2008 is clearly anti-life.”
I added that, “To suggest -- as some Catholics do -- that Senator Obama is this
year’s ‘real’ prolife candidate requires a peculiar kind of self-hypnosis, or
moral confusion, or worse. To portray the 2008 Democratic Party presidential
ticket as the preferred ‘prolife’ option is to subvert what the word ‘prolife’
I like clarity, and there’s a reason why. I think modern life, including life in
the Church, suffers from a phony unwillingness to offend that poses as prudence
and good manners, but too often turns out to be cowardice. Human beings owe each
other respect and appropriate courtesy. But we also owe each other the truth --
which means candor.
President Obama is a man of intelligence and some remarkable gifts. He has a
great ability to inspire, as we saw from his very popular visit to Canada just
this past week. But whatever his strengths, there’s no way to reinvent his
record on abortion and related issues with rosy marketing about unity, hope and
change. Of course, that can change. Some things really do change when a person
reaches the White House. Power ennobles some men. It diminishes others. Bad
policy ideas can be improved. Good policy ideas can find a way to flourish. But
as Catholics, we at least need to be honest with ourselves and each other about
the political facts we start with.
Unfortunately when it comes to the current administration that will be very hard
for Catholics in the United States, and here’s why. A spirit of adulation
bordering on servility already exists among some of the same Democratic-friendly
Catholic writers, scholars, editors and activists who once accused prolifers of
being too cozy with Republicans. It turns out that Caesar is an equal
I think Catholics – and I mean here mainly American Catholics – need to remember
four simple things in the months ahead.
First, all political leaders draw their authority from God. We owe no leader any
submission or cooperation in the pursuit of grave evil. In fact, we have the
duty to change bad laws and resist grave evil in our public life, both by our
words and our non-violent actions. The truest respect we can show to civil
authority is the witness of our Catholic faith and our moral convictions,
without excuses or apologies.
Second, in democracies, we elect public servants, not messiahs. It’s worth
recalling that despite two ugly wars, an unpopular Republican president, a
fractured Republican party, the support of most of the American news media and
massively out-spending his opponent, our new president actually trailed in the
election polls the week before the economic meltdown. This subtracts nothing
from the legitimacy of his office. It also takes nothing away from our
obligation to respect the president’s leadership. But it does place some of
today’s talk about a “new American mandate” in perspective. Americans, including
many Catholics, elected a gifted man to fix an economic crisis. That’s the
mandate. They gave nobody a mandate to retool American culture on the issues of
marriage and the family, sexuality, bioethics, religion in public life and
abortion. That retooling could easily happen, and it clearly will happen -- but
only if Catholics and other religious believers allow it. It’s instructive to
note that the one lesson many activists on the American cultural left learned
from their loss in the 2004 election -- and then applied in 2008 -- was how to
use a religious vocabulary while ignoring some of the key beliefs and values
that religious people actually hold dear.
Here’s the third thing to remember. It doesn’t matter what we claim to believe
if we’re unwilling to act on our beliefs. What we say about our Catholic faith
is the easy part. What we do with it shapes who we really are. Many good
Catholics voted for President Obama. Many voted for Senator McCain. Both parties
have plenty of decent people in their ranks.
But when we hear that 54 percent of American Catholics voted for President Obama
last November, and that this somehow shows a sea change in their social
thinking, we can reasonably ask: How many of them practice their faith on a
regular basis? And when we do that, we learn that most practicing Catholics
actually voted for Senator McCain. Of course, that doesn’t really tell us
whether anyone voted for either candidate for the right reasons. Nobody can do a
survey of the secret places of the human heart. But it does tell us that numbers
can be used to prove just about anything. We won’t be judged on our knowledge of
poll data. We’ll be judged on whether we proved it by our actions when we said
“I am a Catholic, and Jesus Christ is Lord.”
Here’s the fourth and final thing to remember, and there’s no easy way to say
it. The Church in the United States has done a poor job of forming the faith and
conscience of Catholics for more than 40 years. And now we’re harvesting the
results -- in the public square, in our families and in the confusion of our
personal lives. I could name many good people and programs that seem to disprove
what I just said. But I could name many more that do prove it, and some of them
work in Washington.
The problem with mistakes in our past is that they compound themselves
geometrically into the future unless we face them and fix them. The truth is,
the American electorate is changing, both ethnically and in age. And unless
Catholics have a conversion of heart that helps us see what we’ve become -- that
we haven’t just “assimilated” to American culture, but that we’ve also been
absorbed and bleached and digested by it – then we’ll fail in our duties to a
new generation and a new electorate. And a real Catholic presence in American
life will continue to weaken and disappear.
Every new election cycle I hear from unhappy, self-described Catholics who
complain that abortion is too much of a litmus test. But isn’t that exactly what
it should be? One of the defining things that set early Christians apart from
the pagan culture around them was their respect for human life; and specifically
their rejection of abortion and infanticide. We can’t be Catholic and be evasive
or indulgent about the killing of unborn life. We can’t claim to be “Catholic”
and “pro-choice” at the same time without owning the responsibility for where
the choice leads – to a dead unborn child. We can’t talk piously about programs
to reduce the abortion body count without also working vigorously to change the
laws that make the killing possible. If we’re Catholic, then we believe in the
sanctity of developing human life. And if we don’t really believe in the
humanity of the unborn child from the moment life begins, then we should stop
lying to ourselves and others, and even to God, by claiming we’re something
Catholic social teaching goes well beyond abortion. In America we have many
urgent issues that beg for our attention, from immigration reform to health care
to poverty to homelessness. The Church in Denver and throughout the United
States is committed to all these issues. We need to do a much better job of
helping women who face problem pregnancies, and American bishops have been
pressing our public leaders for that for more than 30 years. But we don’t “help”
anyone by allowing or funding an intimate, lethal act of violence. We can’t
build a just society with the blood of unborn children. The right to life is the
foundation of every other human right -- and if we ignore it, sooner or later
every other right becomes politically contingent.
One of the words we heard endlessly in the last U.S. election was “hope.” I
think “hope” is the only word in the English language more badly misused than
“love.” It’s our go-to anxiety word -- as in, “I sure hope I don’t say anything
stupid tonight.” But for Christians, hope is a virtue, not an emotional crutch
or a political slogan. Virtus, the Latin root of virtue, means strength or
courage. Real hope is unsentimental. It has nothing to do with the cheesy
optimism of election campaigns. Hope assumes and demands a spine in believers.
And that’s why – at least for a Christian -- hope sustains us when the real
answer to the problems or hard choices in life is “no, we can’t,” instead of
“yes, we can.”
Seventy years ago the great French writer Georges Bernanos published a little
essay called “Sermon of an Agnostic on the Feast of St. Théresè.” Bernanos had a
deep distrust for politics and an equally deep love for the Catholic Church. He
could be brutally candid. He disliked both the right and the left. He also had a
piercing sense of irony about the comfortable, the self-satisfied and the
lukewarm who postured themselves as Catholic -- whether they were laypeople or
In his essay he imagined “what any decent agnostic of average intelligence might
say, if by some impossible chance the [pastor] were to let him stand a while in
the pulpit [on] the day consecrated to St. Théresè of Lisieux.”
“Dear brothers,” says the agnostic from the pulpit, “many unbelievers are not as
hardened as you imagine… [But when] we seek [Christ] now, in this world, it is
you we find, and only you… It is you Christians who participate in divinity, as
your liturgy proclaims; it is you ‘divine men’ who ever since [Christ’s]
ascension have been his representatives on earth… You are the salt of the earth.
[So if] the world loses its flavor, who is it I should blame?... The New
Testament is eternally young. It is you who are so old… Because you do not live
your faith, your faith has ceased to be a living thing.”
Bernanos had little use for the learned, the proud or the superficially
religious. He believed instead in the little flowers -- the Thérèses of Lisieux
-- that sustain the Church and convert the world by the purity, simplicity,
innocence and zeal of their faith. That kind of faith is a gift. But it’s a gift
each of us can ask for, and each of us will receive, if we just have the courage
to choose it and then act on it. The only people who ever really change the
world are saints. Each of us can be one of them. But we need to want it, and
then we need to follow the path that comes with it.
Bernanos once wrote that the optimism of the modern world, including its
“politics of hope,” is like whistling past a graveyard. It’s a cheap substitute
for real hope and “a sly form of selfishness, a method of isolating [ourselves]
from the unhappiness of others” by thinking progressive thoughts. Real hope
“must be won. [We] can only attain hope through truth, at the cost of great
effort and long patience… Hope is a virtue, virtus, strength; an heroic
determination of the soul. [And] the highest form of hope is despair overcome.”
Anyone who hasn’t noticed the despair in the world should probably go back to
sleep. The word “hope” on a campaign poster may give us a little thrill of
righteousness, but the world will still be a wreck when the drug wears off. We
can only attain hope through truth. And what that means is this: From the moment
Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life,” the most important political
statement anyone can make is “Jesus Christ is Lord.”
We serve Caesar best by serving God first. We honor our nation best by living
our Catholic faith honestly and vigorously, and bringing it without apology into
the public square and its debates. We’re citizens of heaven first. But just as
God so loved the world that he sent his only son, so the glory and the irony of
the Christian life is this: The more faithfully we love God, the more truly we
serve the world.
Thanks for your time tonight.