The gospel this Sunday opens with the Pharisees and the Herodians plotting together on how to trap Jesus. Note that the Pharisees and the Herodians have traditionally been on opposite sides. Their quick alliance only shows how desperately they want to destroy Jesus and get rid of him.
After humoring Jesus with flattery, they pose him the question, “Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?” The question is a perfect trap meant to put Jesus in a no-win situation. If he says yes, he will be accused of treason for legitimizing the Roman rule over Israel. If he says no, he will be guilty of instigating insubordination and rebellion.
Jesus asks to be shown a coin for the census tax and inquires, “Whose image is on the coin?” “Caesar’s,” they answer. “Then, give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God,” Jesus replies. This unexpected one-liner from Jesus totally outsmarts his enemies, leaving them utterly stunned and dumbfounded.
With his answer, Jesus does not only succeed in evading the malicious snare of his persecutors. He also raises some profound issues on governance and religion. The Pharisees and the Herodians ask Jesus an “either-or” question. Is it lawful… or not? Jesus responds with a “both-and” answer. Give to Cesar… give to God. What does this imply?
The relation between church and state, religion, and politics, has always been a thorny issue. In today’s gospel, Jesus confirms and respects the legitimate distinction between the spiritual and temporal realms. However, by asking the question whose image is minted on the coin, Jesus points to something beyond Caesar or his authority. Because the coin bears the image of Caesar, it rightly belongs to him. But Caesar himself is made in the image and likeness of God (as all of us are); hence he too belongs to God. In the ultimate scheme of things, everything belongs to God, including Caesar and governance.
The Christian understanding of the separation of Church and State finds its origins here, as well as the recognition that Christians have responsibilities in both realms. While it is clear that the Church and the State are independent of each other, the Church’s right to participate in shaping the moral character of society is equally clear since it is central to the mission She received from Christ.
Is it appropriate then for the Church to play a role in political life? The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches: “It is necessary that all participate, each according to his position and role, in promoting the common good. This obligation is inherent in the dignity of the human person. . . . As far as possible citizens should take an active part in public life.” And because responsible citizenship is a virtue, participation in political life is a moral obligation.
However, clergy and the lay faithful have particular and complementary roles in the participation of public life. The primary responsibility of bishops and priests is to deliver the Church’s moral and social teaching and to form consciences in political life. In doing so, Church leaders are to avoid endorsing or opposing candidates or dictating the faithful whom to vote. Moreover, canon law forbids clerics from playing an active role in partisan politics.
The lay faithful however have the direct duty to work for a just ordering of society. As citizens of the state, they are called to take part in public life in their personal capacity. More than ever, lay people of deep faith and proven integrity are needed in the political arena. The common good is too precious to be left in the hands of corrupt politicians and the people’s welfare too important to be managed by incompetent leaders.
In his latest encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, Pope Francis speaks of political love which alone can effectively put in place the social and political order. He appeals for a renewed appreciation of politics as “a lofty vocation and one of the highest forms of charity, inasmuch as it seeks the common good.”