God and Caesar

In the Catholic view, the religious sphere is based on the virtue of faith. This faith is a gift of God … In contrast, according to this Catholic view, the civil sphere is based on experience illumined by faith. That is to say, it is experience aided by faith.

Next, they sent to him some Pharisees and some Herodians to catch him out in what he said. These came and said to him, “Master, we know that you are an honest man, that you are not afraid of anyone, because human rank means nothing to you, and that you teach the way of God in all honesty. Is it permissive to pay taxes to Caesar or not? Should we pay or not?” Recognizing their hypocrisy he said to them, “Why are you putting me to the test? Hand me a denarius and let me see it.” They handed him one and he said to them, “Whose portrait is this? Whose title? They said to him, “Caesar’s.” Jesus said to them, “Pay Caesar what belongs to Caesar—and God what belongs to God.” And they were amazed at him. (Mk 12:13-17, New Jerusalem Bible)

Making the cultural and religious journey from 21st century America to New Testament times in search for the original meaning of a text, and the return journey to try to ascertain its legitimate relevance, is always fraught with challenges. But if Scripture is to have any purchase on our lives, we have no other choice than to make such journeys.

The story recorded above has as its basic lesson not that our religious life and our civil life are two completely separate areas, each with its own proper rules of conduct, but that our civil life is a legitimate part of our religious life. The two are related, but different. This is in contrast to the Muslim view that regards the religious sphere and the civil sphere as indistinguishable.

In the Catholic view, the religious sphere is based on the virtue of faith. This faith is a gift of God. Faith is completely gratuitous, absolutely unmerited. Faith can be prepared for by experience but is independent of experience. It is not unreasonable, but it gives us truths which are beyond the scope of reason to arrive at or understand. It is faith aided by reason. Its content comes from Christ, either directly or indirectly. Reason helps us understand that these data of faith are not contradictory to reason, that is, reason helps us to “understand” the data of faith to a limited extent. (Witness the early councils of the Church and the use, therein, of the language of Greek philosophy.)

In contrast, according to this Catholic view, the civil sphere is based on experience illumined by faith. That is to say, it is experience aided by faith. It contains rules of action which can be arrived at by reason alone, although this arrival can be aided considerably by faith. These rules sometimes go under the name of “Natural Law.” As stated above, this civil sphere is not an area completely separated from the religious sphere. Rather, it should be viewed as a legitimate part of a Catholic’s life of faith.

Because this civil sphere is based on experience, its rules can be arrived at by experience without the aid of faith. Thus, the Natural Law can be a source of conduct which Catholics share with non-Catholics—both Christian and non-Christian.

Some secularists claim authority over this civil sphere to the exclusion of the claims of faith. Thus their strategy is to push the Church, as Church (and all individual believers as believers as well), out of the civil sphere, and back into the sphere of faith, a sphere which is thus called the sphere of “worship.” That is to say, persons of faith, as such, are to be excluded from the “public square.” Representation is made that faith is a purely subjective reality, independent of reason; the objects of faith may well be true, but they are not demonstrably true, and hence, may not serve as a basis of norms of action to be imposed on persons who do not share this faith.

This view, of course, deliberately or not, denies the view expressed above that the civil sphere is based on reason, whether illumined by faith or not. The principles that should operate in the civil sphere are more easily arrived at when faith is part of the process, but faith is not absolutely necessary. For example, the present writer recalls taking part in a pro-life rally in Hyde Park in London in 1975. One of the speakers arguing against abortion was a self-described atheist, who defended her position as reasonable as did the other speakers, explicitly or implicitly, for none of them made arbitrary appeals based on emotion. The atheist clearly arrived at her view based on experience to the exclusion of religious faith. Being an atheist, she was, by that very fact, also a secularist of sorts. It would seem that not all secularists think alike. But all, explicitly or implicitly, make use of reason when they are arguing in the public square if they are to communicate and not appear arbitrary.

It is false to claim that the secular State in a democracy may, or should have, a monopoly on rules of conduct in the civil sphere any more than that, in a democracy, the world of faith may, or should have, a monopoly on the discussion of rules of conduct in the civil sphere. Discussion  in the civil sphere is open to participants—with or without faith. The only required condition would seem to be a respect for reason and for what reason stands for: the dignity of the human person.

Given the above as preamble, the following considerations present what the Catholic Church considers the fundamental, permanent principles, and the fundamental, principal values of her social teaching, i.e., the basis for her involvement in the civil order. They are based on the experience of countless generations living the life of Catholic faith. They are to be found outlined in detail in the Vatican document, “The Compendium of the Social Teaching of the Church,” Chapter 4 (§§ 160-208).

The principles are:

  1. The Dignity of the Human Person (foundation);
  2. The Common Good;
  3. Subsidiarity;
  4.  Solidarity.

The values are:

  1. Truth;
  2. Freedom;
  3. Justice;
  4. Love.

These principles and values are so general and so fundamental that they concern the reality of any society. That is to say, “from close and immediate relationships to those mediated by politics, economics and law; from relationships among communities and groups to relations between peoples and nations” (§ 161).

  1. The Dignity of the Human Person. Every human person is, by the very fact of his or her personhood, a being able to know and to choose. (These characteristics, of course, can be impeded by accidental circumstances of a great variety.) As such, each person is responsible for his or her actions, i.e., they are free. This responsibility can be temporarily or permanently limited, and even when present, is subject to the laws of more or less (i.e., virtue or vice in various degrees). But it is the basis for all activity that is truly human and, hence, of all civilized society. Even when a person is not able to act in a responsible way due to accidental limitations (e.g., presence in the womb before birth, mental handicaps, serious injury), that person still must be treated in a civilized way, the same way that person would be obliged to treat himself or herself or other people if the accidental limitations were not present.
  2. The Common Good. The common good can be defined as “the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily” (§ 164). The common good “does not consist in the simple sum of the particular goods of each subject of a social entity. Belonging to everyone and to each person, it is, and remains, “common,” because it is indivisible, and because only together is it possible to attain it, increase it, and safeguard its effectiveness with regard also to the future.” The common good, in fact, can be understood as the social and community dimension of the moral good.
  3. Subsidiarity. “Just as it is gravely wrong to take from individuals what they can accomplish by their own initiative and industry, and give it to the community, so also it is an injustice and, at the same time, a grave evil, and disturbance of right order, to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do. For every social activity ought, of its very nature, to furnish help to the members of the body social, and never destroy and absorb them” (§ 186). “Experience shows that the denial of subsidiarity, or its limitation in the name of an alleged democratization or equality of all members of society, limits and, sometimes, even destroys the spirit of freedom and initiative” (§ 187).
  4. Solidarity. “Solidarity highlights, in a particular way, the intrinsic social nature of the human person, the equality of all in dignity and rights, and the common path of individuals and peoples towards an ever more committed unity.” Solidarity is a “firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good. That is to say, to the good of all, and of each individual, because we are all really responsible for all” (§ 193).

It should be noted that while these three principles of the Common Good, Subsidiarity, and Solidarity, and their foundation in the Dignity of the Human Person, are parts of the Gospel message, rightly understood in the implications of the Good News, they are nevertheless accessible to human reason alone—without the aid of faith. The result is that they are not, as such, part of the deposit of faith, accessible only to those who have received the gift of faith, but accessible (though, perhaps, not as easily) to all those of good will who use their experience as the basis for rational judgment. It would be wrong, therefore, to claim that these four elements are limited to the sphere of Catholic faith, even though they may be advanced by the Catholic Church, and are applicable to the Catholic Church.

The same can be said for the four fundamental values. Much depends on exactly what they entail, and how they are to be realized. But truth, freedom, justice (in its various forms), and love (the unifying bond of all of the principles and values) are necessary if any society is to function optimally. They are relevant to every society, whether that society is based on faith or not, and no matter the source which advances them. For they are intrinsic to the well-being of any society composed of humans. Accordingly, they are fittingly advanced in the public square, and are to be judged on their intrinsic merit and not on the source from which they come. For no one owns the public square, neither the church nor the state, nor any organization. Each person, and each group of persons, has the right and duty to be present in this public square, provided that they recognize the primacy of reason in the square.

For the Catholic, God created both the domain of reason and the domain of faith. Reason operates in both domains, but in different ways. But it is not necessary to recognize that the public square is God’s domain in order that God’s reason be employed in it.  For persons of faith, an appeal to the rights of freedom of religion, is quite legitimate in their insistence that their points of view as regards the public square be honored. But care must be exercised that opponents of such a view not be allowed to portray such persons of faith as advancing their positions solely on the basis of faith. That is a danger inherent in defending the believer’s role in the public square on grounds only of religious freedom. Such opponents would thus use the argument for religious liberty to say they are defending it by pushing believers, as such, back into the sphere of worship. There, their freedom of conscience will gladly be honored since it is irrelevant to society at large.

Applying the above principles and values to the contemporary scene in the U.S. is, obviously, a challenge of enormous complexity. Other factors—e.g., positive law, the huge size of the country, the influence of history—must be taken into consideration. But all of this does not deny the crucial importance of the principles and values outlined above.

To return to Mk 12:13-17: Would the Pharisees and Herodians addressed by Jesus have thought in the above terms? Obviously not. They would have thought of the hated Roman presence in their land, and their failure to trick Jesus into taking sides. Perhaps, also, they would have thought of the relation of Abraham to Tiberius, and what this relation implied. But the analysis given above would seem to be a valid understanding of the implications inherent in the distinction between God and Caesar made by Jesus when viewed in the light of 2,000 years of Christians living their faith in an enormous variety of circumstances under the guidance of the Spirit.

Fr. James Swetnam, SJ About Fr. James Swetnam, SJ

Fr. James Swetnam, SJ, entered the Society of Jesus in 1945. He was ordained in 1958 and spent 50 years in Rome at the Pontifical Biblical Institute. During his Jesuit training, he acquired licentiate degrees in philosophy, theology, and Scripture, and a doctorate in biblical studies from the University of Oxford. He maintains a website, www.jamesswetnamsclosereadings.com, and is now in residence at Jesuit Hall in St. Louis, Missouri.


  1. Avatar Ted Heywood says:

    Since, in America, national leadership is supposed to flow from the Chief Executive, someone should tack this up on his door so he has to read it every time he enters or leaves. ……. On the door of every other civic leader or Judge at any level as well!!
    On second thought, since it isn’t signed by the Rev. Wright, BillAyers, Bernadette Dorn, Franklin LLoyd Marshal, or included in the ‘Dreams From his Father’ he would probably just consider it more colonialist propoganda.