Caesar and The Apostolic Authority of the Church (Part II)

In my last essay, I proposed that the apostolic authority of the Catholic Church, which comes directly from Christ and is not subject to any earthly human authority, teaches the truth that serves as the only adequate foundation for just government.

This was preliminary to explaining the meaning of the words of Jesus: Render to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God. (Mt 22:21)

The presence in the world of the apostolic authority of the Church presents a real challenge to the authority of Caesar, especially because Caesar tends to think that his authority is supreme; we need to think hard about the implications of our Lord’s words in order to grasp the right relation between the authority of Caesar, that is all civil authority, and the apostolic authority to care for what belongs to God.

First, our Lord’s argument bears on paying tax to Caesar. The coin bears the image and inscription of Caesar, so he says, Render to Caesar what belongs to Caesar. He certainly did not mean that Caesar has a right to all our money but there is a lot of meaning contained in that coin.

The coin minted by Caesar makes possible peaceful economic exchange over a wide area. So, the coin really represents Caesar’s responsibility for the maintenance of a peaceful temporal order that allows exchange to take place and human life to flourish. A wise Caesar would realize that peaceful economic exchange and the prosperity that it represents is not the goal of his rule, but the sign that he has been ruling well.

When the rule of Caesar fails, human society falls into anarchy while lawlessness and brigandage abound. Travel becomes dangerous and it is no longer safe to go outside at night. Where such anarchy abounds, virtue grows rare and difficult.

Caesar’s true goal, though, should be that his people be virtuous because without virtue human life cannot flourish. The cradle for virtue is a healthy marriage and family life; children being born to married parents and growing up beneath the watchful care of a loving father and mother. The Church is the teacher of virtue by her doctrine and through her sacraments provides the strength of the Holy Spirit, which makes true virtue possible, even on a large scale.

But what are the limits of Caesar’s authority? It is contained in Jesus’ question: Whose image is this and whose inscription? The economic order regulated by Caesar’s authority bears his stamp. Taxes are the price of admission into the benefits of the economic order.

But let us take Jesus’ question and ask, “Whose image and whose inscription do we find on the human soul?” We find the image of God, the Most Holy Trinity, engraved in the human powers of intellect and will, and we find the inscription of Jesus Christ, our Savior, marked on the souls of the baptized. The soul belongs to God and is cared for by Christ’s Church.

In a word the things that belong to Caesar belong to this passing world; the things that belong to God and are cared for by the Church relate to salvation of souls and eternal life. As the things of this world need to be ordered to eternal life, so the things of Caesar need to be ordered to the things of God. Caesar himself possesses a soul that belongs to God; he must give his own soul to God and must at least respect that the souls of those subject to his rule belong first to God. Further, Caesar is not the mediator between God and man, Jesus Christ is. The Church is not subject to Caesar but to Jesus Christ.

What belongs to God? Human souls created for eternal life. How are souls given back to God? In the first place through divine worship. Moreover, worship must not be limited to private, personal worship, it must be corporate and public. Rightly ‘Caesar’ in his role as ‘Caesar’, representing the people, must also take part.

Thus Pope Leo XIII taught: “Nature and reason, which command every individual devoutly to worship God in holiness, because we belong to Him and must return to Him, since from Him we came, bind also the civil community by a like law. For, men living together in society are under the power of God no less than individuals are, and society, no less than individuals, owes gratitude to God who gave it being and maintains it and whose ever-bounteous goodness enriches it with countless blessings. Since, then, no one is allowed to be remiss in the service due to God, and since the chief duty of all men is to cling to religion in both in interior affection and exterior work – not such religion as they may have a preference for, but the religion which God enjoins, and which certain and most clear marks show to be the only one true religion – it is a public crime to act as though there were no God.” (Immortale Dei 6)

The first role of government then is to provide for, promote, and take part in right worship, so as to give to God what belongs to God. When a government fails to honor God it turns away from the foundation of its own authority and tends to make itself the absolute source of authority.

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Fr. Joseph Levine graduated from Thomas Aquinas College and after a long journey was ordained to the priesthood for the Diocese of Baker, Oregon. He currently serves as pastor of St. Peter Catholic Church in The Dalles on the Columbia River.