(Twenty-ninth Sunday of the Year (A): This homily was given on October 19, 2008 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read Isaiah 45: 1, 4-6; Matthew 22: 15-21.)
[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Twenty-Ninth Sunday 2008]
“Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s."
Based on a quick reading of the gospel story we just heard, you might think that this is simply a command to pay your taxes. But that’s too narrow an interpretation of the text. Yes, the passage does teach us that we should honor all legitimate civil authority and obey the tax laws and other laws of our nation (unless those laws command us to do something contrary to God’s eternal law); but giving to Caesar what is Caesar’s also includes other things—like participation in the political process. In fact, paragraph 2240 of the Catechism explicitly states: “Submission to authority and co-responsibility for the common good make it morally obligatory to pay taxes, to exercise the right to vote, and to defend one’s country.”
All that having been said, today is a perfect day to reflect on how we, as Catholics, are supposed to ‘give Caesar his due’ by voting in this year’s national election.
What are the ideas and principles that should guide us in our choice of candidates?
That, I would say, is the key question we need to ponder.
To answer it clearly and somewhat concisely, I’ll share with you today a few insights that come from a guide booklet published by the apologetics’ group, Catholic Answers. You can find this little booklet in its entirety on their website, the address of which is very easy to remember: www.catholic.com.
In one of the opening sections of the guide, the following important statement is made: “To the greatest extent possible, Catholics must avoid voting for any candidate who intends to support programs or laws that are intrinsically evil. When all of the candidates endorse morally harmful policies, citizens must vote in a way that will limit the harm likely to be done.”
The document then goes on to list what it calls the “5 non-negotiable issues.” These issues concern actions that are intrinsically evil, and which should be opposed by every Catholic, both in and out of the voting booth. I’m sure they will not surprise most of you. Almost all of them involve direct attacks on innocent human life:
Embryonic Stem Cell Research
The document reminds us that these should be the most important issues for Catholics in the upcoming election. Other issues—even if they be very important—are in a different category, because they do not involve actions which are morally evil in and of themselves.
Concerning these other important matters, the Catholic Answers’ guide says this: “Some issues allow for a diversity of opinion, and Catholics are permitted leeway in endorsing or opposing particular policies. This is the case with the questions of when to go to war and when to apply the death penalty. Though the Church urges caution regarding both of these issues, it acknowledges that the state has the right to employ them in some circumstances (Cf. CCC 2309, 2267). . . . [As Pope Benedict said, back in the days when he was still Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger:] ‘There may be a legitimate diversity of opinion even among Catholics about waging war and applying the death penalty, but not however with regard to abortion and euthanasia.’”
The guide goes on to say, “The same is true of many other issues that are the subject of political debate: the best way to help the poor, to manage the economy, to protect the environment, to handle immigration, and to provide education, health care, and retirement security. While the underlying principles (such as solidarity with the poor) are non-negotiable, the specific applications being debated politically admit of many options, and so are not ‘non-negotiable’ in the sense that this guide uses the term.”
Practically speaking, this means there is no official Catholic Church teaching on how to get out of the economic crisis we’re presently in, or on how to reduce our dependency on foreign oil, or on how to get rid of poverty in our country. In good conscience, Catholics can hold very different views on policies involving those and similar subjects.
Let me now repeat a key statement from the guide that I quoted a few moments ago: “To the greatest extent possible, Catholics must avoid voting for any candidate who intends to support programs or laws that are intrinsically evil.”
Sometimes, of course, you’ll have a situation in which both candidates are on the wrong side of some of those 5 “non-negotiables” mentioned earlier. Concerning that dilemma, the Catholic Answers’ guide says this: “In some political races, each candidate takes a wrong position on one or more issues involving non-negotiable moral principles. In such a case you may vote for the candidate who takes the fewest such positions or who seems least likely to advance immoral legislation, or you may choose to vote for no one.”
And lastly, remember that not every candidate who calls himself a Catholic is with the Church concerning the most important matters mentioned in this guide! In fact, sometimes non-believers actually support the things of God a lot better than believers do.
Think, for example, of Cyrus.
Cyrus was the civil leader mentioned in today’s first reading. He was the King of Persia, who ruled from 559-529 B.C. He was also a pagan, a Gentile, an unbeliever. And yet, he is called “God’s anointed” in this text we just heard from Isaiah 45!
Why? Because he allowed the people of Israel to return to their homeland and rebuild their sacred Temple after they had spent several decades in exile in Babylon.
He conquered the Babylonians, and then he let the Israelites go home.
Even though he was a pagan, Cyrus of Persia did something that was morally righteous, and that made him a better civil leader than many of the Israelite kings of the past had been! Thus the Hebrew Scriptures call him the “anointed” of the Lord.
May Almighty God help us to recognize the Cyruses of our generation—as well as the believers of our generation—who deserve our votes. And may he help us to ‘give Caesar his due’ by actually casting our ballots for these candidates this November—and in every election thereafter.