Render Unto Caesar

Render Unto Caesar, by Charles Chaput

Book Summary by Jeff Stauffer

Chapter 1: Starting at the Source

Reflecting on a friend’s decision to run for public office and the difficulties he faced in being a “faithful Catholic in political life” this experience provided the impetus for Charles Chaput’s book, Render Unto Caesar. In a bold contrast to the many who shy away from getting involved in political discussions out of a “misguided sense of good manners,” Chaput desires to share his personal views on a Catholic’s role in the public square. He also makes a disclaimer that he is not going to be endorsing any political figure or party. „Party loyalty” is the quickest way to lose one’s political influence, he explains, so Chaput urges his readers to strive to solve issues, and not become solely a “red or blue” follower.

Chapter 2: Men without Chests

Providing a litany of data concerning the state of America today, Chaput recounts the greatness of the US alongside our current trajectory into decline. We are a nation of great wealth, but also great debt. We have built top caliber universities, but we are failing to teach our citizens the basics of geography or civics. And while the vast majority claims to be Christian, we are developing an odd split of our private spiritual life and calling with our civic duties to society. As a summary, Chaput states that “We haven’t lived what we say we believe.” He states that if we truly believe Jesus is who he says he is, then “we need to embody it in our private lives and in our public choices.”

Chapter 3: Why we’re Here

Put simply, Chaput states we are here to receive love and to show love to others. This love is not simply an emotion we feel, but a verb as well – an action we are to live out. We see love displayed through a variety of other terms: truth, repentance, forgiveness, mercy, charity, justice, and courage. Pursuing ways to live out and display these aspects of love in the public square is what we are all called to do in some form or another. He critiques those who choose a “cafeteria style” Christian faith, (one that avoids messiness, self-sacrifice, and espouses a consumer mentality), and exhorts each of us to be a part of God’s decree to transform ourselves and the world around us.

Chapter 4: Constantine’s Children

Reflecting upon some historical events concerning the intertwining of church and state, Chaput defends the importance of learning from the past to help shape the future. We need to remember these events, both good and bad, if we are to effectively influence future decisions concerning public policy. He briefly touches on desegregation as a positive example. The chapter then switches to a broad overview of the Church’s status under Constantine in the 4th century, and details some of the thoughts of Augustine, Constantine, and Thomas Aquinas, and their struggles with how to live out the concept of “Limited government, under God.”

Chapter 5: The American Experiment

Beginning with the American colonies, Chaput describes their differing religious opinions on church/state matters. Some had state-sponsored churches whereas others were more pluralistic. He then goes on to explain key concepts in the Declaration of Independence as well as the Constitution, and how both recognized natural law as well as Creator under whose authority civil governments were allowed to function. Some disagreed with the Constitution’s explicit lack of mention of God, but as Chaput describes it, this allowed people to form their own religious beliefs without State influence. He posits that central figures in its writing, such as James Madison would be baffled by how this has played out today. The language was meant to encourage freedom of religion (not freedom from religion) in the public square. He concludes by outlining the growth of the Catholic Church in America under this freedom, which has been very successful in comparison to many European nations, where State-run churches are still recognized today.

Chapter 6: A New Dispensation

Probably the most “Catholic” chapter in the book, Chaput deals with the Catholic Church’s Vatican II council meetings held in the early 1960s, and the important changes that came out of them. Some of the significant outcomes of this involved the identity of the church, religious liberties and a reformation of their Liturgy. The council recognized believers outside of the Catholic Church, and also absolved the Jews from responsibility of Jesus’ death.

Chapter 7: What Went Wrong

According to Chaput, the 1960s brought about immense changes in all areas of society, from politics to philosophies to scientific advancement; the upheavals came fast and we are still feeling the rippling effect today. Some issues he raises include: Advances in science and the popularity of contraception brought with it great friction within Catholic leadership

Greater affluence in American culture didn’t equate with a greater faith in Christ.

A secular/sacred split emerged leading to a privatization of one’s faith.

Chapter 8: Conscience and Cowardice

This chapter is largely about our culture’s use of words, and the concept of truth. He begins with Stephen Colbert’s invention of his word “truthiness.” This word deals with what someone wants to be true, versus what is true. Chaput finds, frankly, much truth in Colbert’s satirical view of society. He goes on to critique the dumbing down of American news and media: how we neither seek out intellectual debate on issues, nor does popular media strive to provide it. Together we sink further into a superficial culture; one that he believes is unraveling our nation. He recalls the words of George Washington, who spoke of the need of a literate, educated citizenry to maintain a healthy democracy by seeing through the half-truths involved in political debate. Catholics (and Christians in general) need to be able to filter through the media presentation of truths and half-truths, and make educated decisions on how to act in accord with one’s conscience.

Not only must we identify where society has erred, but Chaput maintains we must also be willing to strive to correct it, even if it means acting against the law if the corruption is egregious enough. To provide an example, he closes with a passage from Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” where King calls us to listen to one’s conscience and our “moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws,” and then be willing to pay the penalty for our actions.

Chapter 9: A Man for all Seasons

Chaput highlights four Catholics in this chapter, and provides some brief thoughts about their roles in public life:

– Thomas More: More was a Catholic lawyer in the 16th century under King Henry VIII. Still highly popular today, More was a man of the highest character. He followed his conscience, and if it meant being at odds with the King, then he was willing to face the consequences.

– President John F. Kennedy: Chaput scolds Kennedy for creating a model for compartmentalizing one’s public service and their private faith.

– New York Governor Mario Cuomo: Cuomo sympathized for the role of religious values in public life, but could not bring himself to “force his religious views” on others when it came to abortion. Chaput says that abortion is not merely a religious issue, but a human rights issue.

– Pennsylvania Governor Robert Casey: Casey was proud of his Democratic party heritage and the values for which it stood, but was also strongly pro-life. Chaput commends him for his efforts even while the Democratic Party publically snubbed him during their 1992 convention.

Chapter 10: What must be Done

In this chapter, Chaput begins with his take on the state of the Catholic Church in America. (While his viewpoints are specifically Catholic, I believe one can easily use “Christian” instead and agree with his criticisms and recommendations.) He asks the question, “What difference have Catholics made?” This is a fair question for everyone. He contrasts a general upward trend in Catholic affluence and social status, with the disturbing downward trend of number of Priests and church attendance.

The key point Chaput pursues is this: “Every new beginning must start with a return to Jesus Christ.” He asks if we truly believe Christ is our savior, or if the Gospels are the Word of God. If so, then these demand much from our calling in public life. He sees the central doctrine of the Church to be missionary in nature, and as such, is evangelical in all areas of life from politics to economics, to war and peace, and a respect for life.

Chapter 11: Faithful Citizens

In Matthew 22:15-21, we see the source for the title of Chaput’s book. Here, Jesus is asked if it is lawful to pay taxes to the Roman authority (Caesar). Jesus’ reply was “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” Chaput interprets this passage to say that, in effect, Caesar is demoted by having no right over the things of God. However, the state does retain some rights as granted by God. The difficulty lies in figuring out who has authority over each issue as it arises. “Figuring that out,” says Chaput, “belongs to us.”

He goes on to explain that “Politics is the art of the possible.” He calls us all to be flexible in our political attitudes, and recognize that some things are more egregious than others. We can’t make all evil acts illegal, and we need to tolerate a certain level of this in the interest of civility and community. However, issues like the Civil rights movement 40 years ago and today’s battle over abortion are so crucial to a just society that they cannot be tolerated. He closes with a call to the reader to be “[not just] more Catholic, but more authentically and unselfishly Catholic – in the way we live our personal lives, and in our public words and actions.”

Chapter 12: Afterword: Some Final Thoughts

In this epilogue, Chaput provides some practical thoughts surrounding the issue of Communion and clarifies the Church’s policy regarding when to deny someone the Eucharist. This became a prominent issue during the 2004 Presidential campaign, largely surrounding John Kerry, a Catholic, and his pro-choice stance. Many Catholics called for him to be denied Communion at that time as it raised the issue of religion’s influence on politics.

As Chaput states, Catholics believe the Eucharist to be the literal body and blood of Christ, and as so this sacrament separates them from almost all other Christian denominations. This is also a reason this issue is so crucial to their faith. He stresses the point that Communion is not withheld as a punishment for the individual but to “protect the integrity of the Sacrament.” He calls on Catholics to take Communion more seriously and refrain from taking part in it if they are living in sin or denying central tenets of the Catholic Church. He also briefly outlines when he would personally withhold Communion, which as he states, would only be for someone within his local church and only as a last resort.