The Things That Are Caesar’s – Employing Justice to Render Unto Caesar

by D.Q. McInerny, Ph.D.
From the December 2011 Newsletter

Render Unto CaesarWe are all familiar with the response Our Lord gave to the Herodians and Pharisees when, with their typical disingenuousness, they attempted to trap Him in His words over the issue of giving tribute to Caesar. Was it or was it not, they asked, proper for Jews to render such tribute? The Herodians were very probably looking for an emphatic Yes answer, whereas the Pharisees were fishing for an emphatic No. Such it always is with narrow-minded partisans, strangers to wisdom as they are. They know only extremes, and are blind to the possibilities that can lie between them. The answer they received to their question resounds down through the ages, and it is addressed as much to us as it was to them: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.”

In reflecting on that response, it should be immediately clear to us what it is that we ought to be rendering to God, what it is that we owe to Him. In a word, everything—our whole heart, soul, strength, and mind. “Caesar,” for us, could be said to represent whatever duly established civil government we happen to be subject to. The question then becomes, What is it that we owe to Caesar? What kind of obligations do we have toward the political community to which we belong and the government that guides and directs it?

Before we attempt to answer that question, and to ensure the soundness of the answers we give to it, we have to understand it as having very much to do with the virtue of justice, so perhaps it would be helpful if at this point we were to refresh our memories regarding certain aspects of that most important virtue. We are all familiar with the classic definition of justice, which can be stated as follows: “the rendering to others what is due to them.” Justice is one of the four Cardinal Virtues, but unlike the other three, prudence, fortitude, and temperance, the principal focus of which is inward, on the self, the principal focus of justice is outward, on others. Justice, then, is preeminently a social virtue. It is the virtue which, faithfully practiced, binds human communities together, making them coherent wholes.

Next we recall the three principal divisions of justice, called respectively distributive justice, commutative justice, and social justice. Distributive justice applies to those whom St. Thomas Aquinas describes as “having the care of the community,” which is to say, those who are part of the government in one capacity or another. They have many obligations towards those whom they govern, but the most basic of which, according to St. Augustine, is to establish and maintain a society that is marked by “the tranquility of order,” which is St. Augustine’s definition of peace. But the peace in question must be true peace, that is, peace based on justice. Those who govern must govern justly, which means that they must foster the common good. Commutative justice is the justice which the citizens of a political community display toward one another. And social
justice—sometimes called legal justice—is the just behavior of the citizenry as directed toward those who govern them. We can see, then, that it is social justice which has directly to do with the question of what it is that should be rendered to Caesar.

It is important that we be clear about the fact that what is involved here is a matter of justice, and that implies real obligation on our part. We might be tempted to balk at the idea that we owe anything at all to a government to which we are subject, apart, say, from meeting purely legal obligations such as obeying traffic laws and paying taxes, and in that hand-washing attitude quote from the Letter to the Hebrews to the effect that, “We do not have here a lasting city, but seek one to come.” But such an attitude will not do. True enough, the city in which we now find ourselves is a temporal one, but so long as we ourselves are in time it is the city in which we have been appointed to dwell, and within which, to the best of our abilities given the circumstances, we have to work out our salvation. We cannot, then, shirk the responsibilities we have, in justice, towards those who govern us in the political order.

Nonetheless, we have to admit that we are often confronted with onerous difficulties when it comes to showing an active fidelity toward a government, by freely meeting the obligations we have toward it as citizens, and that is because, we can honestly say, the government, such as it is, is not worthy of our fidelity. The most important obligation of any government, in justice, is to promote a true common good for its citizens, that is to say, to create a cultural atmosphere in which moral virtue is fostered and protected. There are today hundreds of civil governments throughout the world, and most of them fall far short of meeting that obligation. How many of them would even regard it as an obligation? And consider a government that is positively tyrannous, where the people are effectively dehumanized, and rank not so much as citizens but as slaves. What is an honest, conscientious person to do who finds himself in such a situation? St. Thomas argues that the person would be justified in doing all he can to thwart the purposes of the tyrannous regime, and in that would even be showing a foundational kind of fidelity.

St. John Chrysostom, in commenting on the response Our Lord gave to the Herodians and Pharisees, wrote the following: “But when you hear the command to render to Caesar the things of Caesar, know that such things only are intended which in no way are opposed to religion; if such there be, it is no longer Caesar’s but the Devil’s tribute.” Our obligations toward a government do not cease if the government is not what it should be—e.g., if it disregards the common good, if it enacts laws which, because they are contrary to the natural law (the universal moral law) do not even have the status of law and therefore cannot command obedience—but in circumstances such as these the manner in which we meet those obligations takes a new form. We are confronted with a situation where the government is behaving unjustly because it is not meeting its own obligations toward the citizenry. That being the case, the citizens must do everything in their power to return the government to its senses, so that it acknowledges its obligations in justice, and lives up to them. Practically speaking, this would entail effecting a thoroughgoing reform of the government or, if that fails, bringing about a change in government. In the end, the most valuable tribute we can render to Caesar is the coin of justice.

December 5, 2011