“Tell us, then, what is your opinion: is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar or not?” It’s a delicate question: if God is our King, where does Caesar fit in? Is it a betrayal of God to acknowledge him? The question can be reversed, too. For example, in the second reading, we heard Paul recalling how the planting of the faith in Thessalonica went. There, Paul and his companions faced the accusation that they “are all acting against the decrees of Caesar, saying that there is another king, Jesus” (Ac 17:7). If Caesar is King, where does God fit in? Is it a betrayal of Caesar to acknowledge Him?
Jesus covers both questions in his response: “repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.” Just because Jesus’ followers swear loyalty above all to God, they are not to consider themselves “above” basic civil duties like paying taxes. The obligation to respect authority is even more clear in the words of Peter (1 Peter 2:13-14) and Paul (Romans 13:1, Titus 3:1). Christians are not excused from basic civil duties.
All of this is why the Catechism (#2240) states that “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.” And with the elections a couple of weeks away, I want to highlight that middle one.
Are you ready to vote? I’m not. I haven’t thought about it. But it’s time to start praying and discerning. It’s time to start doing some responsible research (not TV ads!) on the candidates and issues involved. I know it’s going to be aggravating and a bit confusing, but I should at least try to be a good Christian (for once?) by being an informed voter – even if that takes some time out of my day that could be spent in ministry. But I have to ask myself: in my life, where does Caesar fit in? Is it truly a betrayal of God to take seriously my duty to vote?
And in voting, we have to remember that we still have to hold up the giving “to God what belongs to God” end of the deal. Our consciences are not asleep when we vote. Hear me out here. The US bishops came out with a document a few years back, “Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship.” It acknowledges that “Catholics often face difficult choices about how to vote” (34), and explicitly states that “as Catholics we are not single-issue voters” and “a candidate’s position on a single issue is not sufficient to guarantee a voter’s support” (42). At the same time, though, they warn over and over again against thinking that all issues carry the same weight (22, 28). There is a “hierarchy of values,” as St. John XXIII called it.
What does this “hierarchy of values” look like? It always helps to look to the wisdom of the saints in discerning these things! St. John XXIII wrote that it pained him “to observe the complete indifference to the true hierarchy of values shown by so many people in the economically developed countries [that’s us!]. Spiritual values are ignored, forgotten or denied, while the progress of science, technology and economics is pursued for its own sake, as though material well-being were the be-all and end-all of life” (Mater et Magistra 176). Or as a further example, St. John Paul II reflected that “the common outcry, which is justly made on behalf of human rights—for example, the right to health, to home, to work, to family, to culture—is false and illusory if the right to life, the most basic and fundamental right and the condition for all other personal rights, is not defended” (Christefidelis Laici 38).
And so good St. John begs us: that, “immersed though [we may] be in the business of this world, not to allow [our] consciences to sleep; not to lose sight of the true hierarchy of values” (245). In voting, where does God fit in? Is it truly a betrayal of Caesar to acknowledge Him?
Or might our perspective on things be a gift to society?
The Michigan bishop’s conference puts out a site that might be a good place to start in discerning what sort of “gift” your vote should be: http://www.micatholic.org/advocacy/2014-election/
~ Fr. Jim Grau