Separation of Church and State
29th Sunday in OT

Al Cariño
Reproduced with Permission

Often, when the Church takes a stand on certain issues against government policies (actual or proposed) that would have negative repercussions on the dignity of the human person and his rights, his religious values or way of life, or his very life itself -- e.g., population control, divorce death penalty, gambling, market liberalization, Charter change, etc., -- the principle of separation of Church and State is immediately thrown at her by pro-government apologists. The gospel reading (Mt. 22:15-21) gives us an opportunity to shed light on this principle.

In previous direct confrontations, Jesus had exposed the Pharisees for what they really were: brood of vipers, whited sepulchers, hypocrites, etc. But this time they took a different tack. First, they allied themselves with the Herodians. Second, they took the indirect approach. Thus they first heaped praises on Him, saying, "Teacher, you are a truthful man... you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth... you are not concerned with anyone's opinion, for you do not regard a person's status." By the way they talked, they seemed ready for a reconciliation with Him! But before He could react to this new approach, they sprang up a trap through a very sensitive question: "Is it lawful to pay the census tax to Caesar (Roman emperor) or not?"

The census tax was paid annually by every Jew, from the age of 12 for girls and 14 for boys, up to 65. When the Romans first imposed this tax, the people rioted for it was a sign of submission to a foreign power.

The Pharisees resented paying the tax but paid nonetheless out of fear of punishment. On the other hand, the Herodians favored collaboration with the Romans. Though their politics differed, they were united in wanting to put Jesus out of the way. With the question, they thought that they had finally found the way to achieve their goal. For if Jesus said "no", He could be charged with treason. And if He said "yes", He would alienate the majority of his fellow Jews. Either way, Jesus would lose.

What did Jesus do? He first examined a Roman coin with which the tax was paid. When He asked them whose image was inscribed in it, they answered, "Caesar's." He then said, "Render to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God."

One scripture scholar provides us with a neat analysis of Jesus' response. He said that Jesus did not specify the things that belonged to Caesar since he did not possess anything independently of God. Neither did Jesus specify what belonged to God since everything did. Finally, Jesus did not argue for two independent spheres of power since God had dominion over the whole of creation. Thus Caesar's relative power was subservient to God's ultimate power. Taking all these into consideration, Jesus left it to His questioners to evaluate whether in demanding tribute, Caesar reflected the proper use of the things of God. Thus if Caesar is subservient to God, then his laws are open to evaluation and review. This is true for all political communities -- past, present and future.

Let us now go back to the issue of separation of Church and State. Our Philippine Constitution limits the separation principle to only two things, namely, that the State may not establish a state religion and that it may not support any church. Outside of these, everything, including the whole sphere of politics and economics, is open to Church evaluation and criticism.

In the political and economic spheres, God has already made known His position. He wants a society whose political and economic policies are based on truth, justice, love and peace. More concretely, politics and economics are among God's most important concerns. Why? Because if politics is the science and art of governing people then, because all people belong to God, He is concerned on how they are governed. Similarly, if economics is the science and art of the equitable distribution of the resources of the earth, then, because the earth is God's, He is concerned whether its riches are equitably distributed to people. This has been the constant teaching of the Church in her social encyclicals.

Now, since politics and economics are of primary importance to God, they should also be of primary importance to the people. But since the concerns of the people are also the concerns of the Church -- specially the concerns of the poorest among them for whom the Church has a preferential love -- then she must intervene in politics and economics as they directly affect the people.

For the Church to fail to do this is to fail her Lord who came to establish a Kingdom of truth, justice, love and peace on earth and who missioned her to carry on with this task through her teachings and the use of her moral authority regardless of the consequences.