Divided Loyalties

Antonio P. Pueyo
29th Sunday in Ordinary Time (A)
October 16, 2005
Reproduced with Permission

Every once in a while, in the Philippines, the issue of church and state relations is brought up. The doctrine of separation of church and state is invoked whenever the bishops or priests comment publicly on some timely issues. In the past thirty years the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines has come up with letters and pastoral statements regarding martial law, human rights, elections, ecology, culture, the population issue, legalization of divorce, corruption in government, gambling, and the legitimacy of those who hold political office. There are those who say that priests and bishops are outside their sphere when they do this. Giving comments on these issues are appropriate for politicians, lawyers, educators, and other citizens but not the clergy. On the other hand the clergy say they are citizens too. It is the sphere of the church to give moral commentaries on any issue that affects the citizenry.

This Sunday’s gospel contains the famous quote, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Mt. 22:21). This was Jesus’ answer to the dilemma that the Pharisees brought in order to trap Him? Should one pay taxes to the Roman emperor? Had He answered “Yes”, He would be accused of cooperating with foreign invaders. Had He answered “No”, He would be accused of fomenting rebellion. He slipped between the horns of the dilemma. The coin shown to Him and that was used to pay taxes to the Romans contained the figure of Caesar. It was minted by the Romans and therefore belonged to the Romans who colonized Israel. It should be given back to Caesar. On the other hand, adoration and obedience belong to God alone. If there is a conflict of loyalties, a faithful believer will give priority to God to Whom everything belongs.

This quotation has been used in many ways because of its ambiguity. There are those who say that there is a clear-cut division between the spiritual and the material. The state takes care of people’s material well-being . The church on the other hand takes care of the people’s spiritual well-being. Affairs of the marketplace and the public square, belong to the halls of lawmaking and governance. Affairs of the soul belong to the pulpit and the pew. This division also further delineates the social and individual spheres. Social life is the domain of the state. Private life is the domain of the church. In short, bishops and priests have no business commenting on social issues.

Action starter: To whose voice do you listen over the following issues: Abortion, sexuality, family life, lifestyle?

On the other hand, the same quotation can also mean that the Church not only has a right but an obligation to comment on social issues. What belongs to God? Everything belongs to God. Whether affairs of social life are being conducted in accordance with God’s plans and commands is the domain of religion. The sphere of moral life is the domain not just of lawmakers and philosophers. It is the domain of religious leaders. The separation of church and state is not really a separation of concerns. Both state and church are concerned with the same person and community. There is however a distinction of roles. Rightly, lay people should be involved in secular affairs and priests and bishops should provide moral and spiritual guidance. The political field is the concern of all citizens, including clergy and religious. The political arena or partisan politics is the concern of lay people.

Let’s take the case of Archbishop Cruz of the Philippines. Two months ago, this normally quiet and withdrawn bishop appeared for many days in the Senate to speak up against illegal gambling. Others would say, he ought to have left that to policemen and politicians. It was not his job. It belonged to Caesar. The problem is, if policemen and politicians are the ones involved in promoting illegal gambling, whose job is it? When a culture of corruption is affecting people’s lives, whose job is it to speak up and give moral guidance?

Life belongs to God. To give to God what belongs to God is to open up all the dimensions of life to God’s scrutiny, hence the need for moral and spiritual guidance.