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In the End, Everything Belongs to God
Paul's words to Timothy continue to amaze me: “First of all, I ask that supplications, prayers, petitions, and thanksgivings be offered for everyone, for kings and for all in authority, that we may lead a quiet and tranquil life in all devotion and dignity. This is good and pleasing to God our savior, who wills everyone to be saved and to come to knowledge of the truth.” (1 Tm 2:1-4) Now, Paul was speaking of a pagan government which had never given him any help. Rather, he had been imprisoned by those in authority. And many of the behaviors of those in government would have been deep violations of the Christian message. How are we to relate not only to the government as such, but also to the individuals exercising authority? How do we accomplish this either as individuals or even as a believing Catholic community? These are tough questions. Paul gives us some help.
First, Paul said to pray for those in authority. Now the primary aim of such prayers was to “leave us alone,” that is, to let the Christian community live quietly and tranquilly, respecting their dignity as they desired to live devout lives. So far, so good!
Paul becomes even clearer in his Letter to the Romans, writing to the Christians who were living at the heart of the “beast,” as it were, in the capital of the imperial government. “Let every person be subordinate to the higher authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been established by God,” he writes. (13:1) Now here Paul is speaking of God’s providential and permissive will. God does not create or desire evil authority, but he does allow it. Paul then notes that those who live good lives should have no fear of proper authority; only those who do evil should fear government. Then he adds, “This is why you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, devoting themselves to this very thing [that is, punishing evil doers]. Pay to all their dues, taxes to whom taxes are due, toll to whom toll is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due.” (13:6-7) So not only the obligation to pray binds us; we are also to contribute to the civic good.
What follows in the rest of the Letter to the Romans are descriptions of how we as good Christians are to behave, even if a rather pagan government does not conform to our moral standards.
St. Peter makes a similar demand on us, “Be subject to every human institution for the Lord’s sake, whether it be to the king as supreme or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the approval of those who do good … Give honor to all, love the community, fear God, honor the king.” (1 Pt 2:13-14, 17) Again, the emphasis here seems to be that government can control the wicked and this will serve peace. Concord is needed for the growth of the Christian community. The preservation of peace seems to be a primary concern for Christians of the government.
Paul and Peter were writing at a time when the various authorities in the government were pagan. How would these two apostles have related to members of the Household of Faith if such had been part of that government? First, they would have expected their fellow Catholics serving in government to adhere to Catholic Social Teaching in executing their office. In the case of an irreconcilable conflict, resignation from office may be the only alternative. The general rule here is that even if one cannot advance a certain moral teaching, at least there should be no advance of its opposite. But then, secondly, what do we do about a member of the Household of Faith who seriously violates Catholic Social Teaching by concretely advancing its opposite?
Paul faced a difficult problem in Corinth which can help us here. There was a man in the community whose life Paul called “immoral.” (1 Cor 5:1) He demanded that this man be separated from the community for a time (5:2-5) solely for the purpose of his conversion and salvation (see 2 Cor 2:5-11). This was an act of love for a brother or sister in faith. Paul saw that we have no such leverage with those who are not part of our Household of Faith. (5:10-13)
Our relationship to our government can, at times, be complicated. In some cases, like St. Peter, we might have to say: “We must obey God rather than man.” (Acts 5:29) Still, our behavior must be one of respect. At times, we must challenge the government if it is in violation of God’s own governance, especially if this is the work of a brother or sister of the community. For we are to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s, but, in the end, of course, everything belongs to God.
For we are to render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s, but in the end, of course, everything belongs to God.