What is Proper to God—and Caesar


Like many Americans, I take much interest in politics. Unlike many, I do not think many problems can be solved through politics, and I often wonder whether politics causes more problems than it solves. However that may be, I do my best to keep my political ideas from entering into my apologetics work. As much as I might be tempted to instruct you what to believe politically—whom to vote for or against, which programs to support or oppose—I will not do that, for several reasons.

The least important is the one you might think of first: Catholic Answers is a nonprofit organization and, under IRS regulations, cannot endorse or oppose any particular candidate or party. Quite true, but I think more fundamental principles are involved.

One is that the Church does not profess to be omni-competent. Catholic teaching long has recognized a distinction between the spiritual and the political authorities. Each has its proper and largely exclusive role. Centuries ago the distinction was spoken of in terms of two swords, one wielded by the pope and the other by the Holy Roman Emperor. Although there were times when one authority tried to intrude onto the turf of the other, on the whole the distinction was kept in mind. The Catholic Church envisions neither a theocracy nor a regime of caesaro-papism. "Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s."

The other chief reason that I try to keep politics and apologetics separate is that you can be a Catholic in good standing yet hold political views quite different from mine. I will think you are wrong or unwise or perhaps just a lazy thinker if you do not acquiesce to my (ahem!) well-reasoned and nearly irrefutable arguments, but the fact is that you can do so and still join me in the Communion line.

Of course, some things are "non-negotiable" (we discuss five of them in our Voter’s Guide for Serious Catholics), but there are thousands of discrete political issues, ranging from matters of national concern to what goes on in your town and mine, that do not fall under that rubric. They are "negotiable." On them we can agree to disagree and still be faithful members of the Church.

We need to keep in mind that there is no "Catholic position" on what the proper sales-tax rate is or how a school board should be chosen or whether the U.S. should have diplomatic relations with Lower Slobovia. You and I might differ markedly on some such issue ("What’s that, Keating? Do you have something against my fellow Slobovians?") without, either of us, being read out of the Church or, at least on that discrete issue, being accused of sinning against the light.

We should keep this in mind as 2008 moves along and as we come to discover, the first Tuesday after the first Monday in November, that this year has had more than its share of Fool’s Days.


Karl Keating is founder and president of Catholic Answers, the country’s largest apologetics and evangelization organization. He is the author of five books, including Catholicism and Fundamentalism and What Catholics Really Believe.

This article appeared in Volume 19 Number 4.