Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Book Review: Render Unto Caesar by Charles J. Chaput

Render Unto Caesar: Serving the Nation by Living Our Catholic Beliefs in Political Life by Charles J. Chaput

A little something for Election Day in America!

The phrase "separation of church and state" is popular in political discussions involving intense moral issues of the day. Unfortunately the phrase is often interpreted in ways that are most congenial to the user's argument. Looking at the history, context, and intention of the original user of the phrase is generally ignored; instead, pundits assume a personally useful interpretation. "Separation of church and state" switches from a complex idea to a rhetorical sound bite.

Archbishop Charles Chaput's Render Unto Caesar is a book that avoids the simple rhetoric often found in discussions of how churches and states should relate. He looks at the history of the Catholic church from the very beginning, under Roman rule in the first centuries A.D., through to the modern day. He considers both the good and the bad results when the Catholic church had substantial input into governments and governments into the church. He looks at the impact of the Protestant Reformation on church and state relations. He especially considers the founding fathers of America, focusing on Charles Carroll, the only Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence. He reviews the various anti-Catholic movements in America and the rise of Catholics in society and politics, culminating in John F. Kennedy's presidency, which again had good and bad facets to it.

He also engages the arguments about the role of faith and of the faithful as citizens of a country. He compares Mario Cuomo's approach to Robert Casey's as ways to live faith as a high ranking politician, even quoting both of them when they spoke at Notre Dame University. Chaput's analysis is fascinating and even-handed without being indecisive.

The role of the media's influence on culture is another important component of Chaput's discussion. During the Second Vatican Council, different people had  different on what would change in the church. The media looked for exciting stories and dramatic conflicts rather than trying to understand and analyze the council. Chaput even discusses Stephen Colbert's use of "truthiness" as a sign (albeit a satirical commentary) of modern debates' inability to engage in meaningful discussion, and instead focus on emotional and rhetorical sound bites.

Chaput has a heart-felt and intelligent discussion of the media's obsession with "wafer watches," i.e. if pro-abortion Catholic politicians would be refused communion at Mass by a priest or a bishop. The issue is not that the church is fighting with a politician, but that the integrity of the faith and the Eucharist is respected. Chaput not only discusses the varied implications of forbidding someone from communion, he gives his own opinions on how he would handle the situation.

The book is fascinating and important. Our culture is too focused on sound bites and dramatic conflict. It is great to read a well-thought out, well-researched, honest, and compassionate look at the role of the faithful in political life.

SAMPLE QUOTE: Why St. Thomas More is a man for all season:
More personifies a life lived with courage and conviction, the same virtues that each of us is called to embrace as citizens and as Catholics. More's humanity is what draws us. He is not a plastic saint. He urgently wanted to live; but not at the cost of selling his soul. Thomas More persuades the modern heart not because he wanted to die for his beliefs, but because he didn't[emphasis in original]. He used all his skills to avoid martyrdom, but he refused to escape it when the price came down to the integrity of his faith. In More, we see what we all instinctively hunger to believe about ourselves; namely, that we too can choose the joy and freedom that flow from loving something and Someone more than our own lives. In More, we recognize the person we secretly wish we were; the person that God created us to be. [p. 164]

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