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The Pharisees and some disciples of King Herod set out to trap Jesus into denouncing their Roman occupiers. Dripping with cynical guile, they asked, "Teacher, we know you are a man of integrity and that you teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. You aren't swayed by men, because you pay no attention to who they are. Tell us then, what is your opinion? Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?"
In one of the most vivid statements of the New Testament, Jesus held up a Roman coin and replied, "Render to Caesar what is Caesar's, and to God what is God's."
Render or give to Caesar is a concept of wondrous ambiguity. Christians have a first allegiance to the Kingdom of God, but since we live in community, we, also, must acknowledge and give our due to the state authority, the "civic kingdom" within which we live. The message is ambiguous, for while God's Kingdom is constant and enduring, the state is not. The state is plastic. It changes. There are good states and bad ones, states which help us in our first mission to live godly lives and states which throw up roadblocks. History is a story of this church-state tension and struggle.
At this moment, American Catholics are being pushed into direct conflict with their state.
In recent history the Catholic hierarchy in the United States has cooperated and, in general, been supportive of local, state and federal government actions and initiatives. Some critics say they have been too cozy. It would appear, however, that some bishops have had enough!
Late last month, Bishop William E. Lori of Bridgeport, Conn., gave testimony before the Subcommittee on the Constitution of the Judiciary Committee of the House of Representatives. The Bishop was representing a newly formed Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB). He reported that the urgency was so great that his committee came into being in what was "near light-speed in Church time." In his testimony, he reminded Congress of our nation's long legacy of religious freedom and harmony between church and state in America. Then, he shifted, stating, "In the recent past, the bishops of the United States have watched with increasing alarm as this great national legacy of religious liberty, so profoundly in harmony with our own teachings, has been subject to ever more frequent assault and ever more rapid erosion."
At the crux of the bishop's testimony is that our "First Freedom," that is, Catholics right to exercise conscience rights, is being violated. He specifically addressed the new regulations coming from the Department of Health and Human Services [HHS]. These new rules force private healthcare providers to offer contraceptive and sterilization services. Currently, a third of the nation's hospitals are run by the Church.
In May, the HHS required the USCCB's Migration and Refugee Services, a world wide effort to help the poor and endangered, to provide "the full range of reproductive services." In a vigorous response, the heads of twenty national Catholic organizations have signed on to a letter strongly objecting to this recent mandate requiring them to provide such services. "Preventative services" is Washington-speak for forcing Catholic employers to pay for sterilization and contraceptives, including drugs that induce abortions, for their employees.
Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, chairman of another USCCB committee, the Committee on Pro-Life Activities, recently submitted written testimony asserting that HHS's ruling requiring no-cost coverage of contraception and sterilization in most health plans further violates conscience rights. The cardinal went on to say the rule was "a serious threat to the goal we share of expanding access to health care," and that Catholic organizations "will have no choice but to stop providing health care and other services to the needy who are not Catholic, or to stop providing health coverage to their own employees."
What has happened in recent years is that the state has regularly taxed some sixty million Catholic citizens with the promise of providing "health and human services" to the citizenry. In turn, the U.S. Treasury in the last two decades has turned over to the Catholic Church's health serving agencies over 880 million dollars to do their work. The philosophy behind this level of support has been that many social services can be delivered more efficiently, effectively and humanely by faith-based institutions than by government directly.
Now, the state has changed the rules. The government will only give back the money if these hospitals, educational institutions and other health agencies provide services that directly violate the teachings of our Church and our individual consciences.
The list of offensive policies goes on, from the Justice Departments startling announcement last spring that it would no longer defend the Defense of Marriage Act, (the law of the land!) to the closer-to-home decision a few years ago by Massachusetts agencies to, in essence, close down Catholic adoption agencies because of their policy not to place children with homosexual couples.
In a democracy such as ours, when faced with these affronts and denials of our religious liberties, the phrase "render unto Caesar" does not mean rushing into the streets with pitchforks and sickles. It does, however, call for clergy and laity to shake off our comfortable and sleepy perception of a benign and beneficent state. It does require revision of thinking and allegiance. The basic problem is equating social justice with government action. We have rendered too much to the power of Caesar.
Kevin and Marilyn Ryan, editors of "Why I'm Still a Catholic," worship at St. Lawrence Church in Brookline.