Question 91



In Matthew’s 23rd chapter, we find Jesus taking issue with the church leaders of his day, the Scribes and Pharisees. Seven times Jesus uses the phrase “Woe to you, Scribes and Pharisees …” “Woe to you” means that the person addressed will have to give a strict accounting for himself, for his words and his teachings. If he failed in the duties of his office, which is to clearly proclaim to the people God’s plan for all important human affairs, then God will hold him accountable for the failings of the people. “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge” asserts the prophet Hosea 3:6. “For the lips of a priest should guard knowledge, and men should seek instruction from his mouth, for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts” says the prophet Malachi 2:7. 

Today we can presume that Jesus’ words are addressed to all bishops, priests and deacons, to Protestant ministers, Jewish rabbis and Islamic imams. God wishes that His word and His plan for us be given to every man, woman and child. Thus, his warning, “Woe to you,” continues to echo down through the centuries. 

Take just one of the serious warnings: “Woe to you, blind guides, who say, ‘If any one swears by the temple, it is nothing; but if any one swears by the gold of the temple, he is bound by his oath.’ You blind men! For which is greater, the gold or the temple that has made the gold sacred?” Is not Jesus alluding to the mistaken notion that gold and money are more important than God’s moral law, the moral law that is to be found in the Temple? What are we to think about the pastor who is more concerned about a possible drop in the weekly collection, than in proclaiming the full richness of God’s moral law? What are we to think about the pastor who arbitrarily decides for himself which parts of God’s plan for marriage and spousal love are safe to preach on, and which parts are not? Or perhaps even which parts of that plan are still valid, and which are not? Jesus is asserting that only God determines, and defines, the moral order and that it is the explicit duty of the “man of God” to proclaim His moral order. 

But teaching the moral order and bringing the moral values of the Gospel to the broader society is not just the responsibility of the religious leaders. To engage the culture with the values of the Gospel is largely the task of the laity, who are the vast majority of the Church. Archbishop Charles Chaput, of Denver, has been talking about this extensively, and recently published a book, “Render Unto Caesar: Serving the Nation by Living Our Catholic Beliefs in Political Life.” 

“Not only does religion have a place in the public square, a democracy needs the input of religious morals and convictions to remain healthy and strong,” he said. “Taking religion out of that plan is the fastest way to destroy a democracy.” 

“In the name of being good citizens, a lot of Catholics have bought into a very mistaken idea of the ‘separation of Church and state.’ American Catholics have always supported the principle of keeping religious and civil authority distinct. Nobody wants a theocracy, and much of the media hand-wringing about the specter of ‘Christian fundamentalism’ is really just a particularly offensive scare tactic. The Church doesn’t presume to run the state. We also don’t want the state interfering with our religious beliefs and practices – which, candidly, is a much bigger problem today. 

“Separating Church and state does not mean separating faith and political issues. Real pluralism requires a healthy conflict of ideas. In fact, the best way to kill a democracy is for people to remove their religious and moral convictions from their political decision-making. If people really believe something, they’ll always act on it as a matter of conscience. Otherwise they’re just lying to themselves. So, the idea of forcing religion out of public policy debates is not only unwise, it’s anti-democratic.”