The Catholic Church, operating on the doctrine that she is the continuing presence and ministry of Jesus Christ on earth, has always said both a “yes” and a “no” to the power of government. Christ, when asked in Matthew 22 whether it was lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not, declared, “Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God.”
What belongs to Caesar is obedience to just laws and a faithful exercise of one’s citizenship. The Catholic Church does not and should not aim to make a career out of criticizing government.
At the same time, what belongs to God alone is absolute obedience, and worship as the only one who can fulfill the deepest human longings for happiness and security. When, therefore, a human authority contradicts divine authority, the Catholic Church teaches that the human authority in that instance loses its claim on our conscience and must be opposed in regard to the immoral behavior it is requiring.
That is the crux over the current conflict regarding the HHS mandate. The church cannot be the church if she contradicts her teachings and values and disobeys the God she exists to serve and proclaim.
So whether the current problem will be a turning point in large measure depends on the Obama administration. Will it push the church to the point of having to shut down its institutions that provide social services, education, and health care to so many millions of Americans? Or will it have the wisdom to continue what has been and can always be a fruitful and respectful collaboration of church and state in the service of human needs?
The church is called to be an equal opportunity critic. She must have the freedom to challenge all, across political lines, with the Gospel call to repentance. The institutional church in the United States has at times been called “the Democrats at prayer,” because of so many alliances and loyalties forged through the provision of social programs. At the same time, I have heard – and myself received – criticism of the church being too Republican, as we advance aspects of the Gospel message that in fact help Republican candidates.
But the fact is that the platform of the church’s teaching and mission cannot be and must not be that of any political party. It is, rather, the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It is not a matter of whether the church endorses a political party or movement. It is, rather, whether the party or movement endorses the church’s message and mission. A candidate or party that embraces some aspect of the church’s message or mission will benefit – at least in the eyes of Catholics who are committed to their faith – when the church, as she must, advances that aspect of her message or mission.
The way to evaluate whether, for her part, the church is being faithful to the balance and independence she is called to have, is rather simple, and it’s a litmus test I use as I preach the anti-abortion message and help other priests do the same, including during election years. I ask this simple question: If today, opposing candidates or parties swapped their positions on abortion, would any aspect of our message change? Indeed, our message will not change if it is rooted in fidelity to the Gospel. Whether that message helps or hurts a candidate, party, or political movement won’t be the church’s fault; it will be theirs.
Fr. Frank Pavone is a Catholic priest and national director of Priests for Life.