A COVID-Time Question

by Fr. Denis Lemieux p>

Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s (Mat 22:21).


Several times this year I have lamented the special challenge of writing a monthly column in 2020, when world events have moved at such calamitous speed and distressing impact that writing an article two or three months in advance of publication seems like folly.

Not this time around though! The 29th Sunday of Ordinary Time on October 18 brings us the oft-quoted words of Jesus in response to the question about paying taxes: Give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what is God’s.

This Gospel can be read as simply Jesus outwitting the Pharisees one more time. More deeply, it is a basic teaching on the legitimacy of civic authority and its place relative to God’s authority in our lives. And this, I know full well, is among the hottest of the hot topics of 2020, and is always well up on the list of topics that need to be discussed.

As I write this in July, the focus is on questions around COVID-19—gnarly questions about how to reopen society, schools, businesses, churches. And mask-wearing—yes or no, optional or mandatory.

While these questions may have been resolved or at least be in a different mode by October when you will read this, basic principles do not change. It may be worth giving a little catechetical review.

Paragraphs 2238-43 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church cover the duties of citizens to the secular state. It is clear, reading that section, that Catholics are in all normal circumstances supposed to obey the laws of the land.

All civic authorities from the highest federal level to the local municipal level ultimately receive their authority from God, who in his permissive will has allowed them to occupy their office.

The only circumstance in which direct disobedience to the law is allowed is when those demands “are contrary to the demands of the moral order, to the fundamental rights of persons or to the teachings of the Gospel” (p. 2242). The government has authority over our lives, but not at the expense of God’s authority.

Now, I think we would be hard pressed to say that wearing a mask in public during a public health crisis is “contrary to the moral order,” nor is it against “the teachings of the Gospel.” I don’t think anyone could make a serious argument for that, even if he or she personally disagrees about the value of masks.

Does it violate the fundamental rights of people? Do we have a right to wear whatever we want (or not wear whatever we want) in public? This some have argued.

But “fundamental rights” usually pertain to those specific things we need to achieve our basic shared human vocation of love of God and neighbor—the right to live, to practice one’s religion, to speak freely, to choose one’s path in life, without external interference (e.g. a vocational choice to marry), to refuse to perform actions against one’s conscience.

It is not a violation of one’s fundamental rights to simply be told to do something or not do something else. If that were the case, virtually every law on the books would be a human rights violation.

Measures temporarily enacted with intent to curb the spread of a disease may or not be well founded, properly articulated, or well enforced. (That is an entirely separate question, well outside the scope of this article.) But it seems to me that those measures do not fall under the exceptions of Catechism paragraph 2242. And therefore, these laws should be obeyed if at all possible.

It’s all about this rendering unto Caesar business that Jesus enunciates in Matthew 22. It’s worth noting that in the immediate context of that Gospel they are talking about money and in what direction money is supposed to go.

It is also worth noting that money and its use falls under a much larger and broader biblical reflection. Money is a god worshiped both in pagan times and in our times, and, sad truth be told, in all times in between. Mammon has always had his devotees in every time and place.

Jesus, and indeed the whole biblical revelation, puts money in its place: it is not a god, not something to be desired or sought after or stored up, but only to be used as all created things are to be used, for the glory of God and the service of mankind.

But this applies, then, to the questions of our day, too, doesn’t it?

Do not worry about what you are to wear (Mt. 6: 25), the Lord tells us in a very different context and with different meaning (Matt 6: 25).

So, do not worry about whether you have to wear a mask, stand six feet away from someone or not, or walk a certain direction in a grocery store. Even if they irk, do these things matter, really, all that much?

Render to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, reflecting as you do, that Caesar only has a claim on rather trivial and unimportant things.

Render to God what is God’s—and that is your heart, your soul, your mind, your body, your time, your goods. Every cell of your body, every second of your existence, every particle of energy and life force that is yours, is God’s, for you are his and he is yours, in the miraculous economy of love and grace.

It is possible, I grant, that some of our governments, some of the time, are being a bit pushy and officious these days. This is hardly an unknown phenomenon in human history. Let them be!

What does it have to do with your heart, mind, soul, body, spirit, being all rendered unto God moment by moment in love and in freedom? This is true freedom, the freedom of the Gospels. These are the important matters, the real business of life.

Even if our governments become truly repressive and in fact we do come to a point of necessary civil disobedience and resistance (see Catechism pp 2242-3), there is no power on earth that can impede the only freedom that in the end is worth anything—the freedom to love God and to love neighbor and so become saints and fulfill the sole reason we have been called into being.

I realize as I bring this article to a conclusion that I have left many questions unexplored and opened up many other questions without answering them. But it’s good to start at the right starting point, and at least have our basic principles correct, don’t you think?

Obey laws unless they command morally wrong behavior; take our stand on and keep as our primary focus the basic freedom given by Christ—the freedom to live as sons and daughters of God in the kingdom, not of Caesar, but of our good Father in heaven.