Render Unto Caesar

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Article Reviews

Render Unto Caesar, Archbishop Charles J. Chaput (Doubleday, 2008)

Over the last four years, Denver Archbishop Charles Chaput has become one of the most well-known and controversial Catholic bishops in the United States. A strong pro-life advocate, Chaput once suggested that voting for a pro-choice candidate is a sin. While he has since backed away from that position, he continues to be a critic of Catholic politicians who support abortion rights.

Render Unto Caesar reflects on the relationship between faith and politics and calls for more Catholics to join Chaput on the barricades. The book opens with a quote from the French writer Charles Péguy: “Freedom is a system based on courage.” The need for Catholics to live their faith more courageously is a central theme of the book.

Chaput argues that the love of God impels Catholics to courageously confront the forces of evil in the world. “Working for justice,” he writes, “is an obligation of Christian freedom.”

Over the last half-century, Chaput argues, Catholicism’s witness in the public square has become more attenuated. One reason is a widespread misunderstanding of the “separation of church and state” that restricts religion to the private realm. A second is a weakening in the Catholic Church’s internal health, as evidenced by a decline in the practice of the faith.

Those inclined to stuff Chaput into a box labeled “conservative” would do well to read this book. Rarely has the idea that working for justice is an essential part of Christian life been articulated with greater force than here. Chaput’s framing of abortion as an issue of justice is an important reminder to those tempted to separate “pro-life” and “social justice” concerns.

Nevertheless, given the book’s relative silence on other issues, one wonders whether abortion is the only evil worthy of prophetic witness. What Chaput diagnoses as cowardice among Catholics may well be confusion as to how to make political choices when both political parties embrace evils that the church condemns.