Don’t Expect Caesar to do Peter’s Job

An idea came up in my discussions with family and friends about my compare/contrast post about the two third parties I was considering: whether the Constitution Party is too narrowly focused on American interests rather than the universality that Catholics are meant to have. Elsewhere I’ve read Catholic commentators warning against treating America as a kind of substitute religion.

I think there’s a misunderstanding here. You see, it is precisely because I don’t see America, much less any particular political party as a substitute religion that I don’t expect Catholic universality from my politicians and I don’t expect the country to act as a church. I expect it to act as a country.

If I want charity or universality, I know where to find it. What I want from my politicians is for them to look after the country in which I live and which I love. I want them to specifically look after her interests. It isn’t that I don’t care about people elsewhere; I do. It’s that I also care about my own nation and its people, and in voting for a certain politician I’m acting on that concern; not out of concern for any other nation or any other group of people.

Put it this way: a man’s first priority is to care for his wife and children. It’s not that he doesn’t care for anyone else, it’s they aren’t his responsibility in the same way that his own family is. This is part of the law of beneficence: briefly, it says that if we cannot help two people at the same time, we ought to help whichever one we stand in a relation of responsibility towards: family over acquaintances, benefactors over strangers, countrymen over foreigners, co-religionists over infidels, etc.

In the same way, politicians ought (I don’t say they do, but they ought) to have the welfare of the nation, or the state, or the city as their first priority (at least insofar as they are politicians), because that is their job. Those in government are entrusted with a specific duty; to safeguard the interests, rights, liberties, and so on of our nation. I expect them to put American interests over the interests of foreigners not because I think foreigners less worthy or less important than Americans, but because that is the specific responsibility that they have been given.

This is the reverse of making the nation a substitute religion. The fact that I don’t expect America to open her borders out of charitable concern for those in Mexico, or to provide free healthcare for all, regardless of the economic consequences, stems from the fact that I see America as a nation and not as a church. That is, I expect her to occupy a specific, important, but limited position: not to attend to every need, bind up every wound, and bring salvation to the world. The Church is universal; that is one of her hallmarks. The nation, by definition, is not. Caesar’s job is to do the duty of Caesar; not the duty of Peter.

Yet, the evidence of history and the Church indicates that God does not, therefore, disapprove of nations. Jesus wept over the impending destruction of Jerusalem and ordered His disciples to “render to Caesar what is Casear’s.” St. Paul and St. Peter commanded obedience to civil authorities and love for the community. The concept of the nation-state evolved out of Christendom, and great Christians have often been great patriots. Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman was a fervent Englishman even after he became Catholic. St. John Paul II loved Poland. G.K. Chesterton wrote as eloquently about his love for England as about his love for Christ. Archbishop John Hughes defended the cause of the Union as ferociously as he defended the Church in New York. St. Louis IX, St. Vladimir of Russia, St. Edward of England, St. Jadwiga of Poland, St. Stephen of Hungary, and St. Henry II of Bavaria were all national leaders. Not to mention that St. Joan of Arc was commissioned by God to rescue France from her enemies; showing that God certainly has some concern for national rights as such.

National pride only becomes a danger when it is expected that a nation will do more than it ought, or when it’s expected that the Church must become subservient to the state (this, by the way, is the real reason behind the separation of church and state: the idea that the church threatens to dominate the state is an ahistorical absurdity). Like most things, it has its claims on us and to pursue it in just moderation is a virtue. Moderation, in this case, includes not expecting a nation to act like a church. Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and expect a Caesar’s duty.

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