Meditations for Layfolks - Citizenship

Among the Greeks it was considered a noble ambition to serve the State. The writings of Aristotle and his fellows, the dialogues of Plato, are full of the same idea. To vote and speak, to take part in the assembly, to become an influence in directing the national policy, was looked upon as the highest possible service that man could render to God. For them our ideal of Church and State, separate and free, would have made no appeal, not because they made the Church into the State, but the State into the Church. For them there was really no distinction between the two; not because God had become man, and the Divine was to take charge of the human, but because man had become God, and the human was the Divine. In consequence, every action done for the benefit of the State was itself an act of piety to the gods. Much the same action produced that curious and impossible custom by which, even in their lifetime, the Roman Emperors were hailed as gods: Augustus Caesar prefixed Divus to his name, and thus added an hereditary title to the Caesarship. This did not mean that he was supposed immortal or incapable of wrong, but only that, as the highest symbol of the State, he became thereby worthy of worship. Foolish as it may seem in its expression, the idea was a noble one, and compares very favourably with the modern cynic who, parrot-like, declares politics to be a dirty business, and politicians to be only "on the make." What has happened to Christianity that it should seem to fall so considerably below the pagan ideal?

Certainly, then, there is this to be remembered, that the State was itself the object of religious worship. It was equivalent to the Church, and in consequence there could be no other moral code to come in conflict with it. The curious position achieved by Aristotle in his book on Politics is that he asks the question: Must a good citizen be a good man? Here, by the very form of the question, he does acknowledge really what he would not have done in theory, that there was a fixed law of ethics independent of the State; but as a Greek, he was bound to uphold the absolute fusion of the two. Now here Christianity has held an entirely different point of view; for while the State remained national, the Church became international, for it was based, not on ceremonies, but on doctrine; not on customs that are local, but on truth which is ubiquitous. Yet this did not produce any lowering influence on the view taken of national political life. Saint Paul and Saint Peter both taught subjection to Caesar, when Caesar meant Nero; and Saint Paul himself proudly boasted his Roman citizenship as his birthright. Again, the Church herself consecrated the forms of government, hallowed kings, sat in the seats of judgement, lent her bishops to the national council chambers, and championed freedom of election. Representative government is her gift to the West; so that it cannot be said that she has in her teaching neglected politics. Indeed, the accusation is made often against her that she dabbled too much in politics.

How, then, if the attitude of the Church has been to make sacred the forms of political life, has the result of her contact with the world been to create the cynical distrust of all public men? Perhaps the reason for my suspicious view of such men is the very contrary of this: not that the Church has lowered politics, but because politics have excluded the Church, because they and I have been too anxious to keep religion out of politics. There is always a natural idea that religion loses enormously from being entangled in party strife; but though that may be perfectly true in many ways, it is equally false when it is made to apply not only to the mere party squabbles, but to the whole domain of government and the national life: for religion stands to lose if it remains simply in the sacristy. The Church must play her part in the defence of justice, whether in politics or economics or abstract truth. Now, by the Church and religion are not meant simply the clergy; the Church is the whole assembly of the faithful. Catholics who denounce modern politicians are often to blame for the low ebb (if it is a low ebb) of political life. Faith alone and the supernatural value of life can give reverence and dignity to government; and to say that a thing is evil and therefore to refuse any further commerce with it does not tend to make the evil become good. Let me, therefore, go back to my life, conscious that my duties of citizenship are duties that a Catholic should be eager to discharge. Men crowd in time of war to the defence of the State; why not also in time of peace? Let me not dread the loss of time that may be occasioned by local patriotism, convinced that in rendering to Caesar the things that are Caesar's I am rendering also to God the things that are God's.

- text taken from Meditations for Layfolk by Father Bede Jarrett, O.P.