Newman University Church, Stephens Green, Dublin Sunday 22nd October 2017
“We celebrate this Mass in a unique Church. It was the dream Church of Blessed John Henry Cardinal Newman, one of the great thinkers of the nineteenth century who came to Dublin to establish a Catholic University of Ireland. While that university never really came to its full realisation, the thought of Newman on many themes made an enduring impact on society and on the Church way beyond Ireland.
This Church was not just to be a place where students could attend Mass and religious services. It was to be a focal point in the dialogue between learning, science and faith. Newman lived in nineteenth century Dublin but his thought contains many lessons for the different world of today, especially about the relationships between faith and society and the significance of that relationship in public debate in Ireland today.
The Gospel reading that we have heard is well known to us. It contains one of those phrases of Jesus that have entered into common parlance about giving to God what is God’s and to Caesar what is Caesar’s. Sometimes when a phrase enters into common parlance, we begin to think that we fully understand it. Our interpretations, however, very often turn out to be more than a little simplistic.
The context out of which today’s Gospel reading springs is an interesting one. This is not an occasional meeting between Jesus and those who did not like him or his teaching. It was a planned trap. The conspirators against him had gone away to work out between them how they were going to trap Jesus. They gathered with unlikely bedfellows, the Herodians, a group which was especially loyal to Herod and therefore to the Roman occupation.
The debate had little to do with true religion. It was about the political ambitions of two groups. One side hoped to make Jesus appear as being against Caesar and thus being politically dangerous. The other would be delighted to get Jesus on the side of Caesar and, if that were to happen, it would evoke a rejection of Jesus by the majority of the people who did not like the Roman occupation. It appears very much a no-win situation for Jesus, a situation where there was little interest in either religion or in truth.
The first interesting thing that appears as we reflect on this Gospel is just how often people can become trapped in their own issues and nothing more. It happens in the Church, it happens in politics, it happens in the media, it happens in society. The Gospel message must stand free from ideologies. The believing community must be one that is based rather on those two virtues mentioned in the second reading from Saint Paul: actions that work for love and which persevere in hope.
How does Jesus react? Jesus does not flee from hostility. He is remarkable in his ability to be present in the face of hostility and of attempts to divide and yet never to respond to hostility with hostility. The truth may not always prevail in our world. The truth, however, has no need for polemics or for nastiness. The truth has no need of its spin-doctors. The truth possesses its own power to make us free. The polemics and spin- doctoring of one side should not be responded to with polemics and nastiness on the other.
Jesus’ truth has to be lived by us, his followers, in the real world that surrounds us and where it will not always be easy to see where the truth lies. We live today in a society that is clearly much more pluralist than that of the past.
Pluralism is not the same as secularism, but in today’s Ireland we live our faith in a society where pluralism may at times involve respectful but robust confrontation with secularism. Pluralism and indeed democracy are never licence to silence diverse views.
One can talk in today’s world not so much about a situation in which people are torn between two realities, one God’s and the other Caesar’s, but of a world in which in many ways the reality of God is slowly being eclipsed and men and women live their lives as if God does not exist. It is not so much an atmosphere of hostility towards faith, but an attitude of indifference or one which tolerates a presence for God in the private lives of individuals but not within the realities of our society.
Where then is the place for God in today’s society? How do we who believe in God see our role within a modern pluralist society? There is no way in which we can or even should attempt to impose our views on others. There is a real distinction between faith and politics. To deny that gives rise to integralism, fundamentalism, and false utopias. This does not mean that religious faith has no relevance for the building up of society.
There is a real distinction between faith and politics. The Church does not formulate theories of political policy. Politics and the creation of the just society is neither exclusively the role of the State. Caesar is not God. The equation of political life with the State alone would lead to totalitarianism. The values that underlie any State must find their roots in the truth and in the participation of all, each bringing the values that inspire their lives, including those that derive from their faith.
The challenge for the believer of separating what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God is not easy in our changing society in Ireland today. The believer should never identify himself or herself with any ideology. Belief involves discernment relying on values which transcend politics and complement the values of society, especially that great value of love, of Christian love which calls us to self-giving and sharing, rather than to a culture of celebrity and of having and possessing.
We pray today for the success of the World Meeting of Families that will take place here in Dublin in 2018. I thank you for you interest and commitment to making that Meeting a success. When I say success, I am not speaking just of the success of an event. I am thinking of a deeper renewal of what family means in and for society, a place where faith is developed in a spirit of dialogue and tolerance and where men and women of faith bring those deepest insights, which derive from their faith into making our society a more human and a more caring one and more respectful one.