Ambrose was governing Milan in AD 374, when the bishop of that city died and a struggle broke out between the Arian and Nicene factions to secure the succession. At stake was the catholicity of the church there, through its confession of the Son’s consubstantiality with the Father. The deceased bishop, Auxentius, had been of Arian persuasion.
While doing his best to maintain civic order, Ambrose, though still a catechumen, suddenly found himself elected bishop by popular demand. To take up that new responsibility he had to be baptized, confirmed, ordained, and consecrated over the course of just a few days. He then took charge of the battle for orthodoxy in that region and for the libertas ecclesiae, which was threatened by imperial interference.
One skirmish in this struggle saw the young emperor, Valentinian II—urged on by his mother, Justina, the power behind the throne and herself an Arian—attempt to take possession of some of Milan’s churches and to install another Arian bishop. Ambrose moved quickly to prevent bloodshed as the faithful (who were rather feistier than their counterparts today) occupied the contested buildings so that this plan could not be carried out. Besieged in a basilica by imperial forces, he began composing hymns for his flock to sing through the night watches, so as to remain alert. The imperial plan was indeed thwarted and the Catholic faith prevailed. (You can learn a bit more of the story here, I see, though it is differently deployed.)
One can hardly imagine such a thing happening today, however, either in Milano or in Montréal. First of all, there are barely enough Catholics left in such places to occupy a basilica. Second, many of them, though they recite the creed often enough, have only a weak grasp of what “consubstantiality” means and why it matters. More than a few of their fellows, perhaps even their catechist or priest, are for all practical purposes closet Arians. Third, when they say what Christians have always said, “Jesus is Lord”—do they still say it?—they don’t mean that he is Lord in any sense that could or would call Caesar’s authority into question. And when they say with Jesus himself, “Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s,” it never crosses their minds that Caesar might claim for himself what belongs to God. Even when Caesar says, “Churches are closed,” or “Churches are open only to those to whom I say they are open,” the response is not resistance but blind obedience.
Those who respond thus—including our own Québec bishops—are not of Ambrose’s breed. They seem to think that only things unseen belong to God. What can be seen belongs to Caesar and is at his disposal, including church buildings and those who worship in them. Perhaps they have forgotten even the first article of the creed, wherein no such distinction is permitted between the visible and the invisible. Or perhaps they were catechized by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who taught that the invisible soul may belong to God, if there is a God, but the visible—the body and the whole sphere of social interaction, including religion—belongs to the State. At all events, that Jesus Christ rules over both soul and body seems not to have registered. The notion that churches are his embassies, not subject to secular jurisdiction, appears to have been abandoned. Perhaps that’s why governments (or so it is rumored) are now preparing to tax churches.
It was, of course, a trick question about taxation that elicited Jesus’ famous saying about rendering to Caesar and rendering to God. It was a trick question because there was no right answer to it. “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not?” That is, is it permissible under divine law to pay taxes to a foreign tyrant who has seized the vineyard of God by force? If Jesus said “Yes,” he acknowledged that Caesar had a right to rule over the land and people of God; that the vineyard actually belonged to Caesar. And if he said “No,” he acknowledged the cause of the revolutionaries who were trying to retake that vineyard by contrary force. (Their cause would later meet with a flicker of success, but in AD 70 they were crushed by the Romans, as Jesus prophesied they would be.) So one way he was a heretic, the other a rebel. One way he could be censured by religious authorities, the other by State authorities. Either way he was done, politically speaking.
Well, he was indeed “done,” but his hour had not yet come. He was not quite ready to cry out, “It is finished.” He would be obedient to God even unto death, being censured in the end by both religious and secular authorities, who conspired together to hang him on a cross. From this greatest of evils God would bring forth his greatest good, redeeming his people not merely from Roman oppression but from the devil who through fear of death holds all men in bondage, and from the guilt of their sins, which they heaped on Jesus’ shoulders. Meanwhile, Jesus escaped the horns of the political dilemma on which they sought to impale him, by calling for a coin with which the tax could be paid. When they produced it, he enquired of them, “Whose likeness and inscription does it bear?” And the answer came, “Caesar’s.” “Then,” said he, “render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”
In other words: If for convenience you use Caesar’s coinage (note that Jesus carried none) then pay Caesar’s tax. For if you use his coinage, you already acknowledge his lordship. You may do so, for he has at the moment, by divine permission, a kind of lordship, through which he does good as well as evil. He builds road, for example, on which you conduct commerce. He provides security against other predators, and a semblance of law and order. But you must render to Caesar only what actually is Caesar’s, being sure to render to God what is God’s. It is in God’s image and likeness that you have been made, so be careful not to be made over into the likeness of Caesar, whose coinage you use. The real dilemma here is yours. You must learn how and where to draw the line between God and Caesar.
St Peter knew where to draw the line. Where obedience to man prevents obedience to God, man must be disobeyed. St Ambrose knew where to draw the line. That is why he barricaded himself in the house of God, with his flock, and refused to allow the heretical emissary to enter, though that emissary came in Caesar’s name. St François de Laval, Québec’s first bishop, likewise knew. He spent half his life doing battle on both sides of the Atlantic with Governor Frontenac and that network of secular powers that under Rigaud and Bigot (who produced a kind of prototype Global Public-Private Partnership) would eventually become the criminal kleptocracy that squeezed the life out of New France.
Such bishops, alas, are nowhere to be found today, at least not around here. The only line our mitred brethren know how to draw with their shepherd’s crook is a line in the snow dividing their own flocks, as the government requires. Neither, of course, do most who belong to those flocks know how to draw it. They rush to occupy the churches only because they are warm and comfortable. Who cares about the brethren shivering outside? They should get vaccinated. Then they, too, could be warm and comfortable. Never mind the fact that the double-vaxxed are twice as likely to be infected with the latest variant as the unvaxxed, and the triple-vaxxed four times as likely. Just do what the government says, like good Catholics. My god, you benighted anti-vaxxers are annoying! Just get vaccinated, and all our problems will disappear.
I hear such things from English as well as French bishops, priests, and laity, including theologians, in various places. They all talk about loving the neighbor; only they don’t, really. They don’t even care to discover the basic facts with which they might work to help the neighbor. What they care about is remaining as comfortable as possible, about fitting in. They are very good at fitting in. I fear we are all very good at fitting in. We pay our enormous taxes and are rewarded with a semi-functional universal healthcare system—by dint of disastrous government policies and cowardly physicians now increasingly dysfunctional, unfortunately. Then we are told that, for the sake of maintaining that system, we must take experimental medications that render our immune systems similarly dysfunctional; that those who refuse to do this will be barred from the public sphere, perhaps from the hospitals in due course, and even now from their own churches. And to this absurdity, this outrage, we respond, “Yes sir; whatever you say, sir!”
In no small part, it is by means of our universal healthcare system that we have been led down the path of cradle-to-grave dependence on Caesar and of compromise with the culture of death. And now it is an almighty fear of death that has suddenly seized us, a fear constantly stoked by self-fulfilling threats of “overwhelmed” hospitals (that is, hospitals where beds are empty because the people who tend them aren’t coming into work any more). Fear of death, in this case a quite irrational fear, is being used against us, to manipulate us toward a level of compliance in self-harm never before witnessed. Freedoms we once swore by are being traded away like so many useless baubles. A papered society—or rather, a QR-coded society—that governments and globalists knew we would not easily accept is now being forced upon us in the name of a faux emergency. Forced even, and indeed especially, at the doors of our houses of worship.
And what are we doing about it? When Caesar says to us, even of the house of God, “You may go there” or “You may not go there”—or worse, “This one may go there, but not that one”—rather than barricading ourselves inside that house and singing the praises of God and his Christ, we barricade the house itself against all of whom Caesar disapproves. Only when Caesar does approve, and only to those of whom he approves, do our bishops and priests say, “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.”
The proper response to that call, as you know, is Dignum et iustum est—whoops, we’re not allowed Latin these days, Ambrose, so here’s the English—”It is right and just.” And it is indeed right and just, our duty and our salvation! But right and just according to whom? God, or Caesar? That is the dilemma on which our bishops are currently impaled.
It is a dilemma they try to evade by pretending that we fight, not against flesh and blood, and not against principalities and powers in the heavenlies either. No, we fight against a pandemic only! They blame the whole business on the virus, in other words, as if we’d never seen one before or will never see the like of this one again. Thus do they justify what cannot be justified, what Cardinal Müller has quite correctly called the grave sin of barring from their churches, in the name of Covid and Omicron, in the name of Public Health, members of the faithful in good standing canonically. They bar even those who are not sick and unlikely to get sick or to spread sickness. They bar the conscientious, who will not display Caesar’s mark in order to enter God’s house. They receive only those Caesar is content to send them. They even deputize the laity to prevent the rest of their brethren from approaching the altar of God before they have sacrificed to Caesar. They are the traditores who play Caesar’s game, the game they cannot hope to win, the game they have already lost just because they play. They deliver over the numbers, if not the names, of all who enter their basilicas and churches.
That is very strong language, yes, perhaps a bit too strong. But they are doing what is not right, what is not just, what is treacherous if not yet traitorous. And they seem—this is the best defense that can be mounted for them—not to grasp what is at stake. They don’t know why this game is afoot or what the prize is. Ambrose, who pointed out that even a faithful emperor was merely a son of the Church, not a ruler over her, could tell them a thing or two about dealing with Caesar. He could explain to them what is at stake. But they know neither Ambrose nor the ways of Ambrose. They lack his conviction and his courage, just as they lack his understanding. Thus do they render to Caesar what is God’s, delivering not only their buildings but their own brethren into his hands.
What will they do, we may wonder, when those who are now being denied the bread of heaven are also being denied the bread of earth, as is beginning to happen in Austria and elsewhere. To judge by the Austrian bishops, and by their own record to date, the answer is—nothing. But “nothing” will not do as an answer. The people of God need bishops who are faithful to God, bishops capable of putting Caesar in his place, bishops who will go to the barricades with the people, not against them. If, to enjoy such bishops, they have to go out and find godly catechumens whom they can (Peter permitting) make bishops, so be it.
(Editor’s note: This essay originally appeared in slightly different form at “Desiring a Better Country”, the author’s Substack site.)
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