Caught between God and Caesar

Cultural fissures are widening around us as people consider which laws they will obey and which they find intolerable. We chafe, we moan, we stiffen, and we grouse — who has the authority to tell us what we can and cannot do? Who will decide the ground rules to which all must conform? It is essential to consider what makes a law just, and what we are to do when our conscience rebels.

Many appeal to their gut as the final arbiter, but there is a tremendous difference between an uninformed opinion and a well-formed conscience. Concerning the latter, we read in the “Catechism” that it “enjoins him at the appropriate moment to do good and to avoid evil” (CCC No. 1777). And rather than operating in a vacuum, the Church reminds us that conscience “bears witness to the authority of truth in reference to the supreme Good to which the human person is drawn, and it welcomes the Commandments. When he listens to his conscience, the prudent man can hear God speaking” — or as Cardinal John Henry Newman noted, the conscience is for each of us “the aboriginal Vicar of Christ.”

It is essential that Christians form their consciences properly by praying, staying close to the Sacraments, and studying the moral law. We should not be led by stray feelings, or the vagaries of emotion, which can easily be misled. To submit to the teachings of the Church is a safeguard against our own limited and compromised horizon; and while the topic of Marriage is no different from a host of others, admittedly it does cut closer to the bone than most — thus, we proceed with caution.

We live in a precarious time in which God and Caesar disagree strongly about where good and evil lie. People of faith, long lulled into a false sense of comfort in their ostensibly Judeo-Christian culture, must now fully awaken, consider the new parameters, and think about where legitimate authority rests. On one hand, there are those who say that Marriage is a private commitment solely between the parties, and in which no one else has the right to interfere; then there are those who believe that Marriage is what the state allows it to be; and finally there are those who believe that Marriage is an institution ordained by God for the benefit of society and the sanctity of those who participate in it. Hence, we are witnessing the collision of ideas in a deeply divided country, and no one can escape the carnage.

An added difficulty presents itself in that the people we know and love dearly differ in their understanding of the definition of Marriage. We may be a little elastic on the details, and are pulled up short when someone else suggests to us that Marriage is an institution that confers lifelong graces to a indissoluble union; or we ourselves may trust the Church’s teaching and be frustrated by others who cannot see how Catholic truths about Marriage invite us into the Paschal Mystery itself. How do we love those around us, affirm them in their good intentions, and yet speak firmly about Marriage as a gift with responsibilities attached. It’s almost impossible in polite society — not to mention the workplace!

You are not alone — we’re all struggling to find equilibrium where it may be impossible. That is why the “Catechism,” a well-formed conscience, and intense prayer are our only refuges. We cannot expect that the moral law be purged from the public square without it shredding the very fabric of our personal lives. Keep in mind, though, that Jesus told Pilate, “You would have no power over Me unless it had been given you from above” (Jn 19:11). Subsequently, the death meted out at the discretion of that earthly ruler was conquered in the very Paschal Mystery that gives life and meaning to Marriage. Easter should remind us of the power of truth, and to trust God in the matter of Marriage. 

Anchor columnist Mrs. Kineke is the author of “The Authentic Catholic Woman.” She blogs at

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