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November 3, 2014

One unfortunate fallout of the extensive media coverage of the bishops' synod on the family is that it plays into the widespread perception that the only societal issues with which the Catholic Church is concerned are those dealing with human life, the family and sex. Of course, the Church is and ought to be vitally concerned with those issues, but there are many others as well.

Coincidentally, the end of the synod fell next to a Sunday when the Gospel reading included Jesus' much-abused statement, "Give to Caesar the things that are Caesar's and to God the things that are God's" (Matthew 22.21). The statement is misunderstood when it is used to assert that the Church should not concern itself with political matters.

That view is balderdash. The Church may not perhaps tell civic governments how to pick up the residents' garbage and where to dispose of it. It does not have the expertise.

However, the Church does have a duty to say the garbage should be picked up and should be disposed of in an environmentally-sensitive manner. It should also object when people are forced to live in garbage dumps as they are in many cities in the developing world. It should say that this is a gross violation of human dignity crying out to heaven for the establishment of a more equitable society.

No Christian should claim that such situations are "things that are Caesar's."

Sadly, the economic and social issues that afflict families received virtually no media attention in the reporting on the synod. The focus was almost solely on whether divorced and remarried Catholics who have not had their first marriage annulled should be permitted to receive the Eucharist and on how the Church expresses its concern for homosexual people. These are important concerns too, deserving of a considerable amount of the synod's time.

However, millions of families are divided by situations of poverty, domestic violence, labour migration and the materialism of consumer society. These are matters of concern to both Church and state. There is no tidy separation between the two.

More generally, the Church should help people to see that modern liberal democracy is more than a political system. It is a philosophy of individualism that assumes economic improvement is better than spiritual well-being, that the individual desire to do as one pleases should take priority over the common good, and that technological progress has no negative fallout and should be pursued endlessly.

Amidst such supposed democracy, the Church cannot help but be countercultural.

Recent popes have said as much. A Catholic understanding of human dignity is squarely at odds with a philosophy of secular individualism. Saying so publicly has major, widespread political implications. Caesar ought to listen to God.