Christ is clear that in matters which relate to Caesar, Christians are to deliver him his due. It is in the nature of Caesar to demand far more than his due; that is where two millennia of Christians wrestling with the issue comes in. There have always been those who wish to define what is Caesar’s so narrowly that they will yield almost nothing to him; there have also always been those prepared to accommodate themselves with whatever Ceasar wishes to demand, not least in times of crisis.
Many of the early Christian martyrs were men and woman who refused Ceasar when he demanded more than their consciences would allow. To many Romans the idea of not treating Ceasar as a god, or indeed, of treating all gods equally was anathema – akin to treason. For a Christian that was impossible. There was one God. So, whether it was Caesar or, later, Allah, or still later the various manifestations of the State, Christians have died rather than betray Jesus. In the piping days of peace and tranquillity it is easy to both admire the stand they took and to assume one would do the same.
Thus, as Catholic Bishops across the world respond the the Coronavirus pandemic by closing their churches, the temptation to point out that even during the two world wars this was not done is an easy one to which to yeild; that is why it is done so often. But a pandemic is not a bomb. A pandemic spreads from person to person, and as everyone is vulnerable, the paraellel is not with a war but with a time of plague. There we know from history that churches have been closed for the protection of the people.
In the third century St Cyprian’s response to the great pandemic which devastated the Roman world was to emphasis the teaching of Christ – we were to love our neighbour more than ourselves and we were to bring consolation,l comfort and practical help to the suffering. The plague was not a capricious act of malign Fate, in the was the product of a fallen civilisation in revolt against a loving God. The care which Christians took of others marked them out from their fellow citizens, and the example they set helped make our Faith more acceptable to the Romans. The first hospitals in Europe were founded as hygienic places to provide care during times of plague, on the understanding that negligence that spread disease further was, in fact, murder. If we take that last point, we can, I think, see why our Bishops have closed down churches for the duration of the pandemic.
Yes, of course, there will be those who argue that this is over-hyped and that people should behave in what they would call an heroic manner. But there is nothing “heroic” in spreading Covid19. The heroism to which we are called is a smaller example. We are called to deny ourselves the spiritual nourishment of the Eucharist, and of the Church community.
But that does not mean that we are not called to vigilence. Where we hear of those in authority threatening to permanently close churches which do not comply with government guidance, we have a legitimate cause for concern. Closure should last for as long as the medical advice tends in that direction. When the great Lord Action said that “power has a tendency to corrupt, and absolute power has a tendency to corrupt absolutely,” he neglected to add that those invested with a little power tend to abuse it.
There is nothing which can separate us from the love of God. Let us do what Caesar says in this time of trial, but let us be vigilant that, as his his wont, Caesar does not overshoot the mark.