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Saturday, October 22, 2011

From the Pastor: “He Who Pays the Piper Calls the Tune”

A weekly column by Father George Rutler.

To “pay the piper” originally meant just footing the bill, as the Earl of Chesterfield used it when writing to his son. The Scottish custom is to give the piper a “wee dram” for his services. The expression gradually became, “He who pays the piper calls the tune.” Sometimes it takes a discerning Celtic ear to distinguish bagpiped tunes, but everyone knows that when you are in someone’s pay, you are obliged to play his tune.

That obligation is a fact of charitable funding. The Church has the longest history of charitable works of any institution. Compared with civil bureaucracies, the Church has been uniquely efficient, and for this reason governments have often subsidized many of her philanthropic agencies. But when governments reject moral precepts, they may require that the Church play their tune. At the present time, the federal government has been trying to force Catholic hospitals to contradict God’s moral law, and some hospitals have already closed rather than oblige Caesar. The Supreme Court has been hearing arguments about the Free Exercise of Religion clause in the Constitution, for the federal government has been challenging its application on moral issues. Some legislators would withdraw the “ministerial exemption” which guarantees the rights of conscience in the application of civil laws, so that, for instance, the Church’s protection of natural marriage could become a “hate crime.”

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has cut off a grant to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Office of Migration and Refugee Services because the USCCB will not provide abortions, sterilizations, and contraceptives. This is a bold example of the dangers inherent in any policy that makes the Church dependent on secular funding, and it confounds the naiveté of some who ignored warnings that predicted that the present government’s medical and social programs would restrict and inhibit Christian policy. “When you sit down to dine with a ruler, keep in mind who is before you . . . Do not desire his delicacies; they are a deceitful food” (Proverbs 23: 1, 3).

In the sixth century, Pope St. Gregory the Great vented his frustration: “…at one moment I am forced to take part in certain civil affairs, next I must worry over the incursions of barbarians and fear the wolves entrusted to my care; now I must accept political responsibility in order to give support to those who preserve the rule of law; now I must bear patiently the villainies of brigands, and then I must confront them, yet in all charity.”

It takes the combined innocence and shrewdness of a saint to discern how best to render to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God. It takes only common sense and a little knowledge of history to predict what will happen if Caesar forgets that he would “have no authority whatsoever were it not given from above” (John 19:11).


Fr. George W. Rutler is the pastor of the Church of our Saviour in New York City. His latest book, Coincidentally: Unserious Reflections on Trivial Connections, is available from Crossroads Publishing.


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