In many ways the story of Pontius Pilate is a narrative of the Culture of Death. His words embody the antithesis of the Culture of Life. Yet, this account of the Roman Governor still has much to say about the importance for standing up for truth and life. Many may ask what exactly ate Pilate has to teach us today? To answer this question the account of Christ’s trial before Pilate ought to be explored in depth.
While Pilate’s notorious reply to Christ, “What is truth?,” is a testament to relativism, he does provide a model of what not to do for those in positions of authority. In particular are 2 points that need to be explained in detail: 1) Pilate’s lack of virtue and 2) his reliance on political expediency.
It is clear that Pilate does not view Jesus as guilty of any crime against Rome. Each Gospel makes this obvious. In Matthew 27: 18 it is stated “For he knew that it was out of envy that they handed him over” (it is similar in Mark 15: 10). In some of the Gospel accounts, Pilate goes even further by stating, “What evil has he done” (see Mark 15: 14)? Or “I find this man not guilty” (Luke 23: 4; again a similarity found in John 19: 4). It becomes even more certain that Pilate is uncomfortable with finding guilt in Jesus when he asks the crowd to choose between Barabbas and Christ. It is when the crowd becomes unruly that Pilate relents and allows the execution to go forward.
Much of this goes back to the question that Pilate asks Jesus, “What is truth?” While the Gospel accounts do not give much insight into the man of Pilate, they do give an impressive glimpse. For example, it is clear that Pilate is not a man of virtue, particularly the virtue of justice. On one hand, it is very evident that Pilate has some ambivalence about condemning Jesus to death since he has not formally broken any Roman law, yet he it allows it to happen by “washing his hands”. In many ways, this passage of the story is quite interesting since it is about the secular authority’s ultimate refusal to stand up for justice. Pilate is presented with the facts yet refuses to act properly on them. It is a clear rejection of justice based purely on the Natural Law. Pilate, who does not have the faith, but is human and has a human nature, and therefore is subject to the moral law, refuses to do the just act.
The crowd gathered before Pilate is on the verge of becoming riotous. As the Gospel of Matthew states, “When Pilate saw that he was not succeeding at all, but that a riot was breaking out instead…” (see Matthew 27: 24). This simple observation of Pilate also seems to indicate that not only did Pilate not act justly but that he lacked the fortitude to do what was politically and morally correct. He does not want to deal with the political ramifications of doing the morally correct thing, even though his own wife pleaded with him to “Have nothing to do with that righteous man” (see Matthew 27: 19). Rather he would fall into the act of political expediency.
No doubt many politicians face circumstances in which they ought to do something that is just yet may be politically unpopular. This seems to be a constant dilemma within any political system and it is quite evident within the story of the Christ’s Passion. And, unfortunately, like Pilate, many politicians try to wash their hands of their responsibility. The part of the Passion where the Messiah speaks with Pilate is not only a story for every Christian to be brave in a world that wishes to condemn truth, but it is also a very telling story for those who hold (or wish to hold) public office. Those who are in public office will face the truth in a way that the everyday person does not since those in authority will have to be accountable to the common good of society especially when it comes to a Culture of Life.
This, naturally, leads into the idea of regnative fortitude. Much like regnative prudence, this type of fortitude is applicable to those who hold public office. It is a type of courage to stand up for what is just and true in the realm of politics even when public opinion or one’s own party stands against it. In fact, St. John Paul II is very explicit in his papal encyclical Evangelium Vitae about this kind of prudence when he states, “This task is the particular responsibility of civil leaders. Called to serve the people and the common good, they have a duty to make courageous choices [emphasis mine] in support of life, especially through legislative measures” (no. 90). It is clear that Pontius Pilate did not make the courageous choice in defense of life and it is in this sense he fails as a proper public authority.
Fortitude, as a virtue, is extremely important in the political world. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI spoke of this in his encyclical Deus Caritas Est when he states, “The Church wishes to help form consciences in political life and to stimulate greater insight into the authentic requirements of justice as well greater readiness to act accordingly [emphasis mine], even when this might involve conflict with situations of personal interest…” (no. 28). It is important to note here, that what both St. John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI are saying is that it is more important and bravely stand up for truth and justice even if it may cost the politician party support or even an election. Politicians have the moral duty not only to be just and prudent, but to be courageous and to stand up to the face of evil that is trying to prevent justice from being enshrined in the law.
Political expediency, as a habit, is not always virtuous. Christian civic leaders who are “personally opposed to abortion, but…” are not brave. They hide behind an absurd statement that is akin to “I’m personally opposed to rape, but…” These leaders are called to defend life in all of its stages of existence. Pontius Pilate dodged the question of life of the Culture of Life embodied before him. Pilate is a testimony as to how not to act on these deeply important questions for those in authority. He chose political expediency to preserve his political and personal interests. As a result, he shows all who read the Gospels how much of a coward he is.
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