By now we have heard the opening words of the Declaration of Independence so often, and they have become so much a part of our national identity, that they might roll past our ears or flash before our eyes without us taking much notice. If we’re not paying attention, they almost sound cliched: We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
In America, these words have been part of our DNA since they were first written in 1776. They inform not only our government, but also our entire culture, down to how families relate to one another and to how we practice religion. Nonetheless, the independent spirit at the heart of both the American Revolution and the concept of popular sovereignty poses some unique difficulties for the Church in the United States. Too often our people confuse liberty with license, value dissent for its own sake, and focus too intently on our individual rights instead of our duties to the common good. Many mistake the freedom of religion as the freedom from religion. This was never the intent of our Founding Fathers. These are serious and perennial challenges for Catholicism in America, and year after year we have to do our best to respond. But for a moment, let’s focus on the good these words have done for us.
We have, to a large degree, inherited a Catholicism that has been free from government interference into what gets taught from the pulpit and in the seminaries, who holds what ecclesial office, and what lands the Church can possess. We have been free to teach our faith to our families and to others, to open churches, schools and charities, and to evangelize the broader culture. And we are at liberty to criticize our government, even from the pulpit, without so much as a slap on the wrist from the authorities. Although enemies of the faith loudly proclaim the notion of the separation of Church and State… sighting arguments of partisan politics which are should not enter into our witness to the truth. Our historical moment is a rare one when we consider all of the various forms of church-state relations that Christians have encountered throughout the centuries, and the persecution many encounter today in other lands.
Our Catholic institutions and our relationships with them have gained a distinctive American flavor since our country’s founding. They are in our hearts and in our blood because the people who came before us lived the words of both the Declaration of Independence and our Catholic faith. In the United States as in perhaps no other place in the world, our faith has had the freedom to breathe, to think out loud, to build and to work tirelessly for the things we love. The culture that we inherited and that comes from this freedom is so big that it may be difficult to see at times.
Yet, Catholics must remain vigilant. Obviously, America has hardly reached the point where Christians must practice the bare-bones, survivalist (yet inspiring!) form of our faith that the Jesuit missionaries encountered in Japan. But when we consider the persecution our Church has endured under various regimes throughout the ages, we know enough to realize that things can get ominous, and fast.
In September of 2017, members of the Senate Judiciary Committee suggested that faithful Christians be barred from serving as judges. When questioning a practicing Roman Catholic and former clerk for the Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, one Senator said that the nominees previous writings indicate that “the dogma of Catholicism lives loudly within you.” U.S. Senator Dick Durbin asked, “Do you consider yourself an orthodox Catholic?” No question about it: The committee was subjecting the candidate to the “religious test” banned by the Constitution. The Christian Faith should inform our views, wherever we find ourselves. But, in our increasingly secular society, the only acceptable religion for public officials is “orthodox liberalism.”
The many other recent encroachments on religious liberty that we see, make it clear that many of our fellow citizens — Catholics (in name only) among them — view our faith as a threat, or at least as something that should not stand in the way of a political agenda. They see it as something distant, foreign, outdated and ebbing. In response to this, we have to change that perception.
The challenge, then, concerns the face of the Catholic faith that our fellow Americans encounter every day. It is a question of evangelization. Do we Catholics practice the faith we are working so hard to defend? What about its more difficult teachings, especially the one that exhorts us to love our enemies?
We must show the culture that seeks to marginalize us that our faith is a living and life-changing reality. The more fundamental challenge needed for us to preserve our American ideals is to boldly live our faith, to boldly proclaim it, and to boldly love God and our neighbor. As Jesus taught, “Let your light shine before all.”
St. Isaac Jogues Bulletin, July 1, 2018.