Being American, Being Catholic

14th Sunday in Ordinary Time (C); July 7, 2013

Is 66: 10-14c Ps 66 Gal 6:14-18 Lk 10:1-12,17-20

Deacon Jim McFadden; Folsom Prison


(We Americans embrace freedom.  However, a proper biblical understanding must inform our celebration of it.  In both classical philosophy and the Bible, “freedom is not so much individual choices as the disciplining of desire so as to make the achievement of the good, first possible, then effortless.”  While this notion of freedom may seem confining, it’s actually liberating as it aligns ourselves with the Truth who is Christ Jesus.  In Christ, by whom we are created equal in dignity, we become free.  As Catholics, we can embrace America’s protection of equal rights, but we must be critical of modern interpretations of freedom.)

A few days ago we celebrated July 4th, Independence Day, which is a good occasion to reflect upon “Being American and Being Catholic.”  What does it mean when we say we’re proud to be American and I’m Catholic?  Do they effortlessly coincide?  Are they irreconcilably opposed?  Is there a blending of the two?

There have been times in our nation’s history where our patriotism had been questioned because of our immigrant status during the 19th and 20th centuries.  The dominant Protestant culture perceived us as being under the undo influence of a foreign power, namely the Vatican.  But, through generations after generations, we’ve assimilated, fought and spilled blood in wars, entered the middle class, and have established a positive cultural/religious presence, and have shown it is possible to be both American and Catholic.

Another view of American Catholicism bends towards a more cautious stance: namely, our emphasis of a corporate sense of identity

(we are Church, the Body of Christ), our solidarity with the members of the universal Church, our commitment to human dignity from womb to tomb, our belief that the person should be the center of economic enterprise, and our preferential option for the poor do create a certain tension.

So, both views have a lot to contribute to this discussion.  But, there is an incongruence and it has to do with our understanding of freedom.  As we reflected last Sunday, the American ideal of freedom is one of self-expression and self-determination: “Don’t tread on me!”  My aim is to do what I want to do when I want to do it!  I want to wiggle free from external constraints that inhibit my self-actualization.”  With this American ideal, freedom trumps Truth and even Life.  There was this famous U.S. Supreme Court decision, Casey v. Planned Parenthood (1993) that illustrates this point.  Trying to bolster their earlier decision in Roe v. Wade (1973) which legitimated abortion on demand as a privacy right, the justices said that it belongs to the “very nature of liberty to determine one’s life, of existence, and the universe.”  Staggering isn’t it?—but, that’s a direct quote from the majority opinion.  This is the American ideal: self-expression and  self-determination trump objective Truth altogether.  The universe?  It means what I say it means.  My own life?  It means what I choose.

Contrast this view with two statements from St. Paul: the one we heard last week that it is for freedom that Christ has set you free.  Notice that it is Christ who sets us free no matter what our external circumstances are.  Freedom is not opposed to Christ if it is used appropriately.   Christ is the ground of freedom because we believe He is Truth itself.  In another quote, Paul introduces himself to the Romans by saying, “Paul, a slave to Christ Jesus.”  A slave!  In the ordinary sense, a slave is someone whose freedom has been taken away.  I am a slave of Christ and it is Christ who has set me free.  Do you see that for the modern mind that doesn’t make a lick of sense?  But, in the biblical reading, it makes perfect sense.

Freedom is not in opposition to Truth, but authentic freedom is ground in the Truth.  In our culture freedom trumps everything: it trumps Truth; it trumps Life itself.  In that distorted understanding of freedom, the American ideal is at odds with Catholicism.  We have to say “no” to that construal of freedom.  We say, instead, that you will be free when you submit yourself to objective, universal norms, intellectual and moral.   In that submission, you’ll find your true freedom.  Brothers, do you believe that: by surrendering your whole heart and soul to Jesus, you will become a free man!

Our culture says “no.”  But, it wasn’t always that way.  During the hot summer in Philadelphia in 1776, Thomas Jefferson composed those famous words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.”  These are powerful, moving words.  My 7th grade social studies teacher in San Francisco thought they were so important that she  had us memorize this passage, which has stuck with me ever since.  Jefferson’s convictions were not drawn from classical philosophy of the likes of Plato or Aristotle who said that there are vast inequalities that exist among people, which will determine how society is organized and who should govern.  So, if Jefferson didn’t get his insights from classical philosophy, where did he get them to the point where he could say they are self-evident: i.e., that they are objective and universal?

I think his convictions are based on two words, which we can easily slide over.  The words are created and Creator.  All people are essentially equal to the measure that they are children of God.  Brothers, I hope you believe that because there is so much about prison life that says the opposite—that you have lost your dignity because of past actions.  Now, to be sure, we’re not equal when it comes to intelligence, physical prowess, moral courage, and the like.  Clearly, we’re not equal in that sense.  But, we are equal in the measure that we all are the children of God—that we have a common Creator, which we reaffirm when we say the “Our Father.”

Furthermore, we have rights  in the measure they have been endowed by our Creator.  Plato and Aristotle didn’t think that people had inviolable rights.  But, we are loved into existence, destined for eternal life, and we are subjects of a great dignity—no one is excluded!—and, therefore, we all have a legitimate claim to “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

Without a clear reference to the Creator God, Jefferson’s political convictions, to put it bluntly, are something less than self-evident.  Here is the great point of congruence of being American and being Catholic.  What we saw in the pernicious philosophies of the 20th century, fascism and communism, is that they both degressed to the violations of human dignity.  That’s why Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot could ride rough-shod over human dignity because they bracketed the question of God and acted as though God did not exist.

The person who saw this clearly was Pope John Paul II.  There was no one in the late 20th century who trumpeted the Jeffersonian notion of human dignity than he and no more forcefully when he did so in his home country of Poland, which  revolutionized Eastern Europe led to the downfall of the Soviet Union.  And, this was accomplished without firing a shot in anger.  John Paul defended and promoted human rights because with Thomas Jefferson he knew they were grounded in the Creator God because we are equally children of God and we’re destined for eternal life.  That’s why we have this inviolable dignity.  Do you see, brothers, that this part of the American experiment is deeply congruent with Catholicism and we as Catholics can eagerly embrace it.

As we celebrated July 4, I think as Catholics we can look at our country with critical intelligence and with a very deep love realizing that our country was formed deeply grounded in God, called to a constant conversion who alone is the ground of our freedom and our rights.