During my silent retreat at a Trappist monastery last week, I was able to reflect on the U.S. Bishops’ annual “Fortnight for Freedom” (begun on June 21st, and running through Independence Day – July 4th). This annual event seeks to highlight America’s “first freedom” – religious liberty. It also seeks to encourage us American Catholics to work together to secure the religious freedom of all, both here and abroad.
This year’s theme is “Freedom for Mission,” and the reason should be quite obvious. Activist groups and public officials today are becoming increasingly aggressive in trying to force Church-related health care institutions and many social ministries to violate their Catholic identity. Catholic beliefs on marriage, family and the sanctity of life are targets in an on-going cultural war against the biblical truths of human sexuality, nature and purpose. The Church did not want this war and did not choose it. But, it cannot, in good conscience, avoid it. The recent administration’s bullying of the Little Sisters of the Poor was only one of many recent examples; and, by the grace of God, the Sisters are winning their appeal.
We seemed to have reached a time in our nation’s history when ideas like the old “Benedict Option” can seem quite attractive. (N.B., St. Benedict of Nursia left the chaos of 6th century Rome, went into the woods to be alone to pray, and wound up founding a community of men dedicated to prayer. It became the Benedictine Order of monks that, over the next several centuries, kept the faith alive in a Europe that was covered in barbarian darkness. They laid the groundwork for the rebirth of Christian society in the former Western Roman Empire). Separating ourselves – in our thoughts, choices and behaviors – from the emptiness and noise of modern consumer life can, in fact, make a lot of sense. But then the question arises: “Can the piety of an authentic Christian life and the patriotism for a secular state coexist in such a conflicted time”?
Scripture tells us to respect and pray for our civic leaders, even when we dislike them, and even when they persecute us. Jesus himself said that Caesar has a realm of legitimate authority. Yet, that realm is limited in scope. Still, we have a duty to obey civil authority so long as it doesn’t demand a kind of practical idolatry that ruled the Roman Empire. Early Christians were martyred not because they hated Roman power, but because they wouldn’t burn incense to the emperor’s “genius” or sacred spirit. In other words, they wouldn’t treat him as a deity – as divine.
It’s true that in the first three centuries after Jesus, some of the early Church Fathers and scholars rejected military (and even civil) service of the state by the faithful. But, as the empire gradually became Christian (especially after the Emperor Constantine converted from paganism), things radically changed. From the late 4th century on, St. Augustine’s “just war” teaching on the legitimate use of force (in situations related to self-defense) came to dominate Christian thought. He also taught that Christian political engagement and public service can be morally worthy, so long as the expectations of remaking reality are modest. Since human structures are flawed by sin, the “City of Man” can never be over the “City of God.” It’s wise to remember this.
Christianity is not ultimately about our place in this world; it’s about our place in the next world. We have a duty to make the material world – and especially the people around us – better by our efforts. We can’t and shouldn’t try to escape from the challenges and responsibilities of the place where God plants us. We need to be a leaven for true goodness, here and now. But, as St. Paul tells us, our real citizenship – our real goal – is in heaven. We belong to heaven first!
Maybe, at this particular time, it’s worth analyzing these two words, patriotism and piety. The word “patriotism” comes from the Latin pater (father) and patria (homeland, native soil). As with any human father, the nation-state is not a little god-ling. It can never demand our worship of it. It can never demand that we violate our religious identity and beliefs. But, properly understood, patriotism is a virtue and a form of filial love. We’re sons and daughters of the land of our birth. It’s only natural and deeply human to love our homeland and be faithful to the best qualities of our native land.
The word “piety” comes from the Latin pietas, meaning humility and a devotion to the gods. Pietas was the not only the highest form of Roman virtue, it was a powerful force in shaping early Roman life.
A British Catholic historian of the last century, Christopher Dawson, demonstrated that all great civilizations have started from some form of a religious founding; and as the essence of that founding is lost, the spiritual illness of the soul sets in.
Since humans are addicted to searching for meaning in life, and since we’re also inescapably mortal, we instinctively look for purpose outside and higher than ourselves. So, the “God question” matters because God made us. Our own country, having from its very beginning a biblical language, a belief in God and a thoughtful search for meaning, has provided our moral compass. But, the more we discard these precious things, the more alien we become to ourselves and to what we were meant to be. Therefore, the most fertile witness we can offer as citizens is to speak, to act on, and to organize our lives around, the words, “Jesus Christ is Lord.” To defend our liberty to do this is why a “fortnight for freedom” should matter to all.