“Ask a Priest: Isn’t It Hard to Be a Catholic and an American?”

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Q: As a Catholic and a citizen of the United States, I find it difficult to be patriotic. At least one reason is because I look around and I see a country that condones the murder of unborn children, cohabitation, divorce, contraception, same-sex “marriage,” and many other evils. I see a country that stands for what my Church stands against. Another reason is the foundation of our country. First, the forefathers were not Catholic. As Protestants and deists they were at best suspicious of Catholics and at worst anti-Catholic. Second, the Declaration of Independence states: “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.” If a person is deeply grounded in morality (specifically Judeo-Christian morality), these words can be used for extreme good and can build a nation. If, however, a person is not deeply grounded in morality, these words can be used for extreme evil and can destroy a nation. The first problem is the phrase “self-evident.” Self-evident implies no need for God or a religion to tell me because I already know. This can lead to godlessness. The second problem is the phrase “endowed by their Creator.” Which creator? If we are a “Christian” nation (as some would argue), then why not say God the Father or Christ? We can be an officially Christian nation and still be tolerant of other religions. The third problem is the phrase “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” What is life? Does the prisoner on death row have a right to life? Does the unborn child have a right to life? What is liberty? Too little liberty and you have tyranny; too much liberty and you have chaos. These are questions that must be answered. If the United States ceases to be grounded in objective morality and abandons God, then she will be the most dangerous country the world has ever seen. Why? Because it [doesn’t] want one tyrant (such as a Stalin or a Hitler), but millions of tyrants (the people). I feel like I will soon have to decide if I am American or Catholic. I may not be able to be both. I think more and more that the United States has been man-centered and not God-centered since her founding. The seeds of her destruction were sown into her birth certificate. -J.H.

Answered by Fr. Edward McIlmail, LC

A: I can understand your dismay as the country moves in some bad directions. Having a truly just nation is always a work in progress. What we are seeing now is the result of years of faulty thinking that has crept into the public square.

It might be good to put things in historical perspective. The country has gone through other evils in the past, including slavery and institutionalized racism and blatant anti-Catholicism. Yet, earlier generations of blacks and civil-rights activists and Catholics didn’t give up on the country. Rather, they worked to change things, and they often did so humbly. They also raised families, built institutions, and were even willing to fight in wartime for a country that they knew wasn’t perfect. They did all this with a hopeful eye on the future. And they accomplished a lot.

If the U.S. seems bad, then remember what the early Church faced. It had to deal with the pagan Roman Empire. The attitude of the early Christians in the face of such an empire was summed up in Scripture: “Give honor to all, love the community, fear God, honor the king” (1 Peter 2:17). In other words, render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.

Earlier generations of Catholics tried to live that directive humbly. Many of us today still benefit from the ecclesial infrastructure they built. Think of the thousands of churches and schools and hospitals, etc., that dot the landscape. Much of that was built at a time when Catholics weren’t wealthy or readily accepted in society. Yet they persevered, and they did what they could to build the Church. They did this with the help of the U.S. legal system.

Now it’s our moment to do our part. Yes, we are facing different problems than did our parents or grandparents. But God’s grace will sustain us. We need to be humble, patient, and look for ways we can start to rebuild.

As for the wording in the Declaration of Independence, remember that that was a compromise document, as are all similar documents. “Creator” might have been the only word the deists and the Christians of the time could agree on. Even “liberty” was something of an elusive idea, since every signer of the Declaration was well aware of the reality of slavery in 18th-century America – what did liberty mean for the black slaves?

The signers knew that this relatively new land was a work in progress. They didn’t have the luxury of waiting for a “perfect union.” They had to deal with the problems of the day and move on, hoping for something better.

Did they make mistakes? Yes. But on balance, their work was pretty amazing. They helped to forge a nation that, for all its faults, is still quite remarkable for its resilience and its ability to allow people of very different ethnicities and creeds to live together relatively peacefully. That is no small feat — witness all those places around the world torn by violence.

Each of us should try to build on, or correct if necessary, the work of those who came before us. To this end it is worth noting that being a good Catholic is compatible with being a good American. We want the best for our country, which is why we speak out against contraception and abortion and speak up in defense of traditional marriage. These are values that help everyone because they conform to the truth of human beings. Being a good Catholic means looking with compassion on those who are doing something that isn’t in line with dignity of man — and trying to help them.

In every age we try to weed out what is bad in a culture and preserve what is good. Thus the Church didn’t destroy Roman culture as much as purify it — and the roots of Rome were pagan and far rougher than those of the U.S.

This task of evangelizing and purifying cultures and nations is an ongoing task everywhere. I hope you do your part to help out. God bless.

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