A Fourth of July fireworks display is seen behind the Thomas Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C.
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 clichéd: “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. 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. 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.
The parish school, the church basement, the Catholic cemetery, the local Knights of Columbus hall, the local shrine off the highway all of these are familiar to us. These are the places where we had our first dance, where we went to CCD or where our cousin had her wedding reception. They may remind us of a time that we completed an Eagle Scout project, lost the Pinewood Derby, or ate doughnuts and drank hot chocolate after being good at Mass. We may also recall visiting a Catholic nursing home, volunteering at a soup kitchen, or sitting at our grandmother’s bedside at the local Catholic hospital.
These 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. But perhaps this Independence Day, we can look at it from a fresh perspective.
Consider a story I share in my book, Priests for the Third Millennium (Our Sunday Visitor, 2000), of missionaries who returned to Japan in the mid-19th century after Christian missionaries were driven out 260 years earlier. In a remote part of the country, missionaries discovered a tiny village where the hundred or so inhabitants gathered every Sunday to pray the Apostles’ Creed, Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory Be, Acts of Faith, Hope, Charity and Contrition, and recite the Ten Commandments and Eight Beatitudes.
The missionaries asked where this custom had come from, only to be told that, in the distant past, men whom they called “fathers” had taught those words to the people, and, anticipating their martyrdom, instructed the people to memorize those prayers and gather every Sunday to recite them together. These courageous Catholics had kept their faith, that “pearl of great price,” for over two centuries of darkness and oppression.
What a contrast! The duration of the Japanese persecution represents roughly the same amount of time between the Declaration and today. There, they could only meet in secret. Here, there are Catholics at every level of government, and our faith has helped define our culture. This is no accident; it is the result of our countrymen struggling through the years to live up to the ideals set forth in the Declaration. What part of it are we willing to give up? And what will be the Catholic culture we hand down to the next generation?
A five-man drafting committee of the Declaration of Independence presents a draft of the document to Congress in this painting commissioned to John Trumbull in 1817. The painting hangs in the United States Capitol Rotunda.
The tide is turning, and 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.
To the question, “What to do,?” we will respond emphatically. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and great organizations like the Knights of Columbus have provided a few helpful hints. The Fortnight for Freedom now ending has been a unique opportunity to meditate on “our most cherished liberty” and seize an opportunity to educate our fellow Americans on the importance of religious freedom. Many of our dioceses have now joined other lay organizations in advocating for our God-given rights in court. Independently, bishops have spoken to inform their flocks on the challenges at hand and our Church’s position on these developments. Our unity is both an inspiration and a reminder of the gravity of the threats we face together.
But beyond the immediate struggles to overturn the unfair and un-American Health and Human Services contraception mandate, there is a broader struggle, a more fundamental challenge that we Catholics face. This mandate, and the many other recent encroachments on religious liberty, make it clear that many of our fellow citizens Catholics 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?
When done right, our Catholic faith creates a culture of true joy. People can see it in what we do, in how we talk, in the look in our eye. “This is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn 13:35). Amid the culture of death that we find all around us, our faith is something that our neighbors will find compelling and may even be something they want for themselves. 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.”
A blessed Fourth of July!
CARDINAL TIMOTHY M. DOLAN is archbishop of New York and president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.