People fill Chicago's Federal Plaza for a religious freedom rally March 23. Catholic, Protestant and Jewish leaders addressed the crowd speaking against the HHS mandate. CNS photo by Karen Callaway

In the first centuries of Christianity, every follower of Christ lived with a constant tension: how to be both a good Christian and a good citizen of an Empire that had made the practice of Christianity illegal. A second-century Christian letter sums up the predicament well:

Christians are indistinguishable from other men either by nationality, language or customs. They do not inhabit separate cities of their own, or speak a strange dialect, or follow some outlandish way of life. Their teaching is not based upon reveries inspired by the curiosity of men. Unlike some other people, they champion no purely human doctrine. With regard to dress, food and manner of life in general, they follow the customs of whatever city they happen to be living in, whether it is Greek or foreign.

And yet there is something extraordinary about their lives. They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through. They play their full role as citizens, but labor under all the disabilities of aliens. Any country can be their homeland, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country ("Letter to Diognetus").

Christians can think of themselves as "dual citizens": citizens of the society in which they live and citizens of heaven. As we celebrate our nation's birth, let us ask ourselves the same question Christians have always asked: How can I live as both a faithful Catholic and a loyal citizen of my country?


The virtue by which one loves his country is known as "patriotism," and it is important to remember that this is a virtue.

In certain circles today it's fashionable to look with contempt on America, its history and its ideals. It would seem that according to some Americans, other countries can do no wrong and America can do no right. Focusing exclusively on America's shortcomings, these critics believe that the United States is primarily a force for evil in this world. Other countries, on the other hand, have ideal economies, ideal laws and ideal histories.

In addition, these critics look down upon those who are proudly patriotic, assuming that they are jingoistic and blind to America's faults. In many of the popular media's portrayals of "middle America," those who are patriotic are presented as ignorant and bigoted.

Like all virtues in our fallen world, patriotism can be warped and abused, becoming a vice. While some Americans may make the mistake of turning a blind eye to our faults (see sidebar "Patriotism vs. nationalism"), the love of one's country is fundamentally a good thing. Why? The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, "It is the duty of citizens to contribute along with the civil authorities to the good of society in a spirit of truth, justice, solidarity, and freedom. The love and service of one's country follow from the duty of gratitude and belong to the order of charity. Submission to legitimate authorities and service of the common good require citizens to fulfill their roles in the life of the political community" (No. 2239).

In other words, love of country is not just an optional virtue, it is a duty — a duty that flows from gratitude. It is in many ways similar to our obligations toward our parents. We have a duty to serve and love our parents, who gave us life. Likewise, as the "womb" of culture and the society in which we are raised, our country deserves our service and love. So, as American Catholics, we are obligated by charity to be patriots, desiring and working for the good of our country.

Limits to patriotism

Yet, are there limits to our patriotism? What if our country engages in practices contrary to Catholic teaching or the natural law? What if it declares an unjust war on another country? What then are our duties? Are we to support our country, right or wrong?

As Catholics, our first allegiance is to God. Consider the first Christians. In every way imaginable, they strove to live as good citizens of the Roman Empire.

Yet, they had to draw a line. When they were asked to burn incense to the emperor — an act that signified their acceptance of the cult of his divinity — they refused. Most of us today would see burning incense as simply a religious act. But it was much more than that. In a world in which politics and religion were deeply intertwined, publicly proclaiming the divinity of the emperor was a highly political act — and those who refused to acknowledge the emperor as Lord were seen as political subversives.

This famous passage from St. Paul in his letter to the Philippians is a highly charged political declaration:

"Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross. Because of this, God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father" (Phil 2:5-11).

Declaring that all must bend a knee to a condemned criminal? Calling that same criminal "Lord?" This was treason! St. Paul, and all the first Christians, realized the limits of our obligations to the state — those duties could not cross the line into idolatry.

Yet, remember it is also St. Paul who wrote the following:

"Let every person be subordinate to the higher authorities, for there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been established by God. Therefore, whoever resists authority opposes what God has appointed, and those who oppose it will bring judgment upon themselves. For rulers are not a cause of fear to good conduct, but to evil. Do you wish to have no fear of authority? Then do what is good and you will receive approval from it, for it is a servant of God for your good. But if you do evil, be afraid, for it does not bear the sword without purpose; it is the servant of God to inflict wrath on the evildoer. Therefore, it is necessary to be subject not only because of the wrath but also because of conscience. This is why you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, devoting themselves to this very thing. Pay to all their dues, taxes to whom taxes are due, toll to whom toll is due, respect to whom respect is due, honor to whom honor is due" (Rom 13:1-7).

So, St. Paul realized the balance that Christians must maintain: in all ways possible, be a good citizen, but never place the demands of the state above the demands of Christ.

And in fact, rejecting the illegitimate demands of the state is an act of true patriotism. For any nation that demands of Christians that they violate their consciences in the service of the state is acting in a destructive manner. By refusing to follow these unjust commands, the Christian calls his country to a higher ideal.

Sins of a nation

As every earthly nation exists in a fallen world, they are all susceptible to injustice and oppression. Although America has always exalted the ideals of freedom and liberty, it too has had its share of injustice. What is the Catholic to do when his allegiance in this world conflicts with his allegiance to the next world? Looking at two American injustices in particular will give us an idea of the duties of the patriotic Catholic American.

From our perspective in the 21st century, legalized slavery was a clear violation not only of natural law, but of the principles on which this country was founded. After all, how can a country which exalts personal liberty enslave an entire people?

Yet this was not so clear to most Americans in the early years of our national history. Many Americans felt they were being good citizens by supporting (or at least, not actively resisting) the institution of slavery. Yet by resisting slavery, abolitionists (most of whom were strong Christians) called America to a purer practice of its own ideals. It was therefore the abolitionists, who resisted American law, who were the true patriots.

We face a similar injustice today with legalized abortion. Unfortunately, this barbaric practice has become embedded in the fabric of our nation. In fact, one of the key arguments for upholding Roe v. Wade, the decision that legalized abortion, is that it has become part of our culture, and that women and men make important decisions based on the availability of legal abortion services. According to this argument, abortion is as American as apple pie. Yet Catholics today who resist legalized abortion are the true patriots in our country, for they desire America to be a land in which everyone is protected by law, no matter their age.

Love God and country

What does it mean for a Catholic American to love his country? While he will love it as his homeland, he will do so always with his eye on heaven, his true native land. He will seek those things for his earthly country that ally it more closely with his home in heaven. He will fight to defend his country from outside forces, and he will fight just as vigorously to defend it from internal forces which seek to undermine it. He will obey its laws unhesitatingly, unless those laws ask him to violate the laws of his heavenly home. And he will be thankful that he lives in a country where he may enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness — happiness which can be most fully experienced in living a holy life conformed to Christ.

Eric Sammons writes from Florida. He is the author of "Holiness for Everyone" (OSV, $12.95).

American Heresy

Most American Catholics are not aware that there is actually a heresy named after our country. In the late 19th century, Pope Leo XIII coined the term "Americanism" to describe certain troubling beliefs among some Catholics ... in France! In fact, the American bishops at the time denied that any American Catholics actually subscribed to Americanism.

In the 19th century, currents were flowing within the Catholic Church in Europe that exalted individualism in all areas of life, including spiritual matters. Leaders of this train of thought felt that individual initiative in religion was primary, even at the expense of institutional devotional and liturgical activities. In addition, they saw democracy as an ideal form of government — even in the Church. Many who advocated for such reforms looked to America as the leading example of the promotion of individualism, the rejection of institutional structures, and the introduction of democracy into Church governance.

Pope Leo XIII, however, was opposed to such movements. He praised American Catholics for their devotion to the Church, but he did not want some of its secular ideals to creep into the life of the hierarchical and institutional Church. The pope saw the potential dangers of a Faith that was too strongly skewed toward individual devotion devoid of institutional boundaries. He recognized that such a practice of the Faith could lead to disobedience and a denigration of the religious life. He also knew that Christ founded a hierarchical Church upon Peter and the apostles, and democracy — even if it might work in civil society — was never permissible within the Church.

Based on his concerns, in 1899 Pope Leo wrote a letter to Cardinal Gibbons of Baltimore titled Testem Benevolentiae Nostrae ("Witness to Our Good Will") in which he related his concerns and condemned what he called "Americanism." The pope exalted the virtues of obedience and humility, recognizing them to be sure defenses against the errors of the Americanists. Cardinal Gibbons replied by stating that American Catholics themselves did not hold to such views, and reaffirming the American Church's loyalty to the pope and Catholic teaching; according to Cardinal Gibbons, this heresy was purely a European affair. No further action was taken in this country, and the controversy, such that it was, died down.

But that is not the end of the story (or the heresy); unfortunately, the Americanism heresy still lingers on, and does indeed exist in our country today. The idea of exalting an individual's personal choice over Church teaching is alive and well today. The idea that the Church should be a democracy in which the pope and bishops have no real authority exists in many quarters of the Church in modern times. In many ways, these false ideas are the modern incarnations of the Americanist heresy.

As Catholic Americans, we can — and should — love our country and be proud of the good things it has brought to the world. However, we must also recognize that a false radicalizing of the American concepts of individuality can quickly become beliefs which contradict traditional Catholic teaching. We should also realize that our love for democracy in civil society should not blind us to the need for a hierarchy in the Church. In other words, let us be proud Americans, but not Americanists.

Patriotism vs. Nationalism

Catholics are duty-bound to love and serve their country (see Catechism, No. 2239), to practice what is commonly called patriotism. However, looking back through history we can find instances where legitimate patriotism denigrated into the sin of nationalism. Nationalism is excessive love for one's country, usually accompanied by hatred of other countries and the people of other countries.

Catholic teaching has always stressed the proper ordering we must have in the practice of our faith. We are to love our spouses, but not more than God. We are to give to the poor, but not to the detriment of our children. We must work diligently in our jobs, but not become workaholics, placing work above our obligations to our family. The same proper ordering exists in our relationship with our country: We are to love our country, but this should not lead to a hatred of other countries.

Nationalism takes an earthly nation and makes it an ideal nation. However, founded and ruled by fallen men and women, no earthly kingdom is perfect. Thus, no nation is worthy of such adulation as nationalists give.

Nationalism is easy to see in such extreme examples as Nazi Germany or Irish extremists, but it can also exist on a more subtle level. For example, a few years ago some Americans started calling french fries "freedom fries." They did this as part of their overall effort to denounce France's decision not to support the American invasion of Iraq. Such an action seemed harmless, but it exposed a bit of nationalism in some segments of America, as it condemned France for not supporting America unreservedly in a questionable war.

A true patriot is always vigilant to ensure that his country upholds its finest principles. A nationalist, on the other hand, is always vigilant to ensure that his country is never criticized, no matter the actions it takes. A patriot loves his countrymen, but holds no innate animosity toward citizens of other countries. A nationalist, on the other hand, assumes the superiority of his country, and the inferiority of foreign citizens. A patriot will resist his own government if it seeks to enforce laws contrary to the natural law and Catholic teaching. A nationalist, on the other hand, will support his own government no matter its actions.

As Catholics, we are called to be true patriots, not nationalists. The Catholic Church is universal, and thus encompasses all nations. Thus, the Catholic loves his country but knows that the citizens of other countries are also dearly beloved children of our one God.