|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).