In his great biography of Benjamin Franklin, Walter Isaacson noted that Franklin donated money to “the building funds of each and every sect in Philadelphia.” For Franklin and his founding brothers, religion promoted the civic virtue essential to sustaining the republican model of government. Franklin was a deist throughout his life. But he understood, nonetheless, that religious belief had concrete, powerful and very positive implications for shaping public life.
There are many Benjamin Franklins today, who, whether believers or not, welcome the contributions of religious faith to the public square. Many others, however, including some who hold public office, view religion as a problem and a threat to democratic values. They see its moral norms not as benefiting the public but as limiting individual rights.
Yet, without the vigorous religious freedom that was supported by Franklin and enshrined by Madison and others—as opposed to the far more restricted “freedom of worship” preferred by some of today’s public officials—the United States faces the prospect of undermining the very civic virtues that were meant to sustain it.
In this Year of Faith, we Catholics are called to carve out some time for daily silence; to examine our priorities in a fresh way; and to educate ourselves in the vital elements of our faith. Unfortunately, over the last two generations, Catholic catechesis has too often tended to be both boring and uninformative. As a Church, we’ve too often done a poor job of transmitting the joy and the urgency of the Gospel’s message of liberation from sin.
Our appetite to evangelize, to preach the message of the reign of God through the example of our daily lives, has not fared much better. But that can change; and for the sake of the generations who will follow us, it—and we—need to change. Pope Benedict and now Pope Francis have asked Catholics to make a conscious, sustained effort to return to the basics of Christian discipleship.
Some of the practical steps Catholics can take to enrich their experience of the Year of Faith are obvious: studying what the Church teaches through Scripture, the Catechism and the documents of Vatican II; taking part in the sacraments with renewed zeal; cultivating a deeper prayer and family life; and performing works of charity and service. These things are no different from what Catholics are asked to do every year. But the Year of Faith is a chance to reenergize our discipleship with mindfulness and intention.
We should also consider two more practical suggestions, especially for young Catholics: Nurture good friendships, and cultivate hope. Good Christian friendships are the most powerful way of building, sharing and reinforcing our faith, and promoting communion with others. We need to remind ourselves every day that Jesus Christ has already won the final victory through his death and resurrection. We should never lose hope for ourselves or the world around us.
Fidelity to the Gospel may sometimes seem like an overwhelming and thankless task. Popular culture is often cold to religious practice. Government increasingly seems hostile to the good work done by religious organizations.
But boldly and faithfully living our Baptism is the single greatest contribution we can make to the Church and our nation. The obstacles to vigorous religious faith and practice are far greater today than they were in the time of Franklin. But the consequences of religious indifference—both for the Church and for our country—are extraordinarily damaging.
The moral renewal of our nation begins with the moral renewal we allow God to work in each of our own hearts. That’s something to pray for this week as we honor the birthday of the United States, and every day of our lives in the months and years ahead.
May God bless all of us, and the nation we call home, this Independence Day.
Editor’s note: This column first appeared July 2, 2013 on the CatholicPhilly.com website and is reprinted with permission. The image above is a detail from “Benjamin Franklin with bust of Isaac Newton” painted by David Martin in 1767.