This Home of Freedom: A Pastoral Letter

In the trinitarian life of God, “a thousand years are like yesterday, come and gone, no more than a watch in the night.” [Psalm 90:41] For us, living between the revelation of God in the creation and in Christ’s redemption, but before the final triumph of God’s purpose in the Kingdom to come, time is the rhythm of our lives. That is why anniversaries are important: they stand as benchmarks on the road between things past and things promised. Viewed with the eyes of faith, some anniversaries become special moments of insight into God’s design for humanity, for they commemorate occasions on which God’s intention and final purpose were more clearly discerned, more faithfully lived, more heroically proclaimed.

So it will be in thirteen years when we commemorate the second millennium of Christ’s coming in the flesh and the opening of the third millennium of the Christian era.

And so I believe it can be this year, when we of the Church of Denver mark a pair of anniversaries, the centennial of our diocese and the bicentennial of the United States Constitution, and as we look forward to the bicentennial of the establishment of the Catholic hierarchy in the United States, which coincides in 1989 with the completion of the Constitutional bicentennial.

This triad of anniversaries is an important moment in which to think about the Catholic experience of America, and the American experience of Catholicism. The Church, which is the most important of the many communities we share, is a communion of saints across the boundaries of time and space, transcending he barriers of language, nationality, race and gender. The celebration of the saints in the liturgical life of the Church is a reminder of the many forms that holiness has taken over two millennia of Christian life, worship and service. Those saints named in the Church’s universal calendar, and those saints known but to God and to each of us, form a community that truly transcends the limits of the human condition. And, in this way, the Church, “at once holy and always in need of purification” [Lumen Gentium 81, is yet a sign of the Kingdom it proclaims. and “a kind of sacrament of intimate union with God and of the unity of all mankind.” [Lumen Gentium 11 In the Church, we participate in an anticipatory way in the life of the Kingdom that will be ours in its fullness after our death. This is the promise of our baptism.

But the Church also exists as a communion of communities in the here and now. Throughout its two thousand years, the Church of Christ has been incarnated in local churches: in Jerusalem, Antioch, Corinth, Ephesus, Philippi, and Rome; in Hippo, Canterbury, Aachen, and Paris; in Constantinople, Krakow, Kiev, and Moscow; in Nagasaki, Mexico City, Bogota, Kinshasa, and thousands of other locales.

In each of these places, the one Church of Christ has been present in the preaching of the Gospel, the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, and the exercise of charity and service within the Christian community and to the whole human family. It is the same Christ who has been preached, who is present in the Eucharist, and who is served throughout the world. Yet in each unique human environment, the one Church of Christ has taken on a distinctive and precious character. In our own time, for example, we in the Church of the West have learned about the abiding Christian realities of persecution, witness, and martyrdom from local churches in the Ukraine, Lithuania, Poland, Central America, and Southeast Asia. Those of us who come from families which embraced Christianity dozens of generations ago have learned anew the exuberance and freshness of the fait h from local churches in Nigeria, Uganda, and Zaire. In this mystery of the unity and diversity of the one Church of Christ and the many local churches we see, in faith, another sign of the Kingdom that is promised. “We know,” with St. Paul, “that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose.” [Romans 8:28]

The Church has also been incarnated, since the 16th century, in local churches in what is now the United States: in St. Augustine and New Orleans; in St Mary’s Town, Baltimore, Bardstown, Oregon City, New York, Philadelphia, and Boston; in Santa Fe, Memphis and Anchorage—and in Denver in Colorado. It is this experience of the Church in the churches of the United States that I would like to consider with you in this pastoral letter. What has it meant to be Catholic and American? What does it mean today, and what might it mean in the third millennium of Christianity and the third century of America? What are the particular gifts that our local churches offer to the one Church of Christ? What do we, as Catholics in the United States, most need to learn from the heritage of Catholic Christianity throughout the world? What are the particular stresses under which we labor to be faithful to the Lord in modern America? These are some of the questions I wish to explore with you, as the Church of Denver honors these national anniversaries at the time of our local centennial celebration.

Of Thee, Nevertheless, We Sing

The Catholic experience in the United States has been a richly textured and various one. It includes explorers such as Father Jacques Marquette; colonists such as Leonard Calvert; American Founders such as Charles Carroll of Carrollton, last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence; saints of the universal Church such as Elizabeth Ann Seton, John Neumann, and Frances Cabrini; episcopal leaders such as John Carroll, John England, James Gibbons, John Baptist Lamy of Santa Fe, and Joseph Machebeuf of Denver; missionaries such as Junipero Serra; founders of religious communities such as Isaac Hecker and Katherine Drexel; at least one theological genius in John Courtney Murray; pioneers of the lay apostolate such as Jane Hoey and Agnes Regan; industrialists like John J. Raskob, union leaders like George Meant’, and a host of politicians, Democratic and Republican. The American experience of Catholicism also includes millions of now-anonymous immigrants who came from literally every corner of the globe, and who built, here, not just new lives for themselves and their families, but churches, schools, convents, rectories, seminaries, colleges, hospitals, orphanages, and shelters — all with faith in the providence of God, and in the name of the one Church of Christ now come to the New World.

The Catholic experience of America has not been without its times of trial. Although religious liberty was a founding principle of the colony of Maryland when it was established under the Catholic proprietorship of the Calvert family in 1634, Catholics soon suffered civil disabilities for their faith. At the time of the American revolution, Catholics could not vote or hold major public offices in the colony they had founded. Even after the First Amendment to the Federal Constitution was adopted, Catholics were subjected to periodic waves of persecution by nativists who charged that one could not be a faithful Catholic and a true American. Throughout the 19th century, the bishops of the United States were in a constant struggle with nativism.

Meeting as a national hierachy in the seven provincial (1829-1849) and three plenary councils (1852-1884) of Baltimore, the bishops proclaimed, time and again, their confidence that America might find, no better citizens than Catholics, and that Catholics might find no more fruitful circumstances for the Gospel than in the religious liberty of the United States. There was an element of self-defense in the bishops’ statements. But there was something more at work, too: throughout the 19th century, the bishops of the United States slowly built the Catholic case for the American experiment in democracy. In their contest with nativist bigotry the American bishops were implicitly developing a Catholic theology of democracy.

That development reached a high point in 1884, at the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore, attended by virtually all the bishops of the United States. In a joint pastoral letter issued at the end of the Council, the bishops sharply rejected that nativist charge of divided loyalty:

We think we can claim to be acquainted with the laws, institutions and spirit of the Catholic Church, and with the laws, institutions, and spirit of our country; and we emphatically declare that there is no antagonism between them. A Catholic finds himself at home in the United States; for the influence of his Church has constantly been exercised in behalf of individual rights and popular liberties. And the right-minded American nowhere finds himself more at home than in the Catholic Church, for nowhere else can he breathe more freely that atmosphere of Divine truth, which alone can make us free.

But then the bishops made a more remarkable, positive affirmation. As bishops, they were not simply asserting a kind of benign neutrality between possible systems of governance; nor as Americans, did they believe this national experiment to be an historical accident. Rather, the bishops wrote,

We believe that our country’s heroes were the instruments of the God of nations in establishing this home of freedom; to both the Almighty and to His instruments in the work, we look with grateful reverence; and to maintain the inheritance of freedom which they have left us, should it ever — which God forbid — be imperiled, our Catholic citizens will be found to stand forward as one man ready to pledge anew “their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor.”

That pledge was redeemed by the sacrifices of thousands of Catholics in the armed forces of our country in the First and Second World Wars, in Korea, and in Vietnam. But it is not so much that pledge that I would have us ponder here, but the remarkable affirmation that preceded it and which, in fact, gives the pledge its full moral meaning. The bishops of the United States were not just defending themselves against nativist bigotry, nor were they simply teaching that American democracy was congruent with Catholic social theory. Rather, in 1884, the American bishops went considerably further, and made a momentous assertion. They suggested that the American experiment in democracy reflected a providential design for the human future.

The American founders and framers were not, only intelligent political craftsmen, making sense of new historical circumstances. They were, the bishops taught, “instruments of the God of Nations in establishing this home of freedom.” The bishops did not confuse the American experiment with the Kingdom of God. But the bishops did suggest that the American experiment was full of promise for those who believed that human society could be ordered in ways that reflected our dignity as children of God. If the American founders and framers were indeed “instruments of the God of Nations” when they set in motion the experiment for which each generation of Americans had to take fresh responsibility, then the experiment itself had a king of providential character to it.

Let us pause, a moment and think about the experiment that the bishops of 1884 endorsed in such remarkable terms. Were the bishops simply speaking of the Constitution, and of the structure of the federal system? That seems unlikely, since the bishops’ phrase, “this home of freedom,” hints at more than the institutions of the state.

I would suggest that the bishops were thinking in more complex terms. The Third Plenary Council of Baltimore affirmed the American experiment as a political community, but also as a society and a culture. Educated as they were in the classic and medieval Christian political tradition, the bishops understood that America was indeed a “home of freedom” precisely because the founders and framers knew that society and culture were prior to politics. The society and the culture had claims which the state could not abrogate, without losing its own legitimacy. Religious liberty was one of those claims, and in fact the first of human rights. The integrity of the family and the dignity of work were, in the classic phrase, among those res sacrae in temporalibus, those “sacred things in our temporal life,” which were morally prior to the state, and which the state was obliged to serve.

Thus the bishops located the American revolution and experiment in a line of continuity with the Christian medieval tradition, rather than with the modernist-statist tradition that began with the French Revolution in 1789 and came to its logical, brut al, and tragic expression in the human havoc created by Lenin, Stalin, and Hitler, two generations after the Third Plenary Council.

In short, the bishops in 1884 were affirming America as novus ordo saeclorum, as the great seal of the United States puts it: a distinctive society and culture, giving rise to a new form of polity, all of which were meant to serve the classic ends of true human freedom.

The question I wish to pose to you, as we mark the centennial of the Archdiocese of Denver and the bicentennials of the Constitution and the establishment of the American hierarchy, is whether it remains possible for us to make so grand an affirmation as that made by the bishops of the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore. Can we still say, given a further hundred years of history and experience, that “…our country’s heroes were the instruments of the God of Nations in establishing this home of freedom,” with all that the affirmation implies?

The Temptations of Debonair Nihilism

There are many reasons to wonder whether we can, in conscience, make such an affirmation today,

particularly if the bishops of Baltimore III were in fact affirming more than the basic structure of American governance.

What are we to say about a culture in which the concept of “freedom” has often been degraded into simple license, a culture in which the true and positive meaning of “freedom” is frequently collapsed into a false and negative sense of moral laissez faire?

How are we to evaluate an American culture that can seem to set individual initiative over against the common good, and in so doing deny the necessary connection between a true personalism and an active care for the common good?

What are we to make of the dramatic breakdown of permanency in our relationships, and especially in marriage? How does one evaluate a society in which 40 percent of marriages end in divorce, in which millions of innocents die in abortions, in which hundreds of thousands of children are born out of wedlock, and in which virtually every imaginable “life-style” is culturally affirmed (or, at the very least, not culturally condemned), no matter what its moral, psychological or social consequences? How shall we read the moral temperature of a society and culture in which the abuse of drugs and alcohol testifies to a pervasive loneliness amidst mobility and informality, and in which permanence of commitment often takes a back seat to the next available thrill? What is going on in this anti-culture of “debonair nihilism,” as Father Ernest Fortin has described it?

How shall we think about a society that, amidst multiple and self-styled “liberations,” finds a rising level of tension and mistrust between men and women, between poor and middleclass, between races and ethnic groups and between ideological camps? These are not questions to be raised from any one point on the contemporary political spectrum. The problem of human community in modernity has been raised by both conservatives and radicals. Commentators, politicians, and ordinary citizens of all persuasions seem to be awakening, however slowly, to the crisis of the family in contemporary American life and to the drastic implications of that crisis for the possibly humane society of the future. Concern for drug and alcohol abuse transcends the standard divisions of our politics. “Quality of life” is a phrase that too often refers to one’s car, one’s home, or one’s stereo system. But an increasing number of Americans seem to be learning that true “quality of life” involves who we are, not simply what we have.

These issues pose a challenging question for Catholics in the United States: is it possible to re-affirm conscientiously the teaching of the bishops in 1884, that this “home of freedom” was in fact a providentially guided act of political creation?

If freedom is degraded to license, and community collapses into anomie and loneliness; if permanence and fidelity in relationships are less celebrated than novelty; if liberation leads to new forms of separatism rather than a deepened sense of commonality — if these are among the defining characteristics of our society and culture, then we do well, as men and women whose first obligation is to the Gospel, to ask how we can affirm the American experiment in its present moment.

Affirmation, of course, need not mean witless adulation. Affirmation ought to mean a sober appreciation of the merits of a society, culture, and polity, set against a full recognition of its defects. It is this latter kind of affirmation — the mature affirmation of men and women who know the fragility of all the works of their hands — whose possibility we should explore in this year of centennials and bicentennials.

The Priority of Virtue

We should begin to explore a new affirmation of the American experiment by noting that the social and cultural problems cited above are not (or should not be) Catholic concerns alone. They are, rather, civic problems of the first magnitude. They threaten democratic pluralism and the future of the American experiment in ordered freedom.

From the days of Athens and Rome to the time of the American Founding, wise political thinkers have understood that a republic — and especially a democratic republic — must be a community of virtue. A kingdom has subjects, not citizens; in a kingdom, it can be sufficient for the conduct of public life that the king be virtuous. In a republic, on the other hand, virtuous citizens are essential.

Virtue is also essential to the functioning of democracy. A generation ago, John Courtney Murray, S.J. (the finest public theologian ever produced by the Catholic Church in the United States), worried that America lacked consensus on the moral coordinates for guiding public argument over our common life. Absent such a consensus, Murray warned, “…the noble, many-storied mansion of democracy [may] be dismantled, leveled to the dimensions of a flat majoritarianism, which is no mansion but a barn, perhaps even a tool shed in which the weapons of tyranny may be forged.” [We Hold These Truths, p. 53]

Murray’s concern, reflecting the classic and medieval Christian political tradition, was anticipated in the American Founding. Too often today we are taught that the founders and framers were insightful political mechanics, but no more than that. The American Founding, in this analysis, was set in the intellectual and moral context of radical individualism. The founders and framers had little concern for a public community of virtue. Happily, this analysis is now being refuted by the most recent historical scholarship on the intellectual origins of the American Founding.

The ideas that shaped the American Founding drew considerably more on the “humane sociability” of the Scottish Enlightenment, as one historian has put it, than has been typically accounted for by those who draw a direct line from the individualism of John

Locke to the minds and spirits gathered at Philadelphia in 1776 and 1787. Contemporary scholars are also taking greater account of the impact of the Puritan tradition of “covenanting” on Locke’s political thought; are reflecting on the fact that the most deistic of the Founders, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, each proposed biblical images from the Exodus for the great seal of the United States; and are concluding, therefore, that radical individualism must be dethroned from its accustomed place in the intellectual pantheon of the American Founding.

Rather than being concerned merely with the political mechanics of managing “factions,” the American founders and framers, and especially James Madison, expected Americans to live in “a way whose hallmarks were…public virtue, public liberty [and the public happiness of republicanism,” according to William Lee Miller of the University of Virginia. For the founders and framers, according to Professor Miller, “the concept of virtue stood at or near the center of ‘republicanism.’ ” [The First Liberty: Religion and the American Republic, p. 1451 And in this, of course, they were reflecting the Greek and Roman classics which they had studied so carefully.

Moreover, the founders and framers, whether they acknowledged it or not, were reflecting Christian medieval concepts of the right-ordering of society, culture and polity. Like the classic tradition, this Christian tradition taught the necessity of virtue in public life. But it also understood the pervasiveness of sin. The founders and framers knew this too, even if the word “sin” was not prominent in their discussions in Independence Hall. The phrase “In God We Trust” on our coinage — which means, “In no one else” — expresses their conviction that no one was to be trusted with absolute power. True human freedom in a world marked by sin would be protected and advanced by a community of public virtue, and by institutions of governance which limited the power of any one person or faction.

Thus the American Founding involved a clear understanding of the realities of sin, and a conviction that only a virtuous people could be free. Public virtue was essential if the American experiment in democratic pluralism was to survive and prosper. Each of these concepts must be reclaimed in our own day. We must come to know ourselves, again, as sinners and as men and women capable of virtue. Each of these self-understandings is essential in a democracy.

A Catholic Moment?

It is, of course, considerably easier to assert the importance of a community of virtue than it is to build it. How can we even conceive of such a community in a country as diverse as the United States? I believe that there are three reasons why the American Catholic community is in a distinctive position to offer leadership in the building of a community of virtue capable of sustaining and developing the American democratic experiment today.

First, the history of Catholicism in the United States positions us to offer leadership on this issue today. The 17th century Maryland experiment in principled tolerance, little remembered in contemporary histories of the colonial period, was yet an important, if short-lived, test of the possibilities of a pluralistic community of virtue. The affirmations of the American experiment offered by the bishops of the United States during the 19th century provincial and plenary councils of Baltimore illustrate the bishops’ confidence that there was no necessary contradiction between a genuine pluralism and a true community of public virtue. The recent pastoral letters of the American hierarchy on war and peace and on the U.S. economy, however critical they may be of certain aspects of present public policy, assume that America remains a polity, a society, and a culture in which the call of conscience and the claims of moral reason can be heard and acted upon.

Second, the classic Catholic natural law approach to moral reason may well become increasingly important as America works to create a contemporary community of virtue. As John Courtney Murray discerned thirty years ago, what passes for public moral argument about our common life in modern America is really not argument, but cacophony. True argument assumes prior agreement on basic terms of reference. We lack these in modern America, as the intellectual debacle of the abortion debate painfully illustrates. We need moral concepts and language that can speak across the many pluralities of American culture. Where can such concepts and language be found? An increasing number of philosophers, theologians, and commentators (some of the most important of whom do not share Judeo-Christian religious convictions) argue that it is through some form of natural law reasoning that we shall find our way from cacophony to argument — one precondition for building a community of virtue. Since natural law forms of reasoning have been the traditional Catholic method in moral theology at least since the medieval period, the Catholic community in the United States ought to be well-equipped to help devise the mediating language necessary for the re-creation of public moral argument in modern America.

Finally, the demographics of Catholicism in the United States and the present state of American religious culture suggest that our community should assume a considerable burden of leadership in helping to define the terms of argument over civic virtue in the American third century. Catholics comprise one- quarter of the national population and are an increasingly affluent, highly educated sector of our population; we can no longer plead the exigencies of recent immigration as an excuse for abstaining from leadership in helping to lay the moral-cultural foundations of our national life. It is true that there are new immigrants among us, particularly our recently arrived Hispanic brothers and sisters, and the work of insuring their inclusion and participation in the life of both Church and society (which is a continuing work of justice that we must undertake on behalf of all the disempowered) goes on. But the religious and cultural vitality of Hispanic and Indochinese Catholics, wedded to the experience of those Catholics who have been in the United States for generations, strengthens our common capacity to help America construct a true community of civic virtue.

Culturally, we live in a moment when the churches of mainline Protestantism, whose profound influence on American self-understanding begins with the Puritans and continued down to the mid-20th century, seem less and less inclined to assume that lead in forming American culture. Evangelical Protestants, resurgent over the past generation, could conceivably take up the mainline’s culture-forming role, and will in any event be important partners in ecumenical dialogue over the next generation. But the evangelicals are historically weak in working with mediating language and concepts in moral argument and lack a developed tradition of social-ethical reasoning.

Thus it is that some commentators, even from outside the formal Roman Catholic community in the United States, have suggested that  this is a “Catholic moment” in the ongoing and never-to-be completed evolution of the American experiment. We are no longer an immigrant church; our numbers and attainments give us responsibilities and the leverage with which to exercise them; our history in this country predisposes us to want to help America be a true community of virtue; and our classic method of moral reasoning can bridge the chasms between believers and secularists, between Catholics and Protestants, between Christians and Jews.

To suggest that this may be a “Catholic moment” in the ongoing renewal of the American experiment is not to demean the contributions that ecumenical and inter-religious dialogue can and must play in building a community of virtue in these United States. The ecumenical movement in which Catholics have participated since the Second Vatican Council has focused our common Christian attention on the great tradition, in the Scripture and the Fathers of the Church, that all Christians share. The many currents of living Judaism continue to enrich the religious life of this incorrigibly religious people called Americans. The task of renewing the American experiment is not, then, for Catholic hands, hearts and spirits alone. It must be a genuinely ecumenical and inter-religious enterprise. But the possibilities of leadership in that common effort are now open to Catholics in an historically distinctive way.

Creation, Redemption, and the Democratic Experiment

Catholics in the United States bring specific theological insights, as well as an ecumenically attractive and cross-cultural method of moral reasoning, to the problem of sustaining the community of virtue necessary for a democratic republic. Put another way, there are distinctively Catholic reasons for a new Catholic engagement with the problem of public virtue in America, reasons which the Catholic community in particular ought to reflect upon.

Catholic teaching on human rights, as proposed by Pope John Paul II in the encyclical Redemptor Hominis, derives, not only from the natural law tradition, but most fundamentally from the great doctrines of creation and redemption. Our redemption in Christ, the Holy Father teaches, reveals the full dignity of the human person, which God intended from the beginning of creation. As John Paul II writes,

The Redeemer of the world! In him has been revealed in a new and more wonderful way the fundamental truth concerning creation in which the Book of Genesis gives witness when it repeats several times: “God saw that it. was good.”…Rightly, therefore, does the Second Vatican Council teach: “The truth is that only in the mystery of the Incarnate Word does the mystery of man take on light….Christ the new Adam, in the very revelation of the mystery of the Father and his love, fully reveals man to himself and brings to light his most high calling. Through the Incarnation God gave human life the dimension he intended man to have from his first beginning.”[Redemptor Hominis 2]

The great Christian themes of creation and redemption then, ground a theory of human rights in which the revelation of God’s love and mercy does not require us to reject our humanity, but impels us rather to accept it and to probe more deeply to its depths. There, according to the Church, we will encounter the mystery of God who is creator, redeemer and sustainer of all. And in that encounter, we will learn our true and sacred dignity as human beings: there, we will learn what “human rights” truly mean.

Catholic doctrine, emphasizing as it does the continuity of the orders of creation and redemption, also offers a holistic view of the human condition and prospect in this interim time between the Resurrection and the coming of the Kingdom in it fullness. Catholic doctrine does not look to this world (and still less to politics) for the perfection of the human condition; but neither does Catholicism consider humanity to be “totally depraved,” as some other Christian communities understand that description of the perduring effects of original sin. Human beings can, according to Catholic doctrine, still hear what Peter Berger has called the “rumors of angels” all around us — if we are attuned and open to the possibility of their existence. Catholic theological anthropology, which neither denies nor absolutizes the human propensity for evil, is particularly well-suited to help sustain an experiment in democratic pluralism, since democracy requires both a sense of human possibility and a clear recognition that no one is immune to the temptations of power.

The great biblical and theological theme of the Kingdom of God should also inform our reflection upon the demands of Christian and Catholic faith in this moment of American history. As I noted above, Catholics believe that God’s Kingdom, God’s reign over the whole of creation, is made present in an anticipatory way in the Church. As the Church — in her preaching, her celebration of the sacraments, her authoritative teaching, her exercise of charity, and her ministry of peace, liberty, and justice — bears witness to the fullness of God’s intention for creation as revealed in the life, death, and resurrection of the Lord. Christ and the Kingdom of His Father are made present to the world through the power of the Holy Spirit. “The Gospel is the power of eternal life given even now to those who receive it. But by begetting people who are renewed, this power penetrates the human community and its history, thus purifying and giving life to its activities. In this way it is a ‘root of culture.”‘ [Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation, p. 62.]

The Kingdom is also yet to come, as we pray each day in the Lord’s Prayer. The reign of God, the final vindication of the Father’s love for all that He made, stands before us, not only as a pledge of future con summation in God, but as a horizon of judgment on the inadequacies of the present order. By setting a horizon against which we can judge our brokenness in the here and now, the Kingdom also sets a direction for our work between the Resurrection and the Second Coming, and thereby helps establish standards by which that work is measured.

Thus, a Catholic contribution to the problems of our common life in society and political community is not only informed by centuries of human reflection on the right-ordering of public affairs. It is also informed by faith, and by the insight into the true meaning of the human condition, its brokenness and its glory, that we find in Christ “the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.” [Revelation 21:6]

We hear much talk today about various humanisms, and the tendency, in some parts of the American Christian community, is to juxtapose “Christian faith” and any sort of “humanism.” The Roman Catholic tradition, on the other hand, proposes an incarnational humanism which emphasizes both our need for God’s gracious and free gift of mercy and love, and the fact that that grace and mercy are revealed in a definitive and unsurpassable way in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, a man like us “in all things but sin.” [Hebrews 4:15] St. Gregory of Nyssa, one of the Cappadocian Fathers, taught that the Word of God “has become human so that you might learn from a human being how a human being may become divine.” It is an awesome teaching. Its truth can never be fully realized by political action. But its truth must inform all of our actions, private, public, civic, and political. Catholic incarnational humanism thus has much to offer a democratic republic in which the virtue of the people is the condition for the possibility of self-government which pledges liberty and justice for all. Catholicism’s incarnational angle of vision also speaks to the needs of a modern world seeking a “…new humanism, one in which man is defined first of all by his responsibility toward his brothers and toward history.” [Gaudium et Spes 55]

Catholic social theory is built on these core doctrines of creation and redemption. Several key themes in the Church’s social teaching are of great moment as we reflect on the third century of the American experiment.

As I noted above, Catholic social theory — following classic and medieval understandings that were later carried by Magna Carta, the Maryland colonial experiment, Roger Williams, and the Declaration of Independence and Constitution — has insisted on a basic distinction between “society” and “polity,” or the state. In Catholic social thought, “public” does not. equal “governmental.” Catholic social thought, in the stream traceable to Pope St. Gelasius I in the fifth century, is resolutely anti-monistic or in modern terms, anti-totalitarian. It resists the perennial temptation of the state to exercise a morally unworthy (and politically corrupting) hegemony over all aspects of life, private and communal. The clear teaching of the Second Vatican Council in the “Declaration on Religious Freedom” [Dignitatis Humanae Personae] is that a privileged sphere of privacy, into which no earthly power may tread, lies at the heart of every human person. Thus religious liberty, liberty of conscience, is the most basic human right. The temptation to reduce everything, especially everything “public,” to the political community and its claims is, according to Catholic social theory, anti-human. It violates the canons of incarnational humanism.

On the other hand, Catholic social thought has also emphasized that society and the state are “natural” institutions. Some Christian traditions follow St. Augustine in teaching that society and the state are remedial institutions made necessary by original sin. Rooted in the social and political thought of St. Thomas Aquinas, modern Catholic social theory has taught that man’s innate sociability (“And God said, ‘It is not good that the man, be alone….’ ” [Genesis 2:18]) led “naturally” to society and to institutions of governance. Catholics, in other words, do not regard the state as simply a remedy for evil; even had there been no Fall there would still have been society and polity, according to the classic Catholic understanding, since God made us for sociability and community. This teaching means, among other things, that politics has a positive function: politics must be concerned with the common good, with civic and public virtue, with the well-being of all. Thus Catholic political theory accepts Aristotle’s concept of politics as an extension of ethics.

Catholic social theorists in the United States, most notably John Courtney Murray, have seen the American experiment in ordered liberty as an expression of these classic Catholic social ethical principles.

The American Founding owed important intellectual debts to the Scottish and English Enlightenments. But, on the understanding of Murray and others, the American experiment’s deepest roots lay in medieval society and its teachings about the limits of government, the moral necessity of the consent of the governed for just governance, the importance of civic virtue, and the locus of human rights in persons prior to their status as citizens. In other words, Christian medieval political theory taught that the state must be limited in its claims and jurisdiction; that the good prince ruled by consent rather than by mere coercion; that only a virtuous people could be free and just; and that human rights were not benefits distributed by the state, but were in fact inviolable personal claims that the state had to respect. Jefferson called these “inalienable rights,” given by “…nature, and nature’s God.” St. Thomas would have smiled.

What the American experiment added to this classic heritage was the idea of institutions of freedom. The Bill of Rights has “worked” in America because, as Murray put it, it had been “engraved on the conscience of a people,” and because the American framers created institutional arrangements that guarded against the absolutization of state power. What was not explicitly granted to the government remained the prerogative of the people. Rights of conscience, speech, and assembly were constitutionally protected. Here we see James Madison’s wise understanding that a new republic was needed, not because we were angels, but precisely because we were (and are) sinners. The Ameritim revolution was (and is) a realistic one. Its recognition of human possibilities and human limitations is thoroughly congruent with Catholic understandings and intuitions.

Over the past two centuries, Americans have developed within this constitutional framework a tripartite arrangement which has interesting parallels to the structure of modern society analyzed by the Second Vatican Council’s “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World.” [Gaudium et Spes] A democratic polity, a market-oriented economy, and a pluralistic culture work together through a series of checks and balances. The polity and the culture have disciplined the economy; the economy has provided the wherewithal for both cultural and political life. But the culture — complex, pluralistic, and multi-institutional — remains most important. As the Second Vatican Council teaches, “It is a fact bearing on the very person of man that he can come to an authentic and full humanity only through culture…1Thus1 culture must be made to bear on the integral perfection of the human person, and on the good of the community and the whole of society. Therefore the human spirit must be cultivated in such a way that there results a growth in its ability to wonder, to understand, to contemplate, to make personal judgments, and to develop a religious, moral and social sense.” [Gaudium et Spes 53, 59] The integrity of our moral culture is the essential condition for the continued development of the American experiment according to the standard of liberty and justice for all.

Therefore the fundamental issue for the American third century is character, or what the Council Fathers called “interior liberty.” [Gaudium et Spes 58] The institutional arrangements of the founders and framers will decay unless civic virtue is nurtured and celebrated. This is true of the polity, as the scandals of the last twenty years have shown; without civic virtue, democratic politics become vicious and destructive. It is true of the economy, as recent corruptions have demonstrated again; an economy such as ours, based on countless free associations, requires virtuous as well as entrepreneurial spirits.

And can we seriously expect that the sacrifices and mutuality needed to sustain a democratic republic will be forthcoming if our moral culture continues to teach that freedom is license rather than responsibility? From John Winthrop to Benjamin Franklin to Abraham Lincoln to Martin Luther King, Jr., great American leaders have taught the importance of public virtue in the pursuit of the American experiment. That teaching was true in Massachusetts Bay Colony; it was true in 1776; it was true in the Civil War; it was true at Salem in 1965. It remains true today.

This question of character suggests a distinction worth pondering as we enter the third century of our common life under the Constitution: the American experiment requires a civic community built on covenantal, as well as contractual, relationships. “Contract” is formal, legal, rational; it involves an obligation to the letter of the law, but not beyond. The civic community of American democracy rests on a richer, more complex concept and experience. As the distinguished Lutheran pastor and theologian, Richard John Neuhaus, put it ten years ago,

A covenant is a very troublesome thing. It consists in promise making and promise keeping and, things being as they are, promise breaking. Contract theories of social order…are ever so much more pleasant to contemplate. They are presumably constructed upon constants in the human condition; constants rationally ordered and secured by law and habit. Social contracts appeal to the romantic as well as to the business and technological mind. The answer to social ills lies in striking more rational deals according to the logic of enlightened self-interest, or, for the engineers among us, in fixing up the machinery of social interaction. Covenant, on the other hand, invokes the metaphors of adventure, pilgrimage, and vulnerability to the unknown.

Thus a genuine civic community, as St. Thomas Aquinas taught 700 years ago, requires that its citizens nurture the virtue of caritas, of mutual charity, beyond the strict demands of justice.

A civic community built on covenantal relationships is also a community with a transcendent reference point. It lives its life toward and against a transcendent horizon. That palpable sense of the transcendent reaches back throughout the history of the American experiment. The Declaration of Independence makes explicit appeal to God, as the origin and ultimate protector of rights. Lincoln’s extraordinary Second Inaugural Address and Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech (fittingly enough delivered at the Lincoln Memorial) illustrate this classic American intuition that our democratic experiment stands under transcendent judgment.

But to stand under judgment also means to be caught up in God’s purposes. Here, then, we are back to the affirmation of the bishops of the United States at the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore in 1884. Perhaps we can say, now, that our conscientious affirmation of the American experiment is always provisional. For so long as we remain an experiment in civic virtue, for just so long (and no longer) will the experiment help to advance the possibilities of liberty, justice and peace that God the creator intended for all his children in this world.

Themes for the Renewal of the Experiment

As we open the third century of our common life under the Constitution, perhaps we can understand more clearly that what America requires today is a renewal of civic virtue. In this way, our celebration of the Constitution will become more than the commemoration of a remarkable piece of political craftsmanship. It will become a genuine recommitment to the goals of liberty and justice for all. I would suggest three themes for this renewal and rededication of the American experiment.

First, we must re-commit ourselves to the true Christian concept of freedom, which Lord Acton articulated so well in the 19th century: freedom, wrote Acton, is “not the power of doing what we like, but the right of being able to do what we ought.” True freedom is freedom for worship, for service to others, for the enjoyment of culture and the development of the human spirit; true freedom is, ultimately, freedom for God, the Whence and the Whither of our lives.

How do we discern the “oughts” toward which we should live our freedom? We discern them by reflection on the civic implications of belief in a transcendent God. The Catholic community in the United States claims no monopoly of moral insight as we seek to help build a civic community of virtue. The American third century needs a new ecumenism in which believing people reflect together on the public “oughts” that they derive from their deepest religious commitments. Catholics should not be found wanting in that important public conversation.

We also discern the “oughts” of our lives by reason. Morality, whether public or private, is always a matter of intelligence, according to Catholic understandings. Public moral argument in America today is often intellectually flabby. Our standards for debate have become so debased that, as the philosopher Alasdair Maclntyre has put it, we can no longer tell each other what we ought to do; we can only say, “I’d prefer if you’d do such-and-so.” And thus morality is perceived as merely a function of emotion and will, rather than a reflection of human reason and its capacity, under grace, to order our common life in a measure of truth and righteousness. Absent a living sense of the connection between reason and morality, public moral argument degenerates into petty name calling and mutual excommunications from the civic community.

Thus, the American third century requires a re-commitment to the idea that the “oughts” of our common life will be discerned through a disciplined, civil, and public argument. We have not had such arguments in America since the early 1960s and the great civil rights revolution. Instead we have had cacophony. We shout past each other. In such circumstances we cannot even define our disagreements, for “disagreement” implies some mutual understanding of the points of reference for debate. This is what we have largely lost in America these past twenty years. This is what we must regain if we are to rediscover ourselves as a community of civic virtue.

The debasement of the concept of freedom, and the parallel collapse of our capacity for public moral argument, are graphically and tragically illustrated in the debate over abortion. Those who champion the Supreme Court’s 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade often appeal to the American commitment to liberty (“choice”) and to the liberal instincts of our people. In fact, though, what Roe v. Wade represented was not a triumph for liberality, but its radical constriction.

Ever since the Founding, the American experiment has been a story of the expansion of freedom, the wider inclusiveness of the community of protection, and the broadening of the boundaries within which we number those for whom we accept a common responsibility. We fought a civil war, in part, over this issue. We adopted a more and more inclusive suffrage, generously funded social security, and made our streets and buildings accessible to the handicapped, all in the name of an expanding community of mutual responsibility.

And then there was Roe v. Wade: the first break in this pattern of enlarging the community of mutual protection. Suddenly, by judicial fiat, an entire class of human beings — the unborn — was ruled outside the boundaries of our common concern. Roe v. Wade was thus a profoundly reactionary decision, not a liberal one. Unless, that is, one confuses true freedom with license. And thus the confusion over the very terms of the abortion debate illustrates our profound civic need for a revivified public moral discourse aimed at nurturing true freedom: a freedom that will seek to enlarge, once again, the community of the commonly protected.

In addition to reclaiming this deeper understanding of freedom in the American third century, we must reconceive the relationship between individual liberty and the common good. Here, too, our task of reconception involves reclaiming and extending classic concepts.

The great modern Catholic political philosopher, Jacques Maritain, taught that we could not understand the “common good” unless we understood the concept of person. Person is a richer concept than “individual.” Individuality refers to the material dimension of things. In a completely material world, the “common good” would simply be the sum of individual goods, or “the greatest good of the greatest number.” This can easily lead to the notion that the whole takes precedence over the parts. This is what George Orwell satirized in Animal Farm: the abandonment of liberty in the names of liberty for the sake of a false notion of the “common good” that was ultimately rooted in a false notion of “individuality.”

Persons, according to Maritain, are more than individuals. As “individuality” reflects the material side of things, “personhood” reflects our human capacities of intellect and will. To be a person means to be able to think and judge, to inquire and to choose. A person is an individual who is both free and responsible. According to St. Thomas, it is precisely in our insights and our judgments, our inquiring and our choosing, that we are the image of God. The ultimate good of persons, therefore, is to be united with God: directly, “face to face,” as St. Paul puts it [1 Corinthians 13:12], in the light and love of the Trinity.

Analoguously, here and now in this world, the common good of persons is to live as close an approximation of this ultimate unity as is possible for sinful human beings. Thus the common good not only involves our individual choices of the good; it involves institutions. We have reflected earlier on the large institutions of polity, culture, and society in America. Here, I wish to reflect briefly on two other institutions that are intimately involved with our pursuit of the common good: the family, and the workplace.

A life of marital commitment and family corn munity is a life of testing in the virtue of true freedom. That is why Scripture speaks of the love of Christ for the Church as analogous to the love of husband and wife; that is why St. John Chrysostom spoke of the family as the ecclesiola, the “little Church.” Those who remain faithful to the vowed life of marriage know the truth and the beauty of the hymn attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, that “it is in giving that we receive, in pardoning that we are pardoned.” Marriage teaches us by experience that true freedom is a gift to be lived in service to others. Conversely, marital breakdowns are often tragic examples of the erosion of true freedom: the covenant community of married love is replaced by a strictly contractual understanding of marriage.

And thus one key to the renewal of married life today involves a rediscovery of the mystery of persons within marriage. This means a re-discovery of the covenantal character of the marriage commitment. Marriage conceived or lived as a mere legal contract between individuals rests on the thinnest and most fragile of bondings. Such a concept of marriage will involve a mechanical understanding of the “common good” of the partners. Marriage as a covenant of life and love between persons is an entry into community of creative fidelity that is the inner life of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Here, the relationship between a faithful husband and wife, the common good of their family, and the common good of the society in which they live and work will be experienced for the ever-surprising mystery that it is.

The moral renewal of the workplace will be another crucial test of the American third century. “The culture which our age awaits will be marked by the full recognition of the dignity of human work, which appears in all its nobility and fruitfulness in the light of the mysteries of creation and redemption.” [Instruction on Christian Freedom and Liberation, p. 82] Given the immense size, power, and energy of the American economy, our workplace will inevitably set an important model for the world. How can we insure that the model we set is formed by our moral, as well as entrepreneurial and technological, imagination?

Ideas, as ever, have consequences. The moral renewal of the American workplace must begin with a reconception of work itself. As Pope John Paul II has taught, God’s injunction in the Garden, that man would henceforth eat “in the sweat of your face” (Genesis 3:191), does not exhaust the moral meaning of work. In fact, the Pope insists, “work is a good thing for man…It is not only good in the sense that it is useful or something to enjoy; it is also good as being something worthy, that is to say, as something that corresponds to man’s dignity, that expresses his dignity and increases it…Work is a good thing for man — a good thing for his humanity — because through work man not only transforms nature, adapting it to his own needs, but he also achieves fulfillment as a human being and indeed in a sense becomes ‘more a human being.’ “[Laborem Exercens 9]

Such a vision of the moral integrity and dignity of work poses points for reflection for everyone involved in the complex American economy. The entrepreneur who creates hundreds of new jobs is performing a morally good act: he or she is giving fellow human beings an opportunity to exercise their capacity for honest work. Workers who perform their duties conscientiously and well, and trade unions which bargain in good faith for the rights of workers, are also moral agents, contributing to the integrity of the workplace. Americans have long understood that labor and management are interdependent. It has been one of the blessings of the second American century that our country resolved many of the profound class antagonisms that still infect some European societies. The Church in the United States was an important factor in that happy resolution. But in an economy as vibrant and evolutionary as our own, the situation is never static, and the achievements of one generation can never be taken for granted in the next.

Many commentators have expressed concern about the American bishops’ call for a new American experiment, an economic “partnership for the public good” which would involve steps to “expand economic participation, broaden the sharing of economic power, and make economic decisions more accountable to the common good.” [Economic Justice for All, p. 297] Without prejudging the merits or deficiencies of the wide variety of concrete proposals that could fit under the bishops’ rubric, several things do seem clear. One, the workplace is at its best, in both moral and economic terms, when labor and management see their efforts as a common endeavor. Many of the most impressive success stories in modern American industry involve companies that have made their employees partners and fellow risk takers from the outset. Situations in which workers and managers are chronically hostile toward one another are not viable morally or economically. Secondly, the rapidly changing nature of the global economy will require more, not less, worker/management cooperation in the development of the American economy. And none of this seems likely to happen unless both workers and managers come to understand what the Holy Father has called “the primacy of man in the production process, the primacy of man over things.” [Laborem Exercens 12] Modern American experience suggests that this vision, which expands the sphere of freedom and mutual responsibility in the workplace, can contribute to economic creativity, even as it remains a moral imperative.

As the Synod of Bishops gathers to consider the Christian vocation of the laity this Fall, we can, in reflecting on the renewal of the American workplace, understand with the Second Vatican Council that workers, farmers, and professionals, entrepreneurs and managers, must all “…learn the deepest meaning and value of all creation, and how to relate it to the praise of God. They must assist one another to lead holier lives even in their daily occupations. In this way the world is permeated by the spirt of Christ and more effectively achieves its purpose in justice, charity, and peace.” [Lumen Gentium 36] This is not a pious afterthought amidst the urgencies of the marketplace. It is an important dimension of the functioning of the marketplace itself.

Finally, the American third century will involve a testing of our ability to act wisely in the world for peace, freedom, and justice. Americans have traditionally been a people discontent with the burdens and responsibilities of international leadership. That discontent is an indulgence we can no longer afford. While America cannot unilaterally determine the course of peace, security, freedom, and justice in the world, the role played by the world’s principal democratic power will have much to do with the course of history.

The Bicentennial of the Constitution, the instrument by which we have ordered our liberties so that they serve the common good, affords a unique angle of vision on America’s world responsibilities. In a 1963 reflection on Pope John XXIII’s great encyclical Pacem in Terris, John Courtney Murray observed that the pope’s “…acute sense of the basic need of the age is evident in the word that is so often repeated in the encyclical and that sets its basic theme. I mean the word ‘order.’ This does seem to be the contemporary issue. The process of ordering and organizing the world is at the moment going forward. The issue is not whether we shall have order in the world; the contemporary condition of chaos has become intolerable on a worldwide scale…The question is, then, on what, principles is the world going to be ordered?” As we read the daily papers, the truth of Pope John’s, and Murray’s, observation is made ever more clear, and usually in a tragic or threatening way.

The American people bring to this central world problem their own experience — imperfect, to be sure — of building community amidst plurality. We bring the experience, not merely the theory, of law and politics as nonviolent means of resolving conflict. We demonstrate in our national life that political community can be sustained and developed among peoples of every race and creed. We illustrate, in short, that the classic Catholic understanding of peace as “tranquility of order” (in St. Augustine’s famous phrase), today involves democratic political community. Americans instinctively know the truth of the teaching of John Paul II when he writes that “Respect for…human rights constitutes the fundamental condition for peace in the modern world: peace both within individual countries and societies and in international relations.” [Laborem Exercens 16]

I am not a specialist in foreign policy, nor is it the business of the Church to devise foreign policy for the United States. But it is the Church’s right and duty to insist that all political decisions, be they domestic or foreign in impact, have an irreducible moral component. Political reasoning is moral reasoning, according to the classic tradition of the West. And thus I suggest a moral focus for America’s action in the world: we must be a leader for ordered liberty, in and among nations. Where democrats struggle to replace tyrants of either the traditional or modern totalitarian stripe, there America’s support should be felt. Where nations work to resolve their differences through the democratic processes of negotiation, arbitration, law, and political persuasion, there America’s support should be felt as well. That support can be expressed through various means, and the calculus involved in the morality of means is complex indeed. But about ends we should be clear.

One evidence that humanity is not meant for Hobbesian brutishness, for a “war of all against all,” is our own national experience. The American people have shown that conflict need not lead to mass violence, when democratic law and politics provide credible alternatives for resolving conflict. Here is one expression of what Pope John Paul II called for in his 1982 address at Hiroshima: a “major step forward in civilization and wisdom.” The Holy Father, preaching at. Hiroshima, knew the full and terrible danger posed by nuclear weapons. But he also taught us that a transcendent hope, not secular survivalism, is the key to facing both the threat of nuclear war and the threat of totalitarian tyranny in a world striving to make the painful transition from anarchy to community. Peace and freedom, in the classic Catholic heritage and in the catechesis of John Paul II, go together.

In its third century, then, let America bear witness for ordered liberty in the world. Here is where the American experience, American interests, and American purpose coincide. Here, too, is where as the Second Vatican Council taught, the ministry of the laity in the world is exercised. As the Council fathers wrote, “On the national and international planes the field of the apostolate is vast; and it is there that the laity more than others are the channels of Christian wisdom.”[Apostolicam Actuositatem 14] Let there be, then, vigorous and wise lay Catholic leadership in the inseparable cause of peace, freedom, and justice in and among nations.

Two temptations lie before us, in this time of 1 bicentennials and at the centennial of our archdiocese. We may be tempted to deify the polity, so that the Kingdom of God is identified with America, its doings and its destiny. Or we may be tempted to radically devalue the polity, so that our political community is understood in purely mechanical and utilitarian terms, with no relationship to virtue. Catholic teaching rejects both of these temptations.

Catholic realism, in the Augustinian tradition, teaches us not to identify God’s purposes completely with any of the works of our hands. We are sinners and we will fail, time and again, to discern the “oughts” in our lives and to act on them. Moreover, Catholic realism teaches us that this is a contingent world, in which even good intentions may produce unexpected and evil results. We live and are saved by grace and mercy alone.

Catholic idealism, in the tradition of St. Thomas Aquinas, teaches a complementary theme: we are to discern, in our flawed and unfinished American experiment., hints and traces of the direction for humanity that God intended in creation and in Christ’s redemption. We are to discern, in other words, that true freedom which, properly understood and exercised, leads us always to its Author, the God Who in His holy freedom brings us and our communities into being, redeems us by His Son, and sustains its in His Spirit, until all are one in Him.

In the summer of 1986 we celebrated the rededication of the Statue of Liberty. It was a typically American celebration, mixing garishness and civic piety. The Hollywood/Broadway part of the celebration may have gotten in the way of reflection on the truths of the Statue’s remarkable architecture. For F. A. Bartholdi captured, in metal and stone, a heroic metaphor of true liberty: a woman, not a warrior; purposeful, disciplined, serious, but quietly confident and unafraid; bravely holding out the torch of freedom while carrying, in her other hand, the necessary tablet of law. The torch of the human spirit challenges darkness and tyranny. The tablet of the law reminds us that liberty debased into license is but another form of slavery, while true freedom is always at and for the service of others in a community of virtue and character.

This has been, at its best, the American experience of ordered liberty. We have failed to live up to the standards set by our Founders, as did they. And yet we know, as they also did, that we have failed. In that knowing, we re-affirm those standards and recommit ourselves to the community of civic virtue. The Statue of Liberty reminds us that the task of building true freedom is never completed.

As we enter the third century of our Constitution, as we enter our third century as churches in mature communion with the Holy See, and as we enter our second century as the Church of Denver, may we each contribute to the building of the public community of virtue without, which there cannot be liberty and justice for any, much less all. Along that path lies the true renewal of the American experiment and the deepening renewal of the Church in the United States.


James Francis Stafford (born July 26, 1932) is an American cardinal of the Catholic Church. He served as Major Penitentiary of the Apostolic Penitentiary from 2003 to 2009. He previously served as President of the Pontifical Council for the Laity (1996–2003), Archbishop of Denver (1986–96), Bishop of Memphis (1982–86), and Auxiliary Bishop of Baltimore (1976–82). He was elevated to the cardinalate by Pope John Paul II in 1998.

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