By Father Richard G. Cipolla
A dear friend sent me an email with a You Tube recording on the Fourth of July. It was that of Irving Berlin on the Ed Sullivan show singing "God Bless America", backed up by a Boy Scouts choir. My first reaction was to delete this on the basis of sentimental kitsch that would clog my arteries. But I did listen to it.
Some of you here of a certain young age may have never heard of the song,"God Bless America," nor of Irving Berlin nor Ed Sullivan. But those of us here who remember the song well know how it captured a whole age, a whole time in this country, a time that is firmly in the past. As I listened: “from the mountains, to the prairies, to the oceans white with foam, God bless America, my home sweet home.” I could not stop myself from yielding to that feeling of nostalgia for something I never knew well but seemed to have something that defined a certain important moment in American culture. There was Irving Berlin, the Jewish American songwriter, backed up by Boy Scouts, all looking vaguely like Opie on the Andy Griffith show, all smiling: “stand beside her and guide her, through the night with a Light from above.” "The Light from above." So typical of that vague religiosity that defines American religion once people stop believing any creedal formulations of faith. I could not resist looking at the sidebar and playing a clip with Bing Crosby singing the “Bells of St. Mary’s” from that seminal time after World War II. There was Bing, Catholic Bing, with Ingrid Bergman as Mother Superior in her white wimple with the other nuns in full habits, smiling and adoring Father Bing as he warbled this song with its vague religiosity. Even Protestant America could enjoy this, for this was folk-Catholicism devoid of any strangeness or any sting, something that could be enjoyed for what it was: something that tugged at the heart strings in a wholesome and totally non-threatening way. Even the nuns’ habits, a source of anti-Catholic rioting a century before, now looked quaint, cute, a reminder of something forgotten.
We celebrated Independence Day on Friday, and the fireworks went off despite threats of rain. We celebrated the 238th anniversary of our Declaration of Independence from the British Empire. And at the heart of the Declaration is the announcement of the central role of liberty in the understanding of who man is, that liberty is something that should define man, that tyranny of any kind represses who man should and can be: free to be who he is, free to determine his future, free to determine his meaning. And a corollary of this declaration of liberty is the doctrine of the equality of all men, an idea not firmly embodied in what could be called traditional European traditional thought and practice. But please notice how this is phrased in the Declaration of Independence: “the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them.” The authors of the Declaration came out of a Christian culture, but it would be at least fanciful to call them orthodox Christians who believed in the Trinity and the divinity of Christ. They were men of the Enlightenment, that complex intellectual movement that formed the basis for modernity and beyond. But they believed in the Natural Law as something real and as an objective basis for moral human behavior and as a basis for law. They affirmed that this Natural Law could be known by reason and that its truth and objectivity lay in God as Creator.
One of the most important English thinkers in the Enlightenment tradition was John Locke, whose writings had a great deal of influence on both James Madison and Thomas Jefferson in their understanding of liberty and the rights of man. But even Locke, at best a free-thinking Protestant, acknowledged that without a belief in God as the Creator, the Natural Law would dissolve into nothingness and moral chaos would ensue. He was a great proponent of religious toleration and separation of Church and State, but he insisted that the one thing that could not be tolerated was atheism. His words:
(..)those are not at all to be tolerated who deny the being of a God. Promises, covenants, and oaths, which are the bonds of human society, can have no hold upon an atheist. The taking away of God, though but even in thought, dissolves all.
What we have seen in the past fifty years is a state of practical atheism in most of the West at least with regard to an understanding of the role and basis of law. The increasing ghettoization of religious thought and practice, and intolerance of religious discussion in the public sphere, especially with relevance to civil law, is a product not only of practical atheism on the part of government officials but also of the collapse of much of Christianity into a purely privatized and relativized reflection of the culture in which in finds itself. It is only fifty years ago that the legal system in this country discovered a right to abortion and made this discovery purely on the basis of a notion of liberty that is based on giving as many people as many rights as possible, with no reference to the Natural Law and certainly with no reference to Revealed Law. Once the individual’s wants becomes the basis of law, then all follows. And so we are now faced with euthanasia seen as a right, and very recently the phenomenon of gay marriage as a right within a very short time, and all of this driven by a total abandonment of the very concept of Natural Law that can be known by reason.
And where has the Catholic Church been these past fifty years? She has been dressed in "jammies" at a slumber party whose theme was aggiornamento (everything sounds better in Italian), to get to know the world, directing her efforts to changing her image from a "strict self-absorbed scold" to an eager companion on the journey of the world to an apotheosis of self-affirmation that will bring the greatest amount of happiness to the greatest number of people. The scandalous reaction of some leading American theologians to Humane Vitae was an important step in the aggiornamento of the Church to the world. The Church’s slumber party was briefly broken up by the Supreme Court ruling on abortion, but when the Church finally woke up, it was too late. There have been other times in the Church’s history when she has failed in her mission to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ in its fullness for fear of offending the world. Even with the courageous efforts of St. John Paul II and others who dared to accuse the world of embracing a culture of death, the failure of the Church these past fifty years to remember her role as the presence of the truth of God in Jesus Christ in the world, in history, will be recorded by history to her shame,
What the Church has forgotten is that she need not fear history and its movements that seem to threaten her on every side, for God entered history, world history, this history, our history, in the person of Jesus Christ. The Word of God, the Reason of God, the Logos, took flesh in human history and is the ground of the meaning of history. Our God is not the deist God who is unconcerned with his creation. Our God loved this world so much, this world of sin and death, that he emptied himself out to become one of us, to take on our weak flesh, and to die on a cross in an obscure part of the Roman Empire to give us that ultimate liberty, that ultimate freedom, which is freedom from eternal death. The Cross cannot be sentimentalized, can never be part of a slick religious movie. Because the Cross shows the state of the world, the world that prefers darkness to light, and the Cross shows that the basis of the law of God is love and that love is love for the other and that sacrifice—and not self-fulfillment-- is the ultimate act of love.
May God give the leaders of the Church, the Pope and the Bishops, the courage to remember that their job is to proclaim the Good News of the truth of God in Jesus Christ and that their job is to be fishers of men. It is also their job to labor with great effort to prayerfully discern how to speak about God and Christ in a world like ours. But the Church has faced this challenge in other times in history when old civilizations were dying and new ones were being born. And she found the words and the personal witness to preach and teach the Gospel in difficult times. And by the power of the Holy Spirit the Church will once again find the words and provide the personal witness to convert the world once again.