Rorate Caeli

American Independence Day: Locke, Jefferson, Roe v. Wade and the Catholic Church

 A dear friend sent me an email with a YouTube recording for 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 my readers of a certain age may have never heard of the song, "God Bless America", nor of Irving Berlin nor Ed Sullivan. 

But those of us  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 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 in any creedal formulations of faith.  I could not resist looking at the sidebar and seeing 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  Americans celebrate Independence Day today, the Fourth of July, the 246th anniversary of the founding of the United States, and the fireworks will go off in splendid form. And at the heart of the Declaration of Independence 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 equality of all men, an idea not firmly embodied in previous 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 growing 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 American Christianity into a purely privatized and relativized reflection of the culture in which in finds itself.  One of the products of this deep secularism is the Supreme Court decisions that declared the right to abortion and to gay marriage and the rights of those states who allow euthanasia.

We are indeed grateful on this day for the overturning of Roe v. Wade by the Supreme Court.  It ends an intolerable situation that allowed in law the slaughtering of innocent babies in the womb of their mothers.  The overturning of that immoral decision based on the "right to privacy" causes great joy among Catholics, and so it should.  We must be thankful that the prayers and the tireless presence and activity in the public sphere of so many who understood how heinous a crime is abortion on demand and how deeply wrong it was to base this so-called right on personal freedom were answered just two weeks ago. 

 But we must beware of putting our total trust in government in any form to uphold the basis and content of the moral law. The antidote to the culture of death is not a decision of any court or branch of government. The antidote is the person of Jesus Christ who is the Way, the Truth and the Life.  The Life.  It is He who is our only hope of the conversion of a society that has become secular and radically individualistic.  In our celebration of the overturning of Roe v. Wade we must admit and remember that despite the support of many clergy and laity in the battle against abortion, all too often the Church has failed in her mission to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ in its fullness for fear of offending the world.

But the Gospel has and does and will always offend the world, the world of darkness and unbelief. 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 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 clearly the state of the world, the world that prefers darkness to light. 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, their labor, 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 work hard 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 of sanctity to convert the world once again.