How Can I Love This Country?
As we observe the holiday weekend marking the birth of the United States of America, I can't help but reflect that the Fourth of July brings mixed feelings to Catholics and, probably, to all Americans of good will. When you live in a corrupt nation, your patriotism is tested. You wonder why you should love your country. You wonder what there is to celebrate.
Here is a case in point. I visited my oldest son Chris in New York City the last weekend of June. Unfortunately, it happened to be Gay Pride week, culminating in the Gay Pride parade down Fifth Avenue. This was not the best place in the world to be walking with one’s younger sons (fourteen and sixteen). It did not inspire feelings of national pride.
Looking for an Honest Man
The failures of American culture are legion. In addition to our confusion about sexuality, the most tangible results of which are widespread contraception and the inability to put homosexuality in proper perspective, one can point to lack of respect for human life, especially as evidenced by abortion, euthanasia, and criminal violence. One can also point to a near total misunderstanding of the nature of freedom, and to our wanton flight from reality into electronic entertainment, pornography, drugs and materialism. The suicide, abuse, divorce, anxiety and depression rates are up. The happiness rate is, well, down.
It isn’t surprising that government can’t cope effectively with problems so pervasive, but it is sad that the last thing we expect is for government and law to attempt to have a positive impact on anything. We no longer expect justice from our justice system, including the Supreme Court. In fact, most of us no longer expect even basic honesty from any branch of government. There is something rotten, and not only in Denmark.
The Roots of Patriotism
And yet most of us, most of the time, love our country. The roots of legitimate patriotism go deep. For all of our nation’s faults, she has a special claim on our affections. All of us – like all men and women everywhere and in every time – have received many good things from or through our country, no matter how bad a state she is in. At the very least, our country is not only a home but our home. As such, she holds our heart. She is familiar. She is family.
Countries have always been viewed by their citizens not only as family but more specifically as parents, as mother or father. This too runs deep in human psychology and it reflects a significant truth about the social order. The purpose of the country (organized socially through government) is to provide for the common good, much as the purpose of parents is to provide for the good of their children. This purpose, even when it fails, demands an appropriate response, a filial response.
Patriotism and Justice
Philosophically, patriotism is part of the virtue of justice because it is essential to the promotion and protection of that common good which one’s country or nation must serve. This link with justice, of course, demands a properly ordered love which can correct as well as corroborate, set right as well as sustain. Chauvinistic nationalism is clearly prohibited by legitimate patriotism, but so is national self-contempt.
Vatican II’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes) states that “citizens must cultivate a generous and loyal spirit of patriotism”. The life of the political community is treated in chapter 4 (numbers 73-76). Perhaps the most important paragraph for understanding how true patriotism should work in practice is the following:
. . . it will be well to recall the duty of rendering the political community such material and personal service as are required by the common good. Rulers must be careful not to hamper the development of family, social or cultural groups, nor that of intermediate bodies or organizations, and not to deprive them of opportunities for legitimate and constructive activity; they should willingly seek rather to promote the orderly pursuit of such activity. Citizens, for their part, either individually or collectively, must be careful not to attribute excessive power to public authority, not to make exaggerated and untimely demands upon it in their own interests, lessening in this way the responsible role of persons, families and social groups.
Enriching the Social Order
One of the great weaknesses of democratic forms of government tends to be the absence of the intermediate institutions mentioned in Gaudium et Spes. The focus on “one man one vote” as the primary virtue of a political system too often pits an atomized social body against a ruling elite, weakening the social bonds which make our national house a home. Strong intermediate institutions are necessary to provide social balance, protect liberty, and effectively influence public policy. This is perhaps the most neglected point of Catholic social theory in modern politics.
But it is a story for another day. For the moment, it is sufficient to remember that it is right and good to love our wounded country, and to recommit ourselves to service in solidarity with those who share that love. If patriotism is linked to justice, then we are both called and obligated to patriotism. If patriotism requires courage, then we are both called and obligated to courage.
In short, rather than despise patriotism, we must give it muscle. Sacrificial love is required. Sentimentality will not do.
Further information about patriotism and service to country at CatholicCulture.org:
- Leo XIII, On Christians as Citizens (Sapientiae Christianae), 1890
- Leo XIII, On Christian Democracy (Graves De Communi Re), 1891
- Vatican II, Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes), 1965
- John Paul II, Promote the Social Doctrine of the Church to Improve the Social Order, 2001
- Rev. Stephen J. Brown, S.J. What Is Patriotism?, 1939
- Arbp. Charles J. Chaput, Renewing Our Public Life: A Reflection on Leadership, 2002
- Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, Voting What You Believe, 2003
- Access to Catholic Social Justice Teachings (web site)
- Catholic Analysis (web site)
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