Greeting the Fourth
Committed Catholics in America sometimes fret over the celebration of Independence Day. The culture wars keep us focused on so much that is seriously wrong in our country. This can lead to depression and bitterness when it comes to our preeminent national holiday. But what other perspective is possible?
A Vale of Tears
The answer to this question lies in a proper understanding of this world, which prior generations were astute enough to call a vale of tears. I suppose it is only human to wish we could be dealing with problems other than those we’ve been given, but it is nonetheless a character flaw, and the first point to remember is that there are always grave problems with the world.
Pick any century, from the first to the twenty-first, and you’ll find wars, oppression, natural disasters, poverty, famine, apostasy, corruption of various kinds in the Church, characteristic vices which mark the spirit of each age, and plenty of good old-fashioned sin. Is the United States currently in a period of severe moral and Christian decline? Certainly. But one can argue that this decline has been going on for our entire history, and in the West generally for the past five hundred years.
Nor does this make the middle ages a sort of golden age. The process of Christianizing Europe (which is, after all, a relatively small portion of the globe) was long, hard and murky, with the slowly-forming culture often infected by all kinds of competing ideas, not unlike the slowly forming Christian culture in Africa. And when the Church gradually shaped Christendom in the high middle ages, the result was a host of problems caused by bishops drawn from the younger sons of the nobility, who saw ecclesiastical life as a road to worldly power.
I’m not saying that there have not been great achievements in Catholic history, or that our Western Christian civilization is not in crisis. My point is that the world is always a vale of tears. There is no golden period to which we can look back, or forward. To understand this is to keep our expectations reasonable.
It is in this context that we must consider the virtue of patriotism. This side of heaven, we don’t love anything because it is perfect. Rather we strive to love all things as God loves them, for whatever good is in them. But we do not have God’s universal dominion, and so we cannot possibly have a natural love for all things equally. Each person is given a finite range of things—a natural, immediate and specific connectedness to certain things—which he is therefore bound to love in a special way.
Thus each one of us is directly connected to himself, his family, his close associates, some sort of local community, his local church, perhaps the land on which he lives and the home in which he dwells, probably the tools of his trade, and also a particular people and country which becomes as familiar to him as his own life. In all these things he will see blemishes and faults. But he will also know their virtues and, in any case, his instinct will be to cherish and defend the things which have fallen by Providence into his sphere of sustenance and responsibility.
If a person has sufficient sensitivity to recognize also his connectedness to God, all of these natural perceptions will be heightened. In the light of God, he will develop not only a generally correct estimation of the surpassing good of all creation, but a keen sense of the particular privations of good which we call evil. He will take both pride and delight in the hundreds of small features he encounters each day which remind him that he has become suited to his place in the world, without being mastered by whatever is imperfect in it.
The more a person loves something, the more sensitive he will be to its privations, but by the very force of this same love he will not therefore overlook the good. Even patriotism will become a Christian virtue, a supernaturalization and intensification of our God-given instinct to love that which we have been given to love. There will be scope for exhortation, but never bitterness. There will be room for sadness, but never for true depression, not for a son or daughter of God.
Living by Hope
Christians live in hope of the life with God to come and hope that all whom they love will ultimately share this life. This hope has two important corollaries. First, our hope is not in this world, and we are not to grow disappointed or peevish as if it is. Second, our hope is in God “who desires all men to be saved.” It is worth quoting the entire relevant passage from St. Paul’s letter to Timothy:
First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all men, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life, godly and respectful in every way. This is good, and it is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. (2:1-4)
St. Paul, who had no illusions about the problems of his age, speaks here of supplications, prayers, intercessions and thanksgivings. Applied to our particular place, people and nation, this makes a good recipe for patriotism. Committed Catholics, who are undoubtedly no strangers to supplications, prayers and intercessions, must also have no fear of thanksgiving. Leaving our cynicism with the other trash at the curb, let us do exactly as Paul says. To all our American readers, I wish a genuinely happy Fourth of July.
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