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Patriotism, Tempered and Pure

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jul 03, 2013

July fourth is a national holiday in the United States, the celebration of the country’s independence from England. Our independence and subsequent expansion from coast to coast is, I suppose, a dubious moral achievement, but at least it teaches us about the contingency and provisionality of sovereignty. The American Civil War, fought almost a century later, offers similar lessons. Unfortunately, there are many who somehow regard the current shape of the American experiment, borrowing St. Anselm’s proof of the existence of God, as “that than which nothing greater can be conceived”, nor more necessary. Still, there is legitimate substance in the love of one’s country, whatever its current size or shape, and however it came about.

That substance can be difficult to explain. Patriotism in a proper moral sense has nothing to do with State power and everything to do with the inescapable “thisness” of every human life. The human person flourishes in a particular time, place and culture which both shape him and are shaped by him. This specific time becomes “my” time of passage through the universe, with all the questions and concerns proper to that moment; this place becomes the soil which nourishes my own roots, the setting for my own life’s drama; this culture will both shape and stimulate the commitments I will make, and the achievements for which I strive.

Above all, one’s country represents all that is familiar, and all of our connections to others who enjoy that same familiarity. It is certainly possible to have a deep attachment to more local settings—a home, a town, a region—but in most times and places “the nation”, that is the people of which I am a part and with whom I share so many common bonds, is identified with what we call our “country” as a whole. Again, in terms of patriotism, we love it because it shapes our identity, and because our identity shapes it. Love of country automatically acknowledges the limits of our comfort zone. It rejoices in a sort of omnipresent “thisness” which provides the concrete setting for our personal and communal life.

Much of the feeling of patriotism is bound up in the land, our land. Even in a highly mobile culture, the sense of both possession and belonging is very strong in patriotism, and these are two goods of human existence which always express themselves in particularities. These wholesome attachments are even stronger in non-mobile societies where the history of generations is connected to a particular region, or even a particular measured plot, where our ancestors lived and died, where our participation in the “thisness” of local history is actually tangible.

But some of this persists within regions which possess a common culture even where mobility is high. One looks in wonder at the geographical features and urban achievements of other civilizations, other cultures, other peoples, but there is something warm and special and familiar about our mountains, our rivers, our fields, our coasts, our towns and our cities. They are, in some measure, both an extension of family and the common ground from which our families have grown. We may not understand why we find ourselves in this time, this place, but we find it difficult to imagine ourselves “at home” anywhere else.

Country a Part of Providence

There is an important insight here, for our placement in a particular settings is an act of Providence. God forms and nourishes us through intermediate causes. Our own locations, customs and institutions are the means through which we gradually learn what it means to be human, and what it means to yearn for something more. Surely the case is very rare in which we have not received tremendous good from our particular environment, our particular country; just as surely we find that some aspects of it interfere with our ultimate ends, those ends which transcend place and time, both in terms of virtue and in terms of union with God. Providence is always a gift, but it is also always an invitation and a challenge.

For this reason, we love our country, its customs, its people, its particular “thisness” with an instinctive and almost filial affection. If someone from outside (a “foreigner”) finds our country’s habitual dispositions odd or inefficient, we immediately explain and defend them, even though—within the family, so to speak—we may criticize them ourselves. All of this is bound up with a respect and gratitude for the time and place and culture which has contributed so much to who we are. We are defensive because we see ourselves in our country, and see our country in ourselves.

But for this same reason, we do not idolize our country—or at least Catholics don’t. Not only can we see ways in which our countries have harmed as well as helped us, but we draw from nature itself certain perceptions and standards which transcend those of our own localities. Moreover, if we are Catholics we draw a higher awareness of reality, both mediated and unmediated, from God and His Church. Sometimes this can result in conflicting allegiances. It is not as if we can never be confused. But we find it far more painful when our own country falls from grace in some way, than when another country does so. We very rightly want to fix our own place before we attempt to fix the world.

The very transcendence of our perceptions, however, does tend to keep higher things higher. As a general rule, the serious Catholic will feel a stronger bond with a co-religionist from another country than with a countryman who does not share the Faith. It will still be wrenching for a Catholic in a secular country to pull up stakes and move, were such a thing possible, to a country which consistently honors his beliefs. But the hierarchy of values—the hierarchy of what we value—remains.

This Catholic awareness of a higher duty and a higher love makes Catholicism suspect in the eyes of those who place country at the apex of their hierarchy of being, and above all in the eyes of those who deify the State. Such a response is merely a counterfeit of patriotism. Our love of country is a good and wholly natural response to the gift of a God who sustains and teaches us in time and place and culture, manifesting all the goods of nature and human industry in ways meant to lead us to that “something more” for which we all instinctively yearn.

Country is part of the law of the gift, and we are right to cherish all of our gifts. But as with everything else, we love country for the sake of the Giver. We do not receive the gift and then push the Giver aside. It is this that tempers love of country and keeps it pure. It is this alone that properly orders patriotism.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Sep. 16, 2016 5:18 PM ET USA

    To claude-ccc2991: I'm sorry I was not able to make the point more clearly, but I am definitely not proposing that repentance reduces culpability. In the hypothetical case I introduced, which seemed to match well with some of the Pope's remarks in Amoris Laetitia, I noted that the person in question repented from entering into the bad marriage (and so perhaps could be absolved of that particular sin), but continued to engage in sexual relations out of fear for the fate of the children of that union. I did not argue that this decision was morally good. I argued, from the standard understanding of the difference between mortal and venial sin, that the compulsion in that situation reduced her culpability. In Pope Francis' view, I think it likely that this is the type of couple he wants to be in close contact with a priest, who can help them grow to greater perfection, and a greater willingness to do the best thing -- which in this case would be to AGREE to live as brother and sister. And Pope Francis suggests (I'm not saying this is right, but it is what he suggests) that a discerning pastor could be giving Communion to the one who is sinning only under compulsion during that period of mutual growth.

  • Posted by: claude-ccc2991 - Sep. 15, 2016 6:16 PM ET USA

    What you're proposing is that repenting reduces culpability. That's not true. Culpability attaches to sin, and not to one's later retraction. Deep moral gravity occured at the point at which grave matter, full consent and full knowledge came together (step 1 but prior to 2). While it's true that firm purpose of amendment is blocked from enactment, the grave sin that occured before attempted resolution remains a grave sin. That this exists in the party's conscience is manifest (the very end of 2)

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Sep. 15, 2016 5:29 PM ET USA

    To claude-ccc2991: Thanks for your comment, but you apparently have not understand the example case, which was chosen precisely because it introduces compulsion that inhibits the full consent of the will to continuing sexual relations. The person in question (a) understands that the invalid marriage is wrong and repents it; (b) understands that, with children involved, the best solution is the brother-and-sister solution; (c) cannot implement this solution because the other party refuses it; and (d) fears that by insisting upon it he or she will deprive the children of one of their parents. There can be no question that this introduces compulsion which, assuming sincerity, prevents full consent of the will. In fact, the person would continue to engage in sexual relations more or less expressly against his or her will, because not to do so would harm the children of this "marriage". We may judge this decision right or wrong, but there can be no question that it reduces culpability by eliminating full consent of the will, and so necessarily, according to Catholic teaching, renders the sins venial.

  • Posted by: claude-ccc2991 - Sep. 15, 2016 3:17 PM ET USA

    Your example clearly shows grave matter, full knowledge & full consent (which to my mind don't have to all occur at once). Though difficult, it seems the repenting party could refrain from Communion until the children are gone. At that point, that party could again try for marital continence. Failing that, there is a choice. The choice is for sexual relations but against receiving Communion, or against sexual relations but for receiving Communion, but free of the need to maintain a stable home.

  • Posted by: johnk64 - Sep. 15, 2016 1:42 PM ET USA

    Ed Peters has a good column on Jeff's post, essentially saying that Jeff only covers half the story. "even if Mirus’ theory of venial sin for some divorced-and-remarried Catholics is correct, it does not answer the question about their being admitted to holy Communion." It's here: https://canonlawblog.wordpress.com/2016/09/13/may-i-demur-re-mirus-this-once/

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Sep. 15, 2016 10:51 AM ET USA

    To AgnesDay: There are two questions here. One is whether the mere fact of being divorced and remarried without an annulment places a person into the category specified in Canon 915, which stipulates that those who are "obstinately persevering in manifest grave sin are not to be admitted to holy communion." It would seem that Pope Francis either does not think such persons fall into this class (though this has been taken for granted previously), or that he believes Canon 915 can be legitimately revised in a way that permits pastors to follow the course he is now recommending, which would admit them to Communion in certain cases.

    Clearly, however, the Pope should address the issue in Canon 915 and amend the law rather than advising a course which currently appears to be forbidden by Church law.

    The second question (addressed at least partially in Canon 916) is whether the person in question is aware of grave sin, or indeed—as Pope Francis clearly hopes will be discerned by pastors—whether the sins involved may be only venial because of misunderstanding or compulsion. These factors are relevant because for a sin to be mortal we need not only grave matter but (a) personal recognition of the gravity of the sin; and (b) full consent of the will in committing it anyway. These are the issues on which Francis' current approach depends.

    On your final question, clearly a parent may feel compelled by the good of the children not to separate, which would deprive the children of one parent—a very grave evil. This is why the Church has said (most recently by John Paul II) that the best solution is a brother-sister relationship in the same family household. The case I outlined arises when one spouse will leave if the other insists on a brother-sister arrangement, but there may be other relevant cases as well (such as fear of abuse/injury). These would reduce full consent of the will, and might render sins venial.

  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Sep. 14, 2016 5:13 PM ET USA

    I don't get it. Under what circumstances does a Catholic who engages in sexual activity with a person to whom he/she has no Sacramental bond considered fit to receive Communion. Why does the woman in question not seek legal separation from her "spouse" and seek for the welfare of her children?

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Sep. 14, 2016 4:54 PM ET USA

    To loumiamo: Good heavens, no. Moses PERMITTED divorce and remarriage because of the hardness of their hearts. Francis does not permit this. He simply proposes that, in some cases, the nature of the sins in some particular situations might admit of a path toward Christian perfection which does not require exclusion from the Eucharist. Dangerous? I think so. But the same as Moses? Decidedly not. Nearly every other Christian "church" allows divorce and remarriage, as Moses did. The Catholic Church, almost alone, continues to stand with Our Lord.

  • Posted by: loumiamo - Sep. 14, 2016 4:19 PM ET USA

    "in some cases, [can] the sins of adultery be venial rather than mortal?" Isn't that what Moses did, effectively changing adultery to a venial sin, but Jesus made a course correction?

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Sep. 14, 2016 3:29 PM ET USA

    To wsw4340: Nobody argues with what Our Lord taught. That's not the issue. The issue is whether, in some cases, the sins of adultery might be venial rather than mortal. As I pointed out, Pope Francis thinks they can be venial either by virtue of misunderstanding or compulsion (much more than grave matter is needed to make a mortal sin). If that's true, a different disciplinary approach regarding the Eucharist could be possible in those cases, without violating Catholic doctrine. Again, to be personally clear: I think this new approach is likely to do more harm than good. But it is not heretical.

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Sep. 14, 2016 3:24 PM ET USA

    To john.n.akiko7522: Actually, you raise a key question. Pope John Paul II decided to stick with the longstanding practice of the Church, which is also expressed in Canon 915, that manifest grave sin is sufficient for the Church to refuse Communion. Two questions arise: First, does "grave" mean only mortal sin? Probably it refers simply to grave matter, not to knowledge of the wrong and full consent of the will, but it could mean mortal sins only, which require far more than grave matter. Second, is this longstanding practice one that can be slightly modified, taking into account the distinction between mortal and venial sin? Not all longstanding practices are impervious to legitimate change. In any case, it does not appear to me that a doctrinal question is involved which merits the charge of heresy. To be clear, though, I do think this new approach is likely to do far more harm than good.

  • Posted by: Jeff Mirus - Sep. 14, 2016 3:22 PM ET USA

    To VICTORIA01: No, you are not wrong about the reality that you should not present yourself for Communion if you are not in a state of grace. But it is only mortal since that eliminates your state of grace, not venial sin. While I am not a fan of Pope Francis' new approach on this matter, it would not face any doctrinal impediments if the sins were judged to be venial. As I said this would be based on lack of understanding or compulsion.

  • Posted by: rdennehy8049 - Sep. 14, 2016 12:55 PM ET USA

    While I see your scenario as a possibility, not a probability. The old adage of letting your conscience be your guide can be very misleading based on the attitude of modern society. This could lead to other changes in a person's mind to accommodate his view of what he considers mortal sins.

  • Posted by: brenda22890 - Sep. 14, 2016 10:09 AM ET USA

    Jeff - not disagreeing about the "disciplinary" aspect, since I'm not well-read enough to do so - - but I have to say that any "marriage" where one partner refused to stay in a sexless union, and so the other partner participates in sex under duress, is not likely to be a successful marriage anyway. Maybe because those who deliberately flaunt the Commandments can expect a poor outcome...

  • Posted by: wsw33410 - Sep. 14, 2016 8:46 AM ET USA

    This is NOT doctrine vs. discipline; there are Words of Jesus: Mk 10:11-12: "Whoever divorces his wife and marries another, commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery." Please read a good commentary: https://www.lifesitenews.com/news/why-all-the-fuss-over-allowing-communion-for-the-remarried-in-just-the-hard? - note how Vatican reprimanded Kasper in 1994 through a letter approved by Pope John Paul II but written by Card. Ratzinger

  • Posted by: rickt26170 - Sep. 14, 2016 3:12 AM ET USA

    I don't see that the question of divorce is at the center of the AL controversy. As I read Chapter 8 and the footnotes, the same tortured reasoning employed could be turned on about social issue you'd like to point to. Same sex marriage is an obvious example. Ideally couples should be man and woman, but if the Church must move to where the people live .... and the pastoral opportunity is there .... why not? Francis is doing tremendous damage. (Can we disagree about 50% invalid marriages?)

  • Posted by: john.n.akiko7522 - Sep. 14, 2016 1:29 AM ET USA

    This teaching directly contradicts the teaching of St. John Paul II's and the entire history of the Church. Does that mean all the previous popes were wrong? "However, the Church reaffirms her practice, which is based upon Sacred Scripture, of not admitting to Eucharistic Communion divorced persons who have remarried. They are unable to be admitted thereto from the fact that their state and condition of life objectively contradict that union of love between Christ and the Church..."

  • Posted by: Nuage - Sep. 14, 2016 1:18 AM ET USA

    My best friend married a Catholic man who had been divorced for 15 years before they met. His children are grown. It is my friend's first marriage and this is the love of her life. They are both believers. They attend Mass every Sunday. If Pope Francis himself told them they had his personal permission to receive the Sacraments, they would continue to refrain. They know that marrying outside of the Church is a mortal sin. They understand adultery. The Natural Law is written on their hearts.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Sep. 13, 2016 9:49 PM ET USA

    We live in an age of statistics. They are clear: artificial birth control is alive and well among Catholics. Now among those lay Catholics who are divorced and remarried without annulments what percentage might also be using artificial contraception? Well, a 2014 poll conducted among Catholics in Europe and South America found "90% have no problem with it." And among those in "irregular marriages" might we hope for less? Just one facet. We seem to be living in a time of delusion.

  • Posted by: VICTORIA01 - Sep. 13, 2016 9:09 PM ET USA

    Long ago when I received an orthodox instruction in the Catholic Faith I was taught that one had to be in a state of grace to receive Holy Communion. Has this teaching now been changed to permit Catholics in civil marriages who are not living as brother and sister and are objectively not in a state of grace to receive Holy Communion? If so does that mean that one does not have to be in a state of grace to receive Holy Communion any more?

  • Posted by: rjbennett1294 - Sep. 13, 2016 5:36 PM ET USA

    Excellent analysis. "Amoris Laetitia permits Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics in some cases." There is absolutely no possibility that "some cases" will fairly quickly become "all cases." Such things have never happened in the past.

  • Posted by: Jason C. - Sep. 13, 2016 2:53 PM ET USA

    Boy, the Holy Father has set the bar pretty low. "Pope Not Heretical!" and "Formal Heresy Narrowly Averted!" are just not ideal headlines.

  • Posted by: loumiamo - Sep. 13, 2016 2:51 PM ET USA

    Per your beginning, it seems better to note that Eucharistic rules are a matter of discipline BASED on doctrine, rather than discipline NOT doctrine, at least to my simple way of thinking. As a practical matter, to avoid scandal, the Church should institute a kind of banns of re-Communion (for perhaps 10-12 weeks?) to announce the news and catechize us properly, & the subject couple (perhaps?) should explain some details to the adult parishioners. Oh yeah, I stand corrected, not that I like it.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Sep. 13, 2016 2:32 PM ET USA

    It is clear that there is a track record here.. It's at least problematic, particularly when there is so little discipline among so many pastors these days. The Holy Father directly intervened in the Synod to ensure specific language that was resisted by many bishops. This latest letter can't be interpreted in a vacuum. In light of all the evidence this appears to prescribe a new path. And as recent decades have shown clearly, these new paths tend to meander and to break barriers over time.

  • Posted by: AgnesDay - Jul. 05, 2013 11:24 AM ET USA

    jg23753479--I feel this way when I cross state lines. North Carolina is more like Canada than my own state. But frequently, even at home, it is easy to remember that we have here no earthly city.

  • Posted by: koinonia - Jul. 04, 2013 7:12 PM ET USA

    Very important reflections. Our nations, our leaders, our prelates, etc (including ourselves) are successful inasmuch as their actions are rightly ordered. Certainly the prelate has a much higher bar than the non-Catholic politician, nonetheless there is a certain homogeny in all things real. Pilate's incredulity resonates today, but the Christian "will love for the sake of the Giver", an ordered love that gives testimony to the Truth. From this follows virtue.

  • Posted by: jg23753479 - Jul. 04, 2013 4:51 PM ET USA

    I suppose you are correct but the real question becomes what constitutes "our country." When I am in Ohio, or Los Angeles, or Seattle, for example, I feel a dépaysement not much unlike that I feel in Zurich or Paris. Yes, politically it's my country, but it is not mine in any affective sense; only in New England do I feel "at home". The 'patriotic' stuff, Jefferson, Franklin, Lincoln, etc.,leaves me cold. And some of it, e.g. playing music when a president enters a room,I find flat out silly.