Dual Citizenship, but One is to be Preferred

July 13, 2015

The following is a reflection on the tension between civic life and living a life of faith by Fr. Brian Chrzastek, O.P., professor of philosophy at the Pontifical Faculty of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C.

“God rather than men” (Acts 5:29) It is sometimes supposed that the Founding Fathers of the United States were men of strong Christian convictions.  Some interpreters are even convinced that while these men were not Catholic themselves, they were still well disposed toward the Roman Church, if only implicitly.  The impetus behind this sentiment, it seems, draws from the prominent references to God in their writings. The fact of the matter is that most of the Founding Fathers were Deists.  While they believed that the universe had a creator, they did not accept that this entity concerns himself with the lives of ordinary human beings.  They did not believe that the Bible is true. They insisted that reason, not religion or faith, is what saves us.  By ‘saves’ they would understand ‘makes the world a better place,’ a world that more comfortable, more convenient, more malleable to the human hand and whatever we would do with it.  One of the clearest examples of this is Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, who took it upon himself to expunge any references to the miraculous or to the divinity of Christ.  Jesus, Jefferson would have us believe, was an enlightened rationalist teacher, not the Son of God and not a Savior in any traditional sense of the word. As far as any sympathy for Catholics – this is harder to defend.  Among avowed Christians in the early history of this country, most were staunch Protestants.  They were almost universally convinced that Catholics are ‘the enemy.’ They were convinced that our acceptance of the Papacy makes us agents of a foreign power.  They saw the Mass as rife with undue superstition, ceremony, and ritual, muttered in a foreign language, Mass universally celebrated in Latin.  ‘Hocus pocus’ is a deliberate mockery the words of institution ‘hoc est corpus meum’ (‘this is my body’).  So there were repeated incidents of legislative persecutions of Roman Catholics, who were outlawed, unduly taxed or excluded from various offices or even common recognition.  Violent measures were carried out by various local governments and even individual citizens: plundering of Church property and even execution.  This widespread animosity remained in place and even grew especially with the waves of Catholic immigrants in the 19th and 20th centuries: the increasing numbers being perceived as a greater threat. To some extent, this prejudice only began to subside after the second World War with a begrudging recognition of the many Catholic soldiers who died in service of their country.  To be sure this was not in admiration for Catholic faith or devotion or piety, but because they shed their blood for a recognized political cause.  Catholics were given their due, not because of their religious faith, but because of their sacrifices for their country. Of late there has been a growing sense of unease and even consternation among Catholics in this country.  The concern is that we, because of our religious convictions, because of our faith in Christ as found in the Gospels, handed down to us from the Apostles and the teaching of the Church, are more and more at odds with the customs and laws of this country.  The recent Supreme Court ruling on marriage comes readily to mind. The worry, arguably well placed, is that the Church will increasingly find Herself at odds with our culture and our government for not acceding to the expectations our country.  As there have been business that have been penalized or forced to close for not offering services to same-­sex weddings, so the concern is that the Church will be similarly liable for not recognizing marriage in the way it has now been defined. One point which seems so easily obscured in the tumultuous rhetoric that engulfs such debates is not the Church’s alleged hatred or dislike or exclusion of those with same­-sex attractions but that the Church, established by Christ, is not allowed to recognize marriage as it now understood in this country. – According to that book, the one that Jefferson would rewrite, the one by which we swear when we take solemn oaths.  The Church’s understanding of Herself is that she is not at liberty to change that with which she has been entrusted simply because society or the government or popular sentiment has decided differently. So now it has happened that marriage is understood differently by our government and by the Church.  For the government, it is largely a legal contract between two consenting adults whatever their gender.  For the Church, it is a sacrament instituted by Christ necessarily between a man and a woman, a manner of living out our salvation.  These, of course, are two very different things.  The worry is what will come of this. It is not necessarily surprising that there should be such a parting of ways between the Church and the State.  Christ himself forewarned us of this as a real possibility.  As we find in John’s Gospel ‘If the world hates you, realize that it has hated me first.  If you belonged to this world, the world would love you as its own.  But because you do not belong to the world and I have chosen you out of this world, the world hates you’ (Jn. 15, 18). But before we rush to count ourselves among those who are hated or harshly persecuted by the world we might first consider the plight of other believers, say, the previous generations of Catholics in this country who have preceded us.  We might ponder those Christians who are publicly beheaded simply because they identify themselves as Christians.  We might think of Christians in poorer countries who are denied decent jobs, for which they are certainly qualified, because those jobs are so few and because those believers are such a minority.  The plight of such people is certainly worse than anything we have had to endure. Recalling the letter to the Hebrews, we may note that we have not ‘resisted to the point of shedding our blood’ (Hb 12, 4). This raises a fair question. Do we expect some recompense for our practice of the faith, whether by way of comfort or recognition or acclaim?  Let us consider that such are the terms of the world’s counting.  The reward of faith, by contrast, is that which is yet to come.  Our reward is that toward which we are to strive by growing in holiness and holiness is a ‘commodity’ that tends to be quite unknown to the world. In the Gospel of St. Mark, our Lord Jesus himself, while having a reputation for curing the sick and casting out demons, is unable to perform such deeds among his own people, in his own native place because he is too familiar to them (Mk 6, 1­6).  This reminds us of the Book of Ezekiel, of the prophet sent to a people who rebel against the Lord, a people who are hard of face and obstinate of heart (Ez 2, 2­5). Ought we to expect or demand an easier audience or a friendlier reception? Matthew’s Gospel contains a version of the beatitudes which concludes: ‘Blessed are you when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you falsely because of me.  Rejoice and be glad for your reward will be great in heaven’ (Mt 5,11).  Whether or not the world persecutes us, there are bound to be significant differences between it and the Church.  The world judges by its own standards, by what is familiar to it.  It judges by what it sees, the flashy and alluring; by what it hears, the comfortable and the reassuring; by what it tastes, the luxurious and sweet – whether or not such things are as they seem.  The Church and those who are in the Church are not to be so easily swayed.  Judgment is not always ours to make, it comes from God who tends to remain unseen and whose ways we must discern.  The judgments we are able to make are not so obvious by the world’s reckoning. We live in a great country.  Arguably the best country, as attested to by the thousands, if not the millions, who would come here by any means available to them.  We are the beneficiaries of innumerable gifts: of privilege, of possibility, and of promise.  We owe this country much by what we have received from her and simply because we are her citizens.  The first letter from St. Peter urges us to be good citizens, ‘we are to accept the authority of every human institution’ (1 Pt 2,13).  However, that obedience cannot extend to all things.  To recall the last words of St. Thomas More, ‘I am the king’s good servant, but God’s first.’  Whatever the world, whatever our country, has to offer, we must understand that this pales in comparison to the assurance of Christ, that we are citizens of the Kingdom of Heaven: sons and daughters of the Most High.

Image: Rowland Lockey, The Family of Sir Thomas More, c. 1594, Nostell Priory, West Yorkshire, England.

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