Pope Francis enters the U.S. House Chamber to address a joint meeting of Congress at the U.S. Capitol in Washington Sept. 24, 2015. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
I do not normally read the New York
Times. No normal person normally does. But every once in a while
I make an exception. Which is also a normal thing to do. The article
I read astonished me, especially the following passage:
America had a great political idea,
but it had a small religious idea. The spiritual vision was not wide
enough for the breadth and variety of brotherhood that was to be
established among men. . . The nation arose not with unity of
philosophy but with variety in fanaticism; with sects built on
special dogmas or on the denial of special dogmas, on something that
was not merely private judgment but particular judgment.
I have never seen packed so tightly so
complete an explanation of the development of America's religious
history that also explains its cultural history.
The “great political idea” is
obviously democracy and the “self-evident” truth that all men are
created equal and that their basic rights come from God. Democracy
means self-government, the ability to rule oneself, which is
everyone's right and responsibility. Self-government literally means
self-control. Self-government does not mean doing whatever you want,
rather it means controlling whatever you do.
But the control does not
come from some outside force, it comes from yourself. Self-restraint
is the essence of protecting your own freedom and everyone else's
because self-restraint is what prevents us trampling on anyone else's
rights. And the natural consequence of self-restraint is
self-respect, remembering our own and everyone else's dignity.
Self-control is one of the fruits of the spirit described by St. Paul
in Galatians 5:22-23. Thus, a nation of self-government would be a
nation of self-control and self-respect.
If what I just described does not look
anything like America, that is because the founding father's great
political idea of self-rule was not accompanied by a great religious
America, of course, was not founded as
a Catholic nation. It was founded as a Protestant nation that would
not declare its religion but would attempt to maintain a freedom of
religion. All well and good as far as that can go.
is not a unifying philosophy. If it is unified by anything, it is
anti-Catholicism. It is defined by its continued “protest”
against the authority of the Catholic Church. But freedom of religion
must tolerate even Catholicism, thus eroding any unity in a
Protestant philosophy that is already not unified. It starts broken
and continues to break apart. The Protestants who broke away from the
Catholic Church then broke away from each other.
America has had a
genius for breeding one new sect after another. A “sect” is a
section, and each section is smaller and narrower. Even if a section
grew, as did the Baptist and the Mormon sects, it was still narrow,
because it had broken off from something bigger and broader than
Each sect was founded on a certain
fanaticism that would turn around and attack everything that was not
itself, which caused continual disruption in the culture around it.
For instance, the Puritans attacked basic pleasures which sparked a
backlash that has rippled across American history right to the
present moment. Even as Puritan fanatics retreated to their separate
little chapels, waiting for the Second Coming, they condemned
cigarettes and beer as from the devil. They alienated themselves,
they were completely out-of-touch with wholesome salt-of-the-earth
citizens who had an innocent enjoyment of cigarettes and beer, and
who subsequently dismissed all religion as an institution that only
wants to take away cigarettes and beer.
But the latest attacks on
cigarettes and beer don't come any more from religious sects, but
from secular sects. The religion is gone, only the fanaticism
remains. And those who hold these “particular judgments” want to
make them universal. And so all the fanaticisms clash and the culture
falls into chaos because there is no unifying philosophy.
One persistent fanaticism that prevents
unity is the idea that you cannot mix politics and religion. But as a
matter of fact, you cannot help mixing them. A good political idea
can only be sustained by a good religious idea. Justice cannot be
sustained unless it is divinely-ordained and permanent, and not
subject to human whims and societal trends.
Implied in the idea that Protestantism
is not a unifying philosophy is the idea that Catholicism is a
unifying philosophy. Catholicism is the spiritual vision that is
“wide enough for the breadth and variety of brotherhood” that
America wanted to establish. Catholicism can respect religious
freedom, but it will not allow such freedom to destroy societal order
and create cultural chaos. Catholicism respects the authority of the
family, but it will not allow a different definition of family. It
respects life, liberty, and the pursuit of true happiness. It does
not allow any attack on life and on liberty. It does not respect the
pursuit of unhappiness.
Could the Catholic Church save the great idea
that was America? Nothing else can. Nothing else is big enough.
I drew all that from one profound and
insightful passage in a newspaper article. And to think I found that
article in the New York Times. Did
I mention the article was in the issue from July 12, 1931? And
did I mention that the writer was G.K. Chesterton?