On Independence Day Weekend, President Donald Trump made news when he announced the creation of what would be known as the National Garden of American Heroes. In the executive order establishing the garden, he stated the garden would feature statues of “some of the greatest Americans who ever lived.” Its purpose would be
[to] preserve the memory of our American story and stir in us a spirit of responsibility for the chapters yet unwritten…[and to] call forth gratitude for the accomplishments and sacrifices of our exceptional fellow citizens who, despite their flaws, placed their virtues, their talents, and their lives in the service of our Nation.
This National Garden is being built in the wake of massive protests following the death of George Floyd. Some of these protests have included vandalism and the toppling down or removal of statues of major historical figures such as Presidents George Washington and Theodore Roosevelt, Saint Junipero Serra, Juan Ponce de Leon, General Robert E. Lee, and other figures and generals from the Confederacy in the Civil War.
These acts have been met with a variety of reactions, ranging from praise to horror to indifference. These protests and actions in the public square point to two important questions: How do we revere our forerunners while disavowing the evils of their time in history? How do we honor the goodness of their achievements while also acknowledging their shortcomings and and learning from their failures?
Today when we hear the Fourth Commandment—“Honor your father and mother” (cf. Ex 20:12; Deut 5:16)—we often think of those who have immediate temporal authority over us: parents, grandparents, teachers, employers, government officials. The same applies to those who have immediate spiritual authority over us as Catholics in the figures of her priests and bishops as pastors. The Catechism also reminds us that this precept implies that we are to give our ancestors “honor, affection, and gratitude,” both for their wisdom and achievements (cf. CCC 2199-2200).
This honoring of our living elders and superiors, as well as our familial ancestors and forerunners in faith, is spoken of by St. Thomas Aquinas as the virtue of filial piety. He specifically writes of giving our parents and those in authority over us as worship in the sense of reverence, veneration (Greek: dulia), and respect. This of course should not be confused with worship as adoration (Greek: latria) which when given to anyone or anything outside of God is the sin of idolatry. He states “man is a debtor chiefly to his parents and his country, after God. Wherefore just as it belongs to religion to give worship to God, so does it belong to piety, in the second place, to give worship to one’s parents and one’s country.” i
John Paul II speaks of this filial piety or pietas as underlying a religious dimension to the respect and veneration that are due to parents, ancestors, and our spiritual mothers and fathers in faith. In a sense they reflect the image of God the Creator, giving us life and a spiritual patrimony, in which they share in the mystery of creation and “therefore deserve a veneration related to that which we give to God the creator.”ii Aquinas also reminds us that piety and respect towards our ancestors must be rightly ordered in its relationship to God and their own deeds. He suggests “if our parents entice us to sin, and withdraw us from the service of God, we must, as regards to this point abandon and hate them.”iii This admonition can apply to all sinful ideologies and inequalities of history which include slavery, racism, the unjust oppression of the poor and innocent, attacks against marriage and the family, and atheistic-communist influences that seek to destroy Gospel truths and values.iv
But what is this “hate” that Aquinas encourages us to embrace “if our parents entice us to sin”? The love of filial piety calls for the revulsion of evil acts in order to properly will the good of the other in the fullest sense of love.v This process mirrors how metal is placed through a fire that melts away its impurities. This revulsion of evil that Aquinas speaks of leads to authentic reverence and respect for our elders and ancestors, one that is not blinded by hate or by a personal infatuation that distorts past history. It rather acknowledges the evil and sins of our forebearers alongside the virtues and goodness with all their effects, which help to form our own identity here and now. Our identity then calls us to continue the process of conversion and repentance in love and truth from the evils of the past in our own lives as individuals in our current age of history. This reverence of filial piety is the call of responsibility and stewardship that both God and history gives to each human generation for those who will come after them.
We can see the importance of statues in a religious way that parallels the reasons behind the use of statues in the secular sphere. When one goes into a Greek Catholic or an Orthodox Church, one of the primary features that one sees is the iconostasis, a wall of icons of Our Lord, Our Lady, and the saints. In Latin rite Churches, this same reality is shown also through the statues of Our Lord and the saints. What sacred art shows us in its statuary and iconography is the reality of the Communion of Saints, in that our forefathers with their achievements and flaws live with us in the present moment, to offer us wisdom despite their failures and sins, connecting us to Christ and helping us to enter full union with him in heaven.
This same symbolism is seen in the representation of historic figures and national heroes, whether it be in halls of government or in the National Garden of American Heroes. Secular history outside the eyes of faith parallels the truth of the Communion of Saints when it shows that we do not exist just for ourselves as individuals with preferences and experiences divorced and removed from the past. True filial piety does not live only in the past nor does it seek to destroy its wisdom. It allows us to reverence and learn from history, so that despite our own sins, failures, and limitations, we can contribute to establishing true life and authentic freedom for both ourselves and those who come after us.
The abiding presence of the saints and our forefathers, both through grace and through history, is a reminder that we do not only live in the present moment for ourselves. We live to love and glorify God and to assist both ourselves and all our neighbors—no matter who they may be—to become who we are meant to be in His eyes. To cut ourselves off from the past in order to build a utopian tower of Babel will only lead to our collapse and the loss of our identity both as a society and as Catholics. Authentic filial piety means learning and repenting from mistakes but also accepting the virtue, accomplishments, and sanctity of our forebearers that is often mixed with the evil and sin they struggled against. Robert Cardinal Sarah also notes that this way of reverence “is not a matter of nurturing nostalgia for a bygone past,” but to help instill an awareness of a history that we inherit that is part of who we are. In history we receive from our forefathers “certain certitudes and rules based on experience” that ensure a true, authentic freedom for us to become who we are meant to be in the eyes of God.vi
Discussion and debate that seeks to bring about the humble realization and repentance of the evils and sins of the past is different from an iconoclasm that seeks to cut us off from the reality of what our history is and its relation to our current age. Acknowledging the victims of the grave sins of history and seeking to bring reconciliation and healing is different from a mindset of victimization, hate, and self-entitlement working to overthrow the common good of society and destroy its very soul. Cardinal Sarah again warns us against this self-hating, historical iconoclasm where he remarks that the desire to break with the past and all its traditions has caused situations of latent civil war. “Man no longer loves himself. He no longer loves his neighbor or the land of his ancestors. He detests his culture and the values of the past. Many combat our religious cultural historical heritage and our very roots.”vii Timothy Cardinal Dolan also comments on the dangers of this historical self-hate, making the following observation:
Such rash iconoclasm can lead to an historic amnesia that will eliminate something essential for our necessary common conversation on racism: the memory of flawed human beings who, while sadly and scandalously wrong on burning issues such as slavery and civil rights, were right on so many others, and need to be remembered for both.
Ongoing societal discussion about statues and the virtues and sins of our forebears they honor must be rooted in an authentic awareness of historical truth rather than reactionary vitriol and self-entitlement. It should lead to a greater awareness of the need to leave our comfort zones and seek the face of Christ in not only our great leaders and heroes but also those still carrying wounds from the evils of history so we might to make authentic gestures of reconciliation, understanding, and solidarity. In this way—not through a vitriolic spirit of self-hate for our Christian origins and national origins—we can cooperate with divine grace and be perfected as Our Lord calls us to be (cf. Matt 5:43-48), following His call to love those who have wronged us.
ii John Paul II, Memory and Identity: Personal Reflections (London, England: Orion Publishing Group, 2005) 73.
iv For further references of these ills, please see CCC 1934-1942; Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, 92 & 433, Leo XIII, Rerum Novarum, 15 & 38; Pius XI, Quadragesimo Anno, 36, 112-113, 116, & 128; Pius XI, Divini Redemptoris; John Paul II, Centissimus Annus, 19, 27, & 42; Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate,19, 23, & 55-57.
vi Robert Cardinal Sarah, The Day is Far Spent, (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2019) 285.
vii Ibid., 284.
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