14th Sun [C] 2010

Fr. Charles Irvin


Isaiah 66:10-14c; Galatians 6:14-18; Luke 10:1-12,17-20

The readings in today’s Mass speak of God’s abundant generosity and care for us, both as individuals and as societies. The kingdom of God is near; it is revealed in all of our relationships with those around us. Our social structures should be organized under God’s providential care.

On this 4th of July we once again turn our attention to the values and ideals in which our nation was founded, principles to which Abraham Lincoln rededicated it, and which we in turn need to re-affirm in our day. Our Founding Fathers declared: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”  In his Gettysburg Address ninety years later, President Abraham Lincoln rededicated us by declaring that: “this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom— and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

The question we need to ask ourselves today is: “Are we as a nation still under God?” Here I would suggest that we, Catholic Americans that we are, have much to offer our nation; we have a civic responsibility, and loyalty that accompanies it, to openly present our ideals and values to our fellow countrymen.

Fifty years ago a famous American Jesuit priest and scholar, Fr. John Courtney Murray, wrote his classic book: We Hold These Truths, a masterpiece of reflection on “The American Proposition.” In the foreword to his book Fr. Murray pointed out that the American Proposition is not one based on pragmatism, or on dialectical materialism, or on any theories of determinism, either economic or political or psychological. Rather the American Proposition, said Fr. Murray, was stated by men who thought that the life of man in any society under government is founded on truths, on a certain body of objective truths, universal in import, accessible to the reason of man, definable, and defensible. If this assertion were to be denied, he said, the American proposition would be gutted. The philosophical parentage of the vision of our Founding Fathers can be traced back through history to St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Augustine. Catholics can be at home with the statements of our political philosophy, statements as they were understood by our nation’s Founding Fathers.

We have a stake in the American Experiment while recognizing that it is still an experiment. There remains in our time a certain tentativeness about it. For instance it has been demonstrated that if you take a few key sections of our Declaration of Independence and our Bill of Rights and without identifying them present them to people out on the street while asking for their assent, a high percentage of people will, out of ignorance, refuse to assent to them. Ours is still a revolutionary system, or at least its philosophical underpinnings are, and while people give notional assent to our founding principles we know that in fact the actions of both our citizens and our governmental officials are all too often contradictory to the Declaration of Independence and to the Bill of Rights. We live, quite literally, in “The American Experiment.”

Fr. Murray asked us as Americans, and precisely as Catholic Americans, to reflect on the truths that we hold to be self-evident. As citizens we have a duty to be able to answer the fundamental civil question: “What are the truths that we hold?”

It is sometimes asked whether Catholicism is compatible with American democracy. Fr. Murray asserted that this question is invalid as well as impertinent because the phrasing of the question inverts the order of values. The real question is whether American democracy is compatible with Catholicism. This is a civil question because it directly places us in the position of examining what it means to be a citizen both operationally and philosophically. It frames the question with the conviction that we, as a nation, were founded “under God” and that what we are about as a nation today is, or should be, “under God.” That is a Catholic first principle.

There are some other related questions that should be on our minds, perhaps the most consequential one having to do with the nature of morality and its role in the conduct of our political and economic life. What do we mean by “morality” and what are the self-evident truths in this area to which we can give our assent and hold in common as members of our society? It is a vital question because a democracy is more than a political experiment; it is a spiritual and moral enterprise. It is one thing to assert that we are a pluralist society but it is quite another thing to assert that we hold certain moral imperatives in common as one nation. Is morality a private, subjective, and individual reality that is therefore divorced from what is civil? If we learned anything at all as Catholics and as Americans in our nation’s recent history it is precisely that morality is not and should not be a private, subjective, and individual reality that has little to do with civil behavior. As Catholics we know that to be true; as Americans we have a duty to argue that out in public.

There is another major national value to which Catholics give affirmation, namely that we are all — men and women, Blacks, Whites, Hispanics, native Americans, and Anglos — endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable civil rights and that governmental authority, both in its exercise and in its source, should be applied under God. This is still a tenuous proposition to which many of our fellow countrymen, politicians, and political philosophers do not give assent. Again, we have a duty to enter into civil argument precisely as Catholic Americans in order to maintain that proposition. Catholics should be very much at home in that self-evident truth; our intellectual heritage affirms that proposition and has much to do with the philosophical underpinnings of our American Bill of Rights.

The Bill of Rights is much more the product of Christian history than of 18th century Rationalism. The proposition that we hold certain truths to be self-evident, and that we are all endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights, rights that cannot be taken away nor even given away, is a proposition that is at home in our Catholic intellectual tradition. Catholics can enter into the discussion, the argument, and the dialogue because the language and concepts made sense both to the Fathers of the Church and the Fathers of our Republic. They still do.

Today we must remember that the American experiment is still an experiment. It remains now still a revolution that is not yet secure in our world, even here in our homeland. Indeed Catholicism is not yet secure in our society. When one tries to fully live out the implications in our foundational philosophy then one can easily upset people around us. While there is a certain sort of formal political consensus in the civil society that we call American, that consensus remains pretty much of a mere formality. Likewise many Catholics identify themselves as Catholic pretty much only as a formality. The consensus of what it means to be Catholic and the consensus of what it means to be an American are by no means settled.

There is a great deal of compatibility between being a Catholic and being an American. Those who are fearful of and who mistrust Catholicism might be embarrassed to know how much Catholicism contributed to the original American Proposition as stated by the Founding Fathers of our Republic. But while we can have pride in our Catholic contribution we also should know its content. Indeed, as the tenuousness of the American Proposition becomes more evident, we have a civic duty to know the content of our Catholic contribution all the more thoroughly. Our political consensus is by no means a stable thing; we all know that it is a fluctuating and dynamic consensus that continually needs new life through the contributions we can make in the surrounding civic conversation that forms the content of our political consensus.

If we remain faithful to the vision of our Founding Fathers and their faith in Divine Providence which they so openly and so eloquently professed, and if we remain true to the faith of Abraham Lincoln and his reliance on Divine Providence, then we can securely rest in President Lincoln’s great vision that  “this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

About Charles Irvin

Fr. Charlie was ordained a priest June 3, 1967 and has served as pastor of St. Mary Student Chapel in Ann Arbor, founded Holy Spirit parish in Hamburg, MI, served as pastor of St. Francis of Assisi parish in Ann Arbor and was pastor of St. Mary parish in Manchester, MI when he entered Senior Priest status in 2001. In 1999 he was appointed Founding Editor of FAITH Magazine which has grown into Faith Catholic Publishing located in Lansing, MI. He is now very active in his “retirement.”