On Being a Catholic American Citizen

Virtually every reader of this article can say, “I am a Catholic American citizen.”  All those who can make this claim are most fortunate.  But how many have thought about the full meaning of this statement or of the responsibilities that it implies?

Citizens are members of a nation-state.  They have rights and are entitled to the benefits which flow from them.  This is different from subjects who may enjoy similar benefits, which are granted as a privilege from a higher authority.  Citizens, especially under more democratic forms of government, can dissent and criticize the government and can replace the governing body through free and fair elections.  Subjects, with restricted or no rights, as in a dictatorship, an oligarchy or a strong monarchy, may have limited privileges to criticize the government, and can replace the rulers only through violent overthrow, as occurred in the French and Russian Revolutions.

In return for the rights they possess, citizens are expected to give full loyalty to the state, accept the obligations of helping it function and survive, and actively participate in its political and civic life.  They should understand the meaning of and support the nation’s constitution, accept the authority of the elected government, promote respect for the law, and participate in public consideration of matters of local and national interest.

American citizens are fortunate because they enjoy numerous liberties and rights, including freedom of speech and of religion, popular elections, representative assemblies, and the rule of law.  Their nation has a constitution which defines the form and structure of government, limits the power of the central government, and makes clear that the government’s power rests in the people.

In America, which was organized by the people, for the people, and is of the people, the success or failure of the government is everyone’s responsibility.   As a result, American citizens incur many essential obligations.  They may be called to serve on juries, encouraged to engage in military service, required to pay their fair share of taxes, and expected to respect the rights of those with differing points of view.

Catholic American citizens should carry out their obligations of citizenship within a framework of religious beliefs and teachings that shape and guide their participation in the nation’s public life.  Their thoughts, decisions and actions should be inspired by their faith.  Catholics who truly believe in their faith must assimilate it into their inner being, allow it to shape their consciences, and use it to form their way of life.

In the democratic, but pluralistic and secular American society, the common good requires a respect for people with different beliefs and a willingness to find common ground whenever possible.  This does not mean, however, that Catholics should compromise or be silent on fundamental issue of faith or human dignity.  Catholics can serve the nation best by living their faith openly and unashamedly.

They may do so in many ways.  They may work to mold public opinion, frame issues, and encourage others to act, vote and participate in public discussions on matters that affect Catholic precepts.   They should help to develop among members of the community a moral conscience on political issues, support the passage of laws that are just and consistent with the teachings of the faith, respect the dignity of each person, and promote the virtues and morality that underlie the founding precepts of the nation.  They should practice the Catholic religion conscientiously and faithfully, be loyal to the Magisterium, and conduct their duties of citizenship consistent with Catholic virtues and Church teachings.

With the continued secularization of this nation, the growing view that religion should be a private matter, and so many Catholics in public life opposing Church teachings, the Knights of Columbus can be a potent force for good.  Cardinal Amleto Giovanni Cicognani, who served as Apostolic Nuncio to the United States for 25 years and as Papal Secretary of State for two popes, addressed the 60th Supreme Convention of the Order in 1942.  With the family then under siege from economic and social forces, he said:

“[T]he Knights of Columbus should be prepared to face their duty.  Proclaim by all the means at your disposal that to conspire against the solidity of the home, to weaken its sacred bond of union, to deny it the means of decent livelihood, or in any way whatever to interfere with its God-given mission of physical and moral formation, is nothing else than a deadly attack on the security of the nation itself.  In recent years, unfortunately, ghastly wounds have been inflicted on family life.  Redouble your zeal, then, and firmly united in your apostolate, show yourselves loyal Catholics and upright citizens, fighting like faithful knights this holy crusade for God and Country.”

In the succeeding decades, conditions have worsened, not only for the family, but for virtually all moral concepts of society.  A counterforce is needed.  The Knights of Columbus, serving as the foot soldiers of the Catholic Church, can be the vanguard of that movement.  In a statement that is as relevant today as it was when made in 1947, Cardinal Cicognani, provided a mission for that counterforce.  He said, “[A]s sons of God, you must be transformed, and in turn transform the world, by a fervent living of the Christian faith.  That is the will of the Lord.”  Will we, as Knights, assume the gauntlet?

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