Reflections Unto God – October 2010

by Lawrence P. Grayson

Render Unto God

Catholicism has by and large flourished in America, despite the anti-Catholic bias that previously existed within the country’s dominant Protestant culture and the current movement to establish a totally secular society. As early as 1835, Alexis de Tocqueville could write, “America is the most democratic country in the world, and it is at the same time (according to reports worthy of belief) the country in which the Roman Catholic religion makes the most progress.”

This religious fruitfulness is not surprising because America was conceived based on a shared, religiously-informed understanding of human nature and the convictions that follow from it. Biblical knowledge was common among literate Americans of the eighteenth century. Whether they belonged to one of the many Protestant sects or were Deists, early Americans had similar conceptions about God, His covenants, of sin and virtue, of obligations and redemption. These conceptions were reflected in the arguments and documents they produced in establishing a new nation. As a result, there is compatibility between the core principles upon which America was founded and Catholic teaching. This Reflection will consider two fundamental concepts, the dignity of the human person and freedom with responsibility.

Sacred Scripture teaches that as human beings we have been given a dignity that has not been granted to other creatures. This occurs because we have been created in the image and likeness of God. “Being in the image of God,” states the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “the human individual possesses the dignity of a person, who is not just something, but someone. He is capable of self-knowledge, self-possession and of freely giving himself and entering into communion with other persons. And he is called by grace to a covenant with his Creator, to offer him a response of faith and love that no other creature can give in his stead.” This call to communion with God is the end for which we have been created and is the fundamental reason for our human dignity.

The concept of human dignity as God-given is found in both Jewish and Christian theology, and was common to the beliefs of the Founding Fathers. John Adams, for example, even before the Revolution, wrote that the pulpits should proclaim the true nature of man: “Let us hear the dignity of his nature, and the whole noble rank he holds among the works of God, — and that God Almighty has promulgated from heaven, liberty, peace, and goodwill to man!” In the Declaration of Independence, the Founders proclaimed “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.” In this brief statement, they acknowledged that there is a higher being, a Creator-God, that he made all men equal (from a theological perspective, he created them in his image and likeness), and imbued them with unalienable Rights (which gives them a special status, a dignity not possessed by other creatures). As God, not government, has given those Rights, government may abridge, but cannot rescind them.

A second common concept is ordered freedom. Liberty — the ability of the individual to live life as he sees fit, to pursue his desires as he deems best — is the cornerstone of American political philosophy and a principal value of our national life. Liberty, however, is fragile. Unfettered freedom can lead to oppression and injustice, to the strong dominating the weak. Without restraint, the very foundations of democracy are put at risk, for a people who cannot control their appetites cannot exercise responsible self-government in public life. In a nation based on the consent of the governed, social order and justice must flow from individuals freely obeying the imperatives of an inner set of standards, from adherence to norms that apply to all people. Freedom must be rooted in a moral culture that fosters self-mastery, self-discipline, self-governance. This moral basis is made operational through the creation of just laws. The laws must coincide with the moral principles of the society-at-large, for if they do not, they either will become instruments of coercion and tyranny or will fail because of an antagonistic public consensus. Thus, ordered freedom expressed as liberty under law has become a core principle of American government.

From a religious perspective, we have been created with a free will, with an allowance to choose good or evil. As described in the encyclical, Gaudium et Spes, man’s nature “demands that he act according to a knowing and free choice that is personally motivated and prompted from within, not under blind internal impulse nor by mere external pressure.” Our souls seek God through the free exercise of our will. If it were otherwise, and we lacked the freedom to choose, the revelations of God and the teachings of Jesus Christ about leading a virtuous life would lack meaning. The proper use of freedom is to do good, but the actions we choose are often determined by self-interest – what makes me happy, advances my desires, provides me with a material advantage. Freedom to do whatever one pleases is quite distinct from the moral responsibility to do what one ought. Unconditional action without regard to objective standards or authority, is license, not freedom. Ordered freedom means choice with responsibility. It requires a means for constraint, to guide its use in the right way. That guide is a well-formed conscience, which directs a person to do good and avoid evil.

We have been blessed to live in a country where there is consonance between our religious beliefs and the nation’s founding political philosophy. As Knights of Columbus, we must work to assure that the two remain in harmony. We must oppose the current trend to make God irrelevant in the public square, to treat religion as a strictly private matter that should not influence political discourse or bear on public issues that have moral aspects. Our organizational voice is needed to help assure that the founding principles of this nation are not subverted.

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