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This weekend marks two years since I first arrived at Little Flower. Since I arrived close to Independence Day, one of the first things I did was move the flags (the American Flag and the Papal Flag) that were in the back of the church to where I had seen they were originally (where they are today). I didn’t think much of this since it was a restoration of something from the past and it was done around the civil holiday. I thought people would not mind but see it as a nice change. I was surprised to discover, however, that my assumption was wrong. Sometime later, a *former* parishioner expressed concerns that my placing the American flag at the front of the church, I was making a “political statement.” He, like many others today, associated love of the flag and what it stands for with a particular political party. This made me realize that many today (especially Catholics who should know better) have forgotten that patriotism (the love of one’s country) is not only a good thing—it is a virtue and a precept under the Fourth Commandment!
To begin to understand this, it is important that we look at the virtue of justice. The Catechism defines justice as “the moral virtue that consists in the constant and firm will to give their due to God and neighbor. Justice toward God is called the ‘virtue of religion.’ Justice toward men disposes one to respect the rights of each and to establish in human relationships the harmony that promotes equity with regard to persons and to the common good” (1807). In other words, it is “Giving to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God” (Mark 12:17).
The Catechism dedicates several paragraphs (2197-2257) to the Fourth Commandment as an expression of the justice due to neighbor. We usually associate this Commandment with parents and the respect due to them and the relationships of the family, but the Church reminds us that we are “obliged to honor and respect all those whom God, for our good, has vested with his authority” (2197) and that this “constitutes one of the foundations of the social doctrine of the Church” (2198). The Catechism makes it very clear that this Commandment “extends to the duties of…citizens to their country, and to those who administer or govern it” (2199).
One might ask, “But what about a nation’s tainted past?!” Do not the injustices of the past “cancel out” the love and respect this Commandment demands? Simply put: NO. Firstly, the Commandment to love, respect and honor parents does not come with “conditions”, i.e. “If they are good parents…”. It simply commands our subordination to them because their authority comes from God and it a manifestation of the authority of God. Secondly, the injustices and mistakes of individuals or groups in a nation’s history do not determine the goodness or evil of a nation itself. Nations are made up of people. Some of those people do evil. Some do good. The goodness or evil done at any given time are not what determine the identity of character of a nation. It is, rather, the ideals of a nation and its cumulative contribution to humanity which determine that. Thirdly, one does not overcome evil with evil, hate with hate, and injustice with injustice. If these have been part of the history of a nation, it is up to those who know and want better to bring about that desired good. As the Catechism reminds us: “It is the duty of citizens to contribute along with the civil authorities to the good of society in a spirit of truth, justice, solidarity, and freedom” (2239). Notice the tools to bring about change: truth, justice, solidarity, and freedom. Not disrespect, disobedience, revolt, anarchy, and destruction. These latter tools are always the instruments of Satan and always bring about greater evil than what was present before.
With regard to our present situation, and our country in particular, yes, there are aspects of our past that are, quite frankly, embarrassing and painful. This is especially the case when one considers the lofty ideals of its founding. But the solution to that tainted past is not to ignore it or seek to obliterate any memory of it. On the contrary! As the philosopher George Santayana pointed out, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Not only do we need to remember our unpleasant history so as to not repeat it, but we need to realize that, in a mysterious way, it is precisely because of the evils of the past and in spite of them that this country became the “leader of the free world.” For example, no country can boast of leading the way in civil rights and social justice like this country can. How was that accomplished? By facing our mistakes and going back to the ideals of the Founding Fathers and the Constitution.
It is also important to focus on all of the good this country has offered the world at large. This country has been the destination and hope of countless immigrants looking for a better life for themselves, their loved ones, and their descendants. This country’s involvement in world conflicts have determined the course of history for the better—for example, the end of the Nazism, Fascism, and Communism (for the most part). This country has also been the leader in modern technological, scientific, and medical advancements. The words of the Catechism, therefore, apply to us in a very real way: “The love and service of one’s country follow from the duty of gratitude and belong to the order of charity” (2239).
On this Independence Day weekend, amid pools, beaches, picnic foods, fireworks, family and friends, let us remember the true reason for our celebration: that all people are created equal and endowed by their Creator with the inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Let us thank God that we in this country (unlike many people in nations around the world) enjoy these and countless blessings still today. But let us not forget that “our citizenship is [ultimately] in Heaven” (Philippians 3:20) and the words of the ancient Epistle to Diognetus: “[Christians] reside in their own nations, but as resident aliens. They participate in all things as citizens and endure all things as foreigners…They obey the established laws and their way of life surpasses the laws…So noble is the position to which God has assigned them that they are not allowed to desert it” (CCC, 2240). To conclude in the words of the Venerable Archbishop Sheen: “It is our solemn duty as Catholics to be conscious of our duty to America, and to preserve its freedom by preserving its faith in God…But as we talk about patriotism, it might be well to remind ourselves that […] even devotion to the stars and stripes is not enough to save us. We must look beyond them to other stars and stripes, namely the stars and stripes of Christ, by Whose stars we are illuminated and by Whose stripes we are healed!” (The Catholic Hour, February 20, 1938).