Pope John Paul II On The “American Experiment”

As Zach indicates, the title of this blog itself is something of a quandary: what does it mean to be a Catholic in America? To participate in this great “American experiment” in ordered liberty? — these are questions which I’ll admit preoccupied me for some time now.

On December 16, 1997, Pope John Paul II welcomed the Honorable Lindy Boggs as Ambassador to the Holy See with the following words to her and the American people:

You represent a nation that plays a crucial role in world events today. The United States carries a weighty and far-reaching responsibility, not only for the well-being of its own people, but for the development and destiny of peoples throughout the world. With a deep sense of participation in the joys and hopes, the sorrows, anxieties, and aspirations of the entire human family, the Holy See is a willing partner in every effort to build a world of genuine peace and justice for all. …

The Founding Fathers of the United States asserted their claim to freedom and independence on the basis of certain “self-evident” truths about the human person: truths which could be discerned in human nature, built into it by “nature’s God.” Thus they meant to bring into being, not just an independent territory, but a great experiment in what George Washington called “ordered liberty”: an experiment in which men and women would enjoy equality of rights and opportunities in the pursuit of happiness and in service to the common good. Reading the founding documents of the United States, one has to be impressed by the concept of freedom they enshrine: a freedom designed to enable people to fulfill their duties and responsibilities toward the family and toward the common good of the community. Their authors clearly understood that there could be no true freedom without moral responsibility and accountability, and no happiness without respect and support for the natural units or groupings through which people exist, develop, and seek the higher purposes of life in concert with others.

The American democratic experiment has been successful in many ways. Millions of people around the world look to the United States as a model in their search for freedom, dignity, and prosperity. But the continuing success of American democracy depends on the degree to which each new generation, native-born and immigrant, makes its own the moral truths on which the Founding Fathers staked the future of your Republic. Their commitment to build a free society with liberty and justice for all must be constantly renewed if the United States is to fulfill the destiny to which the Founders pledged their “lives . . . fortunes . . . and sacred honor.”

Respect for religious conviction played no small part in the birth and early development of the United States. Thus John Dickinson, Chairman of the Committee for the Declaration of Independence, said in 1776: “Our liberties do not come from charters; for these are only the declaration of preexisting rights. They do not depend on parchments or seals; but come from the King of Kings and the Lord of all the earth.” Indeed it may be asked whether the American democratic experiment would have been possible, or how well it will succeed in the future, without a deeply rooted vision of divine providence over the individual and over the fate of nations.

I treasure the John Paul II’s remarks because they provide, for me, a perfect encapsulation of the ideals upon which our nation was founded and the aspirations of the great men and women who realized them, in bringing about the birth of a new nation.

John Paul II’s words serve as an impetus to reflection: on our founding fathers’ understanding of “ordered liberty”, and the divine foundation in which that liberty is grounded.

Reading those words, I am struck as well by just how far we have actually fallen and how far we have yet to go — specifically, in our marked failure to secure those rights for the innocent and defenseless among us, chief of all those not yet born. (There is little question that the evil of unrestricted abortion is ‘the slavery of our time’; a scandal and a blight upon our nation).

Who can question the Pope’s gentle-yet-furvent reminder that the success of this political experiment, indeed its very possibility, is contingent on our renewing this “deeply rooted vision of divine providence”? How many of us can honestly say we ourselves have kept this particular understanding of liberty, and the moral truths governing our nation’s founding?

2 Responses to Pope John Paul II On The “American Experiment”

  1. Zach says:

    This gets me thinking about how a proper understanding of the American founding recognizes both the contractual aspect and, more importantly, the natural law aspect.

    Some critics of the American experiment overemphasize the contractual aspect and either totally neglect or ignore the natural law aspect involved in the American Founding, and because of this they have a very hard time appreciating what is significant about America.

    Liberalism, at least of the American variety, is not really value-neutral or totally utilitarian.

  2. Tito Edwards says:

    “But the continuing success of American democracy depends on the degree to which each new generation, native-born and immigrant, makes its own the moral truths on which the Founding Fathers staked the future of your Republic.”

    Great quote from Pope John Paul II.

    I agree with Zach here that we have dropped the ball on the passing down of these “moral truths”. To many of us have taken it for granted of the moral underpinnings embedded in America’s success.

    Hopefully we few Catholics can be the mustard seed to reinvigorate America once again.

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