Pope Benedict XVI & John Paul II on America’s founding

My friend & colleague Donald McClarey has proposed that we celebrate the 4th of July with a reading of the Declaration of Independence — a custom I also share, and which I think every citizen of the United States should cultivate.

And to those scornful cranks so quick to dismiss such an appreciation of the principles of our founding as “worshipping at the temple of Enlightenment liberalism,” I would remind them of the example set by none other than Pope Benedict XVI and his predecessor, John Paul II:

From the dawn of the Republic, America’s quest for freedom has been guided by the conviction that the principles governing political and social life are intimately linked to a moral order based on the dominion of God the Creator. The framers of this nation’s founding documents drew upon this conviction when they proclaimed the “self-evident truth” that all men are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights grounded in the laws of nature and of nature’s God. The course of American history demonstrates the difficulties, the struggles, and the great intellectual and moral resolve which were demanded to shape a society which faithfully embodied these noble principles. In that process, which forged the soul of the nation, religious beliefs were a constant inspiration and driving force, as for example in the struggle against slavery and in the civil rights movement. In our time too, particularly in moments of crisis, Americans continue to find their strength in a commitment to this patrimony of shared ideals and aspirations. …

Historically, not only Catholics, but all believers have found here the freedom to worship God in accordance with the dictates of their conscience, while at the same time being accepted as part of a commonwealth in which each individual and group can make its voice heard. As the nation faces the increasingly complex political and ethical issues of our time, I am confident that the American people will find in their religious beliefs a precious source of insight and an inspiration to pursue reasoned, responsible and respectful dialogue in the effort to build a more humane and free society.

Freedom is not only a gift, but also a summons to personal responsibility. Americans know this from experience – almost every town in this country has its monuments honoring those who sacrificed their lives in defense of freedom, both at home and abroad. The preservation of freedom calls for the cultivation of virtue, self-discipline, sacrifice for the common good and a sense of responsibility towards the less fortunate. It also demands the courage to engage in civic life and to bring one’s deepest beliefs and values to reasoned public debate. In a word, freedom is ever new. It is a challenge held out to each generation, and it must constantly be won over for the cause of good (cf. Spe Salvi, 24). Few have understood this as clearly as the late Pope John Paul II. In reflecting on the spiritual victory of freedom over totalitarianism in his native Poland and in eastern Europe, he reminded us that history shows, time and again, that “in a world without truth, freedom loses its foundation”, and a democracy without values can lose its very soul (cf. Centesimus Annus, 46). Those prophetic words in some sense echo the conviction of President Washington, expressed in his Farewell Address, that religion and morality represent “indispensable supports” of political prosperity.

Excerpts from the White House Welcoming Ceremony Pope Benedict XVI (Apostolic visit to the United States April 16, 2008).

* * *

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.

John Paul II on the American Experiment – excerpts from Pope John Paul II’s words to the Honorable Lindy Boggs as Ambassador to the Holy See on December 16, 1997.

7 Responses to Pope Benedict XVI & John Paul II on America’s founding

  1. Joe Hargrave says:

    As always, a balanced approach is appreciated. There can be no denying the anti-Catholic sentiments of some of the founding fathers, or some of the polemicists of the revolution (think Thomas Paine). Ever since Machiavelli blamed the Church for Italy’s problems and argued for the formation of a civil religion, a dose of anti-Catholicism was part of the standard litany of the “Atlantic Republican” tradition – never mind the influence of liberalism.

    But, I think the Holy Fathers are right to want to move on as well, and acknowledge what is universally good about the American revolution, as opposed to dwelling on what was wrong. Why would the leaders of the Church seek to create discord by resurrecting old wounds?

    We certainly shouldn’t worship liberalism – Lord knows, I reject most of the versions of economic liberalism I have come across – but the Bill of Rights was a major step forward in history, crystallizing a process that had been underway since the signing of the Magna Carta. I only wish we took the right to food as seriously as we did the right to counsel and due process.

  2. Incidentally, as regards the charge of American exceptionalism, it strikes me that it is much in keeping that those in different countries take a patriotic pride in their countries — to the extent that those countries deserve it.

    In the US, that pride is often most centered around specific expressions of American political and philosophical ideals such as the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, Gettysburg Address, etc.

    In other countries, pride might to taken in analogous or different attributes: The English in their history and common law, the French in their aesthetic and intellectual heritage, the Polish in their religious and historical roots, etc.

    I think on of the reasons Americans tend to take pride particularly in expressions of ideal such as the Declaration of Independence is that we do not in fact have much of a “national” identity in the way that most nation-states in the precise meaning of the term do. There is a history of “American” people and what they’ve done, and a shared language, but there is not a shared racial background or a culture in the fuller sense of the term, and many of our ancestors actually showed up here after much of the historical heritage of the country had actually taken place. Yet none of this serves to make people less American.

    This is, I think, why documents and speeches play a larger than usual role in American national identity — and in that sense it underlines how odd it is to charge the US of being “nationalistic”, in that in many ways the US is not a “nation state” in the way that many other modern countries are. It would be like accusing a member of the Hapsburg Empire of being “nationalist”.

  3. Donald R. McClarey says:

    Thank you Christopher.

    We also have this from Pope Leo XIII:

    “Nor, perchance did the fact which We now recall take place without some design of divine Providence. Precisely at the epoch when the American colonies, having, with Catholic aid, achieved liberty and independence, coalesced into a constitutional Republic the ecclesiastical hierarchy was happily established amongst you; and at the very time when the popular suffrage placed the great Washington at the helm of the Republic, the first bishop was set by apostolic authority over the American Church. The well-known friendship and familiar intercourse which subsisted between these two men seems to be an evidence that the United States ought to be conjoined in concord and amity with the Catholic Church. And not without cause; for without morality the State cannot endure-a truth which that illustrious citizen of yours, whom We have just mentioned, with a keenness of insight worthy of his genius and statesmanship perceived and proclaimed.”

  4. […] I love it, of course, with the affection proper to one’s own. When I read statements by various popes praising different aspects of the American experiment, I am filled with pride. When I hear of […]

  5. S.B says:

    Popes, bah. Their words are irrelevant except where they can be cherrypicked to coincide with 20th-century European statism.

  6. […] are several interesting posts up at the blog The American Catholic on the Declaration of Indepenence and the American […]

  7. […] What do Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI think about the American Founding?. […]

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