A Catholic Patriotism
by James Kalb
America is not a system of beliefs but millions of people living together, so rejecting some beliefs now treated as official is not rejecting America
How should we be good Catholics and good Americans?
Until recently that did not seem to be an issue to most of us. Separation of Church and State appeared to reconcile the Faith with a secular pluralist public order. The arrangement seemed to leave room for each to be what it is, do what it does, and cooperate in building a world that would be increasingly adequate to man’s material, social, and spiritual needs.
That view looks increasingly unrealistic today. Policies cannot be coherent or rational unless they are oriented toward definite goals and standards. Modern governments believe themselves responsible for human well-being in general. To carry out that responsibility they necessarily adopt a particular understanding of man and his good and try to bring human life in line with it. That understanding is resolutely secular, so that’s the direction they push life.
Progress always wants more, so as the project goes forward the pushes get harder. Government feels obligated, in the name of equality, harmony, and human well-being, to reform people in more and more ways, so it treats fewer and fewer aspects of life as beyond its reach. After all, how can public authorities safeguard individual health or reform gender relations without subjecting things to regulation that once seemed personal? So they end up trying to reshape all aspects of life in accordance with their own understandings.
It turns out that secularity and pluralism are neither tolerant nor pluralistic. They are governing philosophies, and insist on some things and exclude others. To make matters worse they recognize no principle higher than themselves, so their demands eventually become absolute. All else must give way before them, and in the end no room remains for God—a competing authority—unless He stops being God and becomes a poetic expression of the official outlook.
What to do? First, it is clear that the Faith comes before any secular cause, so if American beliefs come to be at odds with it we have to part ways with them. That has always been the case, but for a while the issue seemed only theoretical. Now that the conflict looks all too real we must accept and deal with it.
Doing so is our obligation as citizens as well as Catholics, and it’s the most important aspect of our participation in public life today. America is not a system of beliefs but millions of people living together, so rejecting some beliefs now treated as official is not rejecting America. As Catholics, citizens, and human beings we are obligated to promote the common good of those with whom we live, and if there are beliefs and habits that injure the common good we should do what we can to improve matters.
The best way we can do so is offer an alternative, and we can do that by living as Catholics and defending the legitimacy and rightness of doing so. America needs a way of life that is more functional, rewarding, and solidly based than what pop culture and certified experts have to offer. The best thing we can do is present one. That means we must regroup and reform, so that we once again have a way of life that is noticeably different from that of our neighbors. If we don’t then we’re not contributing what we can to our country.
To live as a Catholic is to know the Faith, love God and neighbor, and act accordingly. That involves personal, family, and other mainly private concerns, but also participation in common life with both Catholics and non-Catholics.