The Catholic Thing
Cara America Nostra Print E-mail
By Robert Royal   
Monday, 26 May 2014

A priest, long known and admired, told me not long ago about a drive he and some priest-friends once took from the Pacific Northwest to Chicago. Passing through the beautiful American landscape, even though it took days, they never tired along the way: “You really just felt proud of America.”

My wife, an immigrant, sometimes speaks in similar tones. Her parents, Ukrainian Christians, met in a Nazi work camp and, determined not to return to the Soviet Union, escaped on bicycles to France. They waited a decade there for the immigration papers that let them come here. Years later, when they were naturalized as citizens, they felt proud and grateful for the opportunity to live free in their new homeland.

Corny old nineteenth- and twentieth-century stories to our sophisticated twenty-first-century elites, of course. But they continue to happen, to tens of millions of our fellow citizens. And therein lies something like hope.

America has always been more than a country: a city on a hill, an errand into the wilderness, “Mother of Exiles” (Statue of Liberty, if with slighting reference to “the wretched refuse” from other nations’ “teeming shores”), and much more. And the beauty and majesty of the American landscape were – somehow, in our minds – connected with being home to a God-given freedom.

That sense of grandeur has not entirely disappeared among us – though with each passing Memorial Day it seems fainter. A veteran of Afghanistan and Iraq recently wondered whether he’d do it again. Fighting and dying to defend America now seems to enable the likes of Kim Kardashian and Kanye West to corrupt the country without fear of threat from abroad. (If you don’t know those two, no great loss and maybe a little gain.) But millions like him volunteer every year all the same.

Even the Church, he said, now seems to wink at great evils – not only sexual abuse – and neglects the demands of holiness, while he, a convert, engages in frequent examination of conscience and confession. Yet conversions continue, more than ever in some places this year.

Many of us feel the justness of the complaints in our very bones and fear for our future. So much so that it’s almost become a cliché to speak on civic holidays like today about American decline. A survey just this week found that Americans are much less happy than even a decade ago. To complain is, alas, not to correct. And anyway, there doesn’t seem to be any easy path to reform for us, even if we were ready to take it.

America has often been compared to the Roman Empire. In the decades before the birth of Christ, at the very moment when the republic was giving way to empire, Virgil wrote his great epic the Aeneid, which celebrates the old Roman virtues even as it entertains doubts about Rome’s future.

His contemporary the Roman historian Livy, in a phrase that almost everyone who studied Latin once knew by heart, instructed his reader about the story he is about to tell:

let him follow the decay of the national character, observing how at first it slowly sinks, then slips downward more and more rapidly, and finally begins to plunge into headlong ruin, until he reaches these days, in which we can bear neither our diseases nor their remedies.

He was right – yet Rome did not “fall” until 500 years later, though you could argue that in the meantime it became something other than a moral exemplar among nations. Still, God works in mysterious ways. It was that troubled Roman order that enabled a tiny sect from an obscure province in the Eastern Mediterranean to spread and eventually become the most influential religious movement in human history.

Things move a lot faster today, and it’s not hard to envision the rapid rise of China or maybe a missionary Russia as our confused and overly self-critical nation stumbles on the world stage. That would be regrettable, not only for America, but also – in spite of all our manifest flaws – for the world. 

A saints prayer for America

Because for all our woes, millions still strive to come here, legally and illegally, on account of many things that we take for granted – and despite resentments don’t know where else to look for moral leadership.

But there is nothing fated in human affairs and what has been broken or even thrown away by human foolishness may still, deo volente, be fixed or retrieved.

At the bottom of our current woes lies a question about what freedom means today. America’s founders put freedom near the center of national life, but not absolute freedom, which they regarded as “license.”  In 1776, John Adams wrote in a letter that politicians:

may plan and speculate for Liberty, but it is Religion and Morality alone, which can establish the Principles upon which Freedom can securely stand. . . .They may change their Rulers and the forms of Government, but they will not obtain a lasting Liberty. They will only exchange Tyrants and Tyrannies.

Almost all the founders said basically the same. American freedom is viable – and valuable – only when it serves the good. Unlike most other countries, freedom here has been closely allied with, even derivative from, religion.

It’s the American way not to bow to any earthly power – or at least it was until recently – to be wary even of our own leaders, who are only human and, as such, to be watched to guard against the perennial temptation to tyranny.

We’re no longer a young republic, but a middle-aged empire. Happy talk about the best days lying ahead cannot assuage our fears that mere economic growth, more gadgets and entertainments, can’t help us – indeed, are part of our central problem.

But on holidays like today, it’s good to remember that this is America. New births of freedom, Great Awakenings in religion, fresh energies from immigration are recurrent threads in our story. Pray God they continue to be.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the Westnow available in paperback from Encounter Books.
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.


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Comments (10)Add Comment
written by Augustine Thomas, May 26, 2014
This country deserves to die.
written by Manfred, May 26, 2014
Thank you for the quote from John Adams, Robert. It described the present state of our once great nation completely. I believe it was was Benjamin Franklin who also said, you have a republic, if you can keep it.
In a nation where lesbian and sodomite couples may "have" children through adoption or in vitro fertilization, where state after state collapses under Federal pressure to accede to and accept same sex "marriage", where contraception has become the norm, where fewer and fewer couples even marry, it is clear that the only reasons people come here is to: make a lot of money, or, the place they left was worse. No one comes here looking for any moral authority.
On Palm Sunday,in 1937, an encyclical was read from every Catholic pulpit in Germany. Titled "Mit Brennender Sorge" ("With Burning Anxiety") it was written entirely in German and it was issued by Pope Pius XI. It condemned the Nazi regime for its "neo-paganism" and its "race, blood" arguments to support its destruction of Gypsies, Jews, and children born with birth defects. Of course, that was when there existed the Church.
That moral voice is gone. Now it cowers in the U.N. where It is told that denying women abortion and preying on children can be construed as "torture" and therefore the Church comes under the authority of the U.N. America is paying for its reckless wars and for its moral collapse.
written by grump, May 26, 2014
Well said, Mr. Royal. May I add:
It is the VETERAN, not the preacher, who has given us freedom of religion.
It is the VETERAN, not the reporter, who has given us freedom of the press.
It is the VETERAN, not the poet, who has given us freedom of speech.
It is the VETERAN, not the community organizer, who has given us freedom to assemble.
It is the VETERAN, not the lawyer, who has given us the right to a fair trial.
It is the VETERAN, not the politician, who has given us the right to vote.
It is the VETERAN who salutes the Flag,
It is the VETERAN who serves under the Flag,

written by Robert Royal, May 26, 2014
Augustine Thomas, in a fallen world, in which all have sinned, who does not? It's why Christ came into the world and died for us. We receive graces and other gifts we don't deserve. It's how we all live and participate, often without knowing and even resisting, in the divine plan.
written by Schm0e, May 26, 2014
Thank you.
written by Seanachie, May 26, 2014
Hoorah, Gump...fully agree...domestically, I would also add our police officers and firefighters.
written by Jack,CT, May 26, 2014
A Big Thanks
written by Myshkin, May 26, 2014
Liked the quote from Livy. Pity you didn't give us the Golden Age Latin. It is so little seen or spoken of these days.

The U.S.A has been a less evil place to live than most of humanity's states. Now it is declining, perhaps not irreversibly. But, as Roman Catholics, we can never think of it as our home. As the Epistle of Diognetus says,

"Christians are indistinguishable from other men either by nationality, language or customs. They do not inhabit separate cities of their own, or speak a strange dialect, or follow some outlandish way of life. Their teaching is not based upon reveries inspired by the curiosity of men. Unlike some other people, they champion no purely human doctrine. With regard to dress, food and manner of life in general, they follow the customs of whatever city they happen to be living in, whether it is Greek or foreign.
And yet there is something extraordinary about their lives. They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through. They play their full role as citizens, but labour under all the disabilities of aliens. Any country can be their homeland, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country. Like others, they marry and have children, but they do not expose them. They share their meals, but not their wives. They live in the flesh, but they are not governed by the desires of the flesh. They pass their days upon earth, but they are citizens of heaven. Obedient to the laws, they yet live on a level that transcends the law."
written by Paul, May 26, 2014
Sadly, many in western civilization have sacrificed their rights to the gods of political correctness and multiculturalism.
written by Benedict Augustine, May 26, 2014
While the U.S. now suffers from a frightening absence of moral authority, all Catholics should take heart in their faith more than ever. We must be the change we wish to see in the world, the salt of the earth; we must not simply wish a better more moral America, but create it ourselves. Hope will fuel the faith and love necessary to educate modern Americans to put away their prejudice and ignorance, and embrace a better way to live. If they want to persecute Christians, let the fault lie with them, not us. Yesterday's second reading from Peter applies well in this time: "For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that be the will of God, than for doing evil."

Veterans know better than to look at the decadence consuming the country. They rise above it and set an example of bravery and strength for their fellow men. They remind us that virtue has much more power than vice.

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