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America’s Exceptional Patroness

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Aggressive secularization is on the march across this land we have traditionally regarded as not a utopia, but a place blessed by and beholden to Providence. We have now become less likely, it seems, to recoil from promises of a secularized paradise, even though those very schemes have lead to so much human misery, especially in the last century.

Today’s feast of the Immaculate Conception – the Patroness of the United States – gives us much to ponder in that regard. Some argue that the belief in American exceptionalism – our traditional self-understanding as a “shining city on a hill” – somehow conflicts with the belief in the universal worth of all persons, wherever they happen to be born. But is that belief ever really even questioned today? 

Secularists are right to insist on the equality of all persons – a view, ironically, which is of Christian origin and makes no sense outside of a religious perspective. In all other ways, we are clearly unequal by birth and attainments. But even in secular terms, without the right dose of theology, without orienting ourselves towards heaven, then some persons will always be more equal (read:  powerful) than others.

Through the lens of Catholic theology, we know that each of us is created equal in the eyes of God, but that there is one person in all of human history who is truly exceptional, and that is Mary, the most holy Mother of God, on account of her own Immaculate Conception. No one else has been or ever will be so favored – so liberated from the deeply ingrained, deadening burdens of original sin. This exceptionalness – this singular grace she alone received from God – makes no sense whatsoever without reference to her Son, to the Divine.

Interestingly, Our Lady is intimately connected with one place – not in America –, which is not heaven on earth, but is where Heaven meets earth. At least that’s how St. Bernadette felt about her beloved hometown of Lourdes, where she was visited eighteen times by the Queen of Heaven, and where numerous miracles have occurred ever since.  In response to St. Bernadette’s repeated inquiry, Our Lady identified herself as follows:  “I am the Immaculate Conception.”

This was 1858 – just four short years after Pope Pius IX defined the Immaculate Conception as dogmatically binding, and less than three decades after Mary, appearing to St. Catherine Labouré in Paris, gave us the now familiar prayer:  “O Mary, conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee.” (It’s inscribed on the Miraculous Medal, which, incidentally, young Bernadette was wearing when Mary first appeared to her).

We don’t see all those miraculous cures affected through the intercession of Mary at Lourdes. But to see, as I did for the first time recently, the steady stream of sick, frail, and vulnerable people being brought by the thousands to the Grotto, being tenderly assisted and cared for by a steady stream of Christian volunteers, also coming from far and wide, is to see the hand of the Divine at work here on earth.   

Witnessing this scene made me think of what it might have looked like when St. Lawrence, ordered in 258 by the Roman emperor Valerian to hand over the wealth of the Church, responded by assembling the poor, crippled and suffering of Rome – and famously presented them to the emperor as the real treasures of the Church.

          The Immaculate Conception by Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, 1678

Lourdes is a privileged place of innumerable graces, and yet the various acts of service – the corporal and spiritual works of mercy – performed there today are essentially what the Gospel in action would look like anywhere, without exception.

Eucharistic processions have, at Our Lady’s request, occurred in Lourdes every day for the past 125 years or so; the Eucharistic Heart of Jesus is what inspires all of the Church’s activities everywhere on earth, including those carried out by her hospitals and charitable organizations.

The Gospel is not an exclusively private matter confined to one’s own head, but necessarily goes out, holds others in esteem, and engages them in specific ways.  Some things must be done, others avoided.

Our own Caesar, now presiding over the profoundly alarming rise in threats to religious liberty from coast to coast, does not nakedly demand that the Church relinquish its material “riches.” But he too is, nonetheless, intent on confiscating one of the Church’s treasures:  the well-formed Christian’s conscience – the ways of the Lord which give “new life for the soul” and which are “more desirable than gold, even than the finest gold (Psalm 19).”

This includes the natural moral law – by definition of relevance to all, not just Catholics – which is simply indispensible to the defense of the innocent and vulnerable and to our project of ordered liberty. Abandonment of the natural moral law or, more precisely, the failure of Christians to stand up for it, as Cardinal Raymond Burke recently said, means that “secularization will in fact predominate and it will destroy us.”

It is telling that conscience, on the chopping block in so many vital arenas today, is not only protected but is held sacrosanct when it is – improperly – used to justify violations of the natural law. This disturbing inversion of right and wrong bespeaks a certain corruption.

It is also telling that the bodies of both St. Bernadette and St. Catherine Labouré remain incorrupt to this day. Perhaps this has something to do with their intimate relationship with the Immaculate Mother of God.

Perhaps too there is a lesson in that relationship to Mary Immaculate – for us ordinary Americans who are blessed to have recourse to such an exceptional patroness.  She instructs us to come to the altar of her Son, the source of all consolation – and assures us that graces will be poured out there on those who ask for them with confidence.

Matthew Hanley’s new book, Determining Death by Neurological Criteria: Current Practice and Ethics, is a joint publication of the National Catholic Bioethics Center and Catholic University of America Press.