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The Way of BeautyThe American Dream

In 1943, Bishop Fulton J. Sheen made a prescient observation: “A proof that we are in danger of losing our freedom is that everyone is talking about it. Picture a group of men on a roof-top proclaiming in song and story the glories of architecture, while below saboteurs have already knocked out half the foundations of the house–and here you have the picture of modern freedom.” 

On this extended holiday weekend, Americans will proclaim in song and story the glories of our American freedoms, the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, rights given by God and not by any person—inalienable rights. 

The American flag will be displayed outside homes and public buildings to celebrate our independence, and small groups will gather to read aloud the majestic document we call our Declaration of Independence.

Colonial costumes, parades and picnics, hot dogs and hamburgers, barbecues and fireworks, rousing music of John Phillip Sousa, George M. Cohan, and Irving Berlin—these make up the lighter side of Independence Day.

The Drama of 1776

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During the spring and summer of 1776, days of great drama and of even greater consequence, the congressional members of the Second Continental Congress ratified the decision to separate from England.  Since 1763, the colonists had bristled against Parliament with one grievance after the other.  Tax piled on tax had been levied on them without any representation in Parliament. In 1775, matters came to a head.  The intolerable situation could not stand.  All of which brought them to 1776.

In June, the Congress’s Committee of Five assigned Thomas Jefferson to draft the declaration to separate from the mother country. Throughout the meetings, the gentleman from Virginia had remained taciturn, but he was reputed to be the consummate wordsmith as well as a scholar in literature and in science. Jefferson accepted the task—but reluctantly.  He had responsibilities back home.

Early in July, the draft was placed before the entire delegation as they edited and pored over words, phrases, and their meaning.  An impassive Jefferson sat observing the verbal gymnastics.  ‘They’re mangling my prose,’ he thought to himself. But in the end the gentleman from Virginia would be credited as the author of our founding document.  It became the inspiration for similar documents of more than one hundred fledgling nations.

Slavery and the Declaration

While the Declaration claimed that “all men are created equal,” slavery still existed in southern colonies.  Jefferson and other signers owned slaves. It was feared however that if decisions about abolishing slavery were brought to a vote, the members from the slave states would refuse to sign the document.  Years would pass before equal rights and equal opportunity were finally afforded African Americans.

Education of Black Children

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Several institutes of religious women engaged in educating black children, regardless of their faith-traditions. We Sisters expected much from them. Motivated and proud of their Catholic education, they did not disappoint. They walked with heads held high. Their personal difficulties were many, but we encouraged them to press ahead through diligent hard work at their lessons.

Class sizes were large—fifty or more.  Concentration was placed on teaching the children to spell correctly, write clearly, and speak with conviction. They loved to diagram sentences and present oral topics, especially those linked to their future.  Reading and reciting poetry—these they loved as well.  The slower readers were brought up to speed while the better ones advanced beyond their class reading levels.  This was the Language Arts curriculum.  Religion lessons taught them how to pray, strengthened their inner resolve, and formed positive habits.

The children excelled in music and many joined three- or four-part choirs after school hours.  Year after year, they won gold medals in choral competitions. They were ready and eager to take their responsible place in American life there to enjoy the freedoms denied their forebears.   

Religious Liberty: A Burning Question

The First Amendment to the Constitution states that the government has certain limited powers to preserve the good order of the people, but “government is not juridically omnipotent.”  One of its limitations has to do with the distinction between church and state, in their purposes, methods, and manner of organization.
“The freedom of the Church is a pregnant phrase,” writes Fr. John Courtney Murray, S.J.  His thoughts as articulated in We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition (1960). 

In the first place, it means the freedom of the Church as a spiritual authority to carry out her divine commission. 

But, secondly, it means the freedom of the Church as the Christian people to live within its fold an integral supernatural life, a life with inherent super-political dignity that transcends the goals and power of the state. 

The Church then lays claim to immunity from subordination to the state and its temporal ends.  The chief example of this concerns the dignity of the whole person, marriage and the family. 

Freedom from Coercion

Religious freedom is freedom from coercion.  It is the absence of constraints and restraints on individuals in their efforts to pursue freely the positive values of religion. 

Religious freedom is the recognition of the inviolability of the human person, individually and in association with others in what concerns religious belief and action. 

The people are united in their religious freedom to believe and practice without any governmental coercion, restraints or constraints. 

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The political or civil freedoms of the First Amendment, unlike later freedoms or rights, were assurances against coercive action by government and society (Francis Canavan, S.J., “Religious Freedom:  John Courtney Murray, S.J. and Vatican II”)

Vatican II’s Declaration on Religious Freedom (1965)   

The Council Fathers spoke to the issue of religious freedom, though they could not have predicted the urgency of their words in today’s world.  Religious communities, they wrote, “have the right not to be hindered in their public teaching and witness to their faith, whether by the spoken or by the written word.” 

In addition, religious communities “should not be prohibited from freely undertaking to show the special value of their doctrine in what concerns the organization of society and the inspiration of the whole of human activity.”

The Religion Clause of the First Amendment

We celebrate our liberty in law, and the establishment clause has two parts: the government (a) shall make no law establishing a religion, and the government (b) shall not prohibit the free exercise thereof.  This clause is a good law but not a religious law; it is not an article of faith but an article of peace in a pluralistic society.  What can be further stated about the First Amendment?

1.  America has proved by experience that political unity and stability are possible without uniformity of religious belief and practice, without the necessity of any governmental restriction on any religion.

2.  In areas allotted to the government, it is easier to differ without civil strife when religious differences are excluded.

3.  The Catholic Church, for example, is better off when left alone to carry out its identity and its mission.  This is so because religious freedom is guaranteed not only to the individual Catholic but also to the Church as an organized society with its own law and jurisdiction.  In other words, “this independent authority has been the essential element of freedom in the political tradition of the Christian West” (Canavan).

Anti-Catholicism in the United States

Anti-Catholicism, the last acceptable prejudice in the United States, has a long history, but a new wave of anti-Catholicism has taken on a subtle coloration, coercion by the government in the name of freedom for the masses.  It appears as the virtuous counterpart of hatred.   

In 1642, Virginia and later the Massachusetts Bay Colony passed laws prohibiting Catholics from settling there, but within ten years, the law was repealed.  Rhode Island imposed civil restrictions on Catholics for several years. 

Catholics are still prime targets in social media which ridicule the Church with biting criticism—and, with impunity.

Coercive Power, St. Thomas More and St. John Fisher, Martyrs

In 1534, Henry VIII separated himself from the Roman Catholic Church and established himself as the supreme head on earth of the Church of England.  He demanded an oath of absolute obedience from his subjects after Rome refused his request for a divorce.  He wanted to marry Anne Boleyn claiming that he needed a male heir. His first wife, Catherine of Aragon had no son.

Sir Thomas More and Bishop John Fisher would not bend to the divorce. They and a few others were out of step with the rest of the realm. Henry had them beheaded.  They were neither the first Englishmen nor the last to suffer death for their faith. The break with Rome was the most consequential event in English history.  Catholic for 1500 years, Anglican for 400, England still has Catholic sensibilities.

In Robert Bolt’s play, “Man for All Seasons,” there is a tense encounter between Cardinal Wolsey and Thomas More.  The Cardinal asks him ‘to come along with the rest of us.’ More replies sardonically:  “Well (he pauses), I believe that when statesmen forsake their own private conscience for the sake of their public duties, they lead their country by a short route to chaos.”  Just before his execution, the future saint declared, “I am the king’s good servant, but God’s first.”  His words echo down through the halls of English Church history.

We Catholics would be wise to keep Thomas More and John Fisher on our radar.  Their backs of steel would not bend to the whims of temporal power.

A Happy and Safe Weekend to you all!

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