Is it possible to be a good Catholic and a good American?


This question is becoming more vital and more significant every day; ; for indeed there is, and always has been, a tension between the two. Marianist priest Fr. Bill Rowland SM does an admirable job outlining the source of that tension, and his words are worth sharing as we celebrate this 245th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.  – Deacon Charles

If you answer the question above by saying, yes, meaning that it is possible to blend the great religious tradition of Catholicism with the great political system of the United States, then, you are correct.

If you answer the question by saying that you are reluctant to closely identify Catholicism with being American because you are aware that there are some differences between the two, then, you, too, are correct.

It is true that there are times when the two are not in sync or not on the same page and when tension exists between them. That tension comes to the forefront with some of the recent decisions handed down by the Supreme Court. What is the source of that tension? As you might expect, it is a complicated matter, but I do think that it can be argued that the tension or conflict has at its roots two different understandings of freedom.

The contemporary American ideal of freedom can be described as one of self-expression or self-determination. From this perspective, to be free means that I am the captain of my ship or my life. I set the agenda for it. I determine what is good or evil.  This attitude is reflected in such statements as, “It’s my life and I’ll do with it what I want.” or “Who are you to tell me what I can or cannot do?” or “You have your truth and I have mine.”

Now this understanding of freedom runs counter to the biblical and Catholic sensibility about freedom as one of surrendering to God. From this biblical or Catholic perspective, we are truly free when we surrender our will, our intellect, our emotions, and our physical strength to God, when we place them in God’s hands to be used to serve his purposes. The irony is that in surrendering to God, we become free to fulfill our destiny and to become more fully ourselves.

“How can that be?” you may ask. Well consider this. I realize that many of you are accomplished and successful men and women of business, scientists, attorneys, athletes, musicians, artists, physicians and entrepreneurs. To be successful in any of those professions, all of you had to do one thing. You had to surrender your freedom.

In what way, you might ask. Well, I follow the Cleveland Indians and long ago, I surrendered any hope that I would see them win the World Series! Anyway, the Indians have a young pitcher who is extremely talented but, he is also very headstrong. He didn’t like to be told how to pitch. He was determined to do it his way. And doing it his way meant that he was forever pitching himself into trouble and eventually he pitched himself out of the baseball organization that had originally drafted him but grew tired of his stubbornness and idiosyncrasies. Cleveland took him and after three years of being very patient, he has made considerable progress. He realized that he had to surrender some of his preconceived ideas about how to pitch to the reality of how things need to be done to be a successful pitcher in the big leagues. There is still room for him to do some things his way, but he has learned that there are some things that he must do and must not do if he is to be successful.

The reality is that there are certain, objective laws to pitching, just as there are certain, objective laws to running a successful business, playing a musical instrument, learning a language and healing the sick. If success is your goal, then you best learn them and surrender to them, even become enslaved to them— making them second-nature to you—because only then will you become free to be the pitcher, the artist, the musician, business guru, the athlete or the physician you want to be.

This what St. Paul was getting at on the spiritual level when, on the one hand, he says, “It is for freedom that Christ has set you free,” and then, on the other hand, he identifies himself to the Christians in Rome as, “Paul, a slave of Jesus Christ.”  St. Paul would never say, “It’s my life and I will do with it what I want.” Paul and all the great saints never declared their independence from God. Neither should we as good Catholics and as good Americans.