June 29, 2007


Independence Day 2007

(Listen to this editorial being read)

Did you ever stop to think how remarkable it was that Catholics supported the Revolutionary War and the break of the colonies from England? As we approach this year’s observance of Independence Day next Wednesday, July 4, perhaps we can find some time to think about that.

Catholics living in the colonies demonstrated a remarkable patriotism despite the hostility that most residents displayed toward their faith. For example: In 1774, the British Parliament passed the Quebec Act, which guaranteed freedom of Catholics in Canada to “enjoy the free exercise of the religion of the Church of Rome.”

This act outraged the members of our Continental Congress. It sent a letter to Great Britain expressing “our astonishment that a British Parliament should ever consent to establish in that country [Canada] a religion that has deluged your island with blood, and dispersed impiety, bigotry, persecution, murder, and rebellion through every part of the world.” That’s what Americans at the time thought about the Catholic Church.

At the same time that it expressed such bigotry toward Catholicism in its letter to Great Britain, the Continental Congress wrote to Canada, “We are all too well-acquainted with the liberality of sentiment distinguishing your nation to imagine that difference of religion will prejudice you against a hearty amity with us.”

It then, in March of 1776, appointed a commission to go to Canada to try to gain Canadians’ support for the planned split from England. The commission consisted of Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Chase, Charles Carroll of Carrollton (a Catholic and the wealthiest man in the colonies) and Father John Carroll (who would later become the first American Catholic bishop).

Naturally, the commission had no hope of success because Canadians were well aware of the true feelings of the people to their south concerning Catholicism. But why would such prominent Catholics as the Carrolls consent to be part of the mission? Because they both thought that the hostility of the colonists to the Catholic faith was foreign to the American character, and with the spread of correct knowledge about the Catholic Church, Catholicism would eventually come to be regarded in its true light.

Besides, in a few months from the time of that mission, that same Continental Congress would pass the Declaration of Independence, which we celebrate with our holiday, and that document couldn’t have been more Catholic. It said that “all men are created equal,” and that’s what the Catholic Church taught.

It said that we possess inalienable rights flowing directly from the Creator, and that’s what the Catholic Church taught.

Two centuries before Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration, St. Robert Bellarmine wrote, “Secular or civil power is instituted by men; it is in the people, unless they bestow it on a prince. … It depends upon the consent of the multitude to ordain over themselves a king, or consul, or other magistrates; and if there be a lawful cause, the multitude may change the kingdom into an aristocracy or democracy.” That principle was echoed in the Declaration of Independence.

Throughout American history, Catholics have demonstrated their patriotism again and again. President George Washington, in a letter to (by then) Archbishop John Carroll, said, “I presume that your fellow citizens will not forget the patriotic part which [Catholics] took in the accomplishment of their Revolution, and the establishment of your Government.”

A hundred years after Archbishop Carroll’s time, we had another great archbishop—Cardinal James Gibbons of Baltimore. In 1916, former President Theodore Roosevelt said to him: “Taking your life as a whole, I think that you now occupy the position of being the most respected and venerated and useful citizen of our country.” President William Howard Taft praised the cardinal’s “single-minded patriotism and love of country on the one hand and sincere devotion to his Church on the other.”

Cardinal Gibbons replied to President Taft, “You were pleased to mention my pride in being an American citizen. It is the proudest earthly title I possess.”

— John F. Fink

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