July 2, 2010


The Catholic Declaration

As we celebrate this weekend the 234th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, perhaps we can consider how Catholic are the principles behind that document.

Of course, Thomas Jefferson, who drafted the Declaration, was not a Catholic. He was a deist who believed that God created the universe and its laws, but then didn’t intervene in history. That is why he could refer, in the first paragraph of the Declaration, to “the laws of nature and nature’s God,” and to say, in the second paragraph, that it is self-evident that all men “are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights.”

These phrases are consonant with Catholic doctrine, which teaches that God created man and woman in his own image. The Church has always championed human rights, including those enumerated by Jefferson: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Then Jefferson wrote something that was controversial in his day: “That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

There were still people who believed in the divine right of kings, that monarchs derived their powers directly from God.

The Church challenged that belief in the 16th century when Jesuit Father Francisco Suarez taught that kings do not reign by divine right, but by the “expression of the multitude.”

In the same century, two centuries before Jefferson wrote the Declaration, Cardinal Robert Bellarmine, now a saint of the Church, wrote: “Secular or civil power is instituted by men; it is in the people, unless they bestow it on a prince. This power is immediately in the whole multitude.”

He went on to say, “[Since] the commonwealth cannot exercise this power, it is bound to bestow it upon some one man, or some few. It depends upon the consent of the multitude to ordain over themselves a king, or consul, or other magistrates.”

The Declaration continued, “Whenever any form of government become destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.”

This statement sounds much like Cardinal Bellarmine’s statement, “If there be a lawful cause, the multitude may change the kingdom into an aristocracy or democracy.”

Perhaps Jefferson never read what Cardinal Bellarmine wrote, but they certainly agreed with one another.

Catholics should be grateful not only for the Declaration, but even more for the U.S. Constitution with its guarantee of freedom of religion. It is that guarantee that permitted the Church to grow and, despite the opposition of various anti-Catholic organizations throughout U.S. history, to achieve mainstream status.

That is why the greatest leaders of the Catholic Church in America have also been among its greatest patriots. These include our first bishop, Archbishop John Carroll, who travelled with Benjamin Franklin to Canada to try to persuade that country to remain neutral during the Revolutionary War; Archbishop John Hughes of New York, who went to France on behalf of President Abraham Lincoln to try to convince that country to remain neutral during our Civil War; Cardinal James Gibbons of Baltimore, who, when being honored by President William Howard Taft and former President Theodore Roosevelt, turned to President Taft and said, “You were pleased to mention my pride in being an American citizen. It is the proudest earthly title I possess.”

They also include Archbishop John Ireland of St. Paul, a Medal of Honor recipient during the Civil War, who was vigorously pro-American, proud of it, and had no patience with anybody who was not; Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen, named the “Patriot of the Year” at the University of Notre Dame in 1955; and Cardinal John O’Connor of New York, who once said, “My contribution to my country was a piece of my heart.”

Of course, it is not only prelates who were great patriots. Catholics have proved their patriotism again and again in wars and in peace, and we continue to do so. That is because, as Archbishop John Noll once wrote, “The philosophy of the Declaration of Independence is the philosophy of the Catholic Church.”

—John F. Fink

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