by Joseph Nangle, OFM
Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace
The ancient philosopher Aristotle held that there is such a thing as “civic virtue.” Others have fleshed out this thought, specifying that civic virtue depends on the kind of political order one aspires to create. Pope John Paul II further declared that civic virtue is a “firm and persevering determination to commit oneself to the common good…”
The best reflection on Catholic citizenship (civic virtue) in the United States today comes from Cardinal Robert McElroy of San Diego. It would be helpful to look up the cardinal’s entire essay on it in the June 2018* issue of Commonweal as a meditation for this July 4 holiday. His piece walks the fine line between articulating the Gospel imperatives in social virtue while not falling into partisan politics.
Pax Christi USA has practiced this dimension of Christian discipleship throughout its 50 years. It has exercised what is wonderfully called the “Catholic imagination,” bringing to the realities of our “American experiment” the wealth of Catholic Social Teaching.
An important aspect of “civic virtue” is loyal opposition to what is contrary to authentic human development in the life and policies of a nation. In fact, this opposition is obligatory to all conscientious citizens because every nation has policies and practices which militate against the common good and need to be called out. Loyal opposition is an act of genuine love for country.
That aspect of civic virtue is especially urgent as we celebrate the founding document of our country’s history, the storied Declaration of Independence. It articulates the noble experiment that is the United States of America and which was reaffirmed decades later by President Abraham Lincoln in his well-articulated epic Gettysburg Address: “[O]ur forefathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
As our country has developed and taken a dominant place in the family of nations, the anniversary of the Declaration of Independence has largely become over-the-top self-congratulations of the United States’s exceptionalism, done with a significant militaristic tone. It totally fails to mention the list of unfinished objectives that were articulated in 1776 and are still before us today in various ways. This is where civic virtue calls for loyal opposition.
The unfinished agenda or even one might say, the deviations from that original vision are well known. Just a refresher:
- “…all men are created equal” (and women?)
- “They are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights – life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” (and the ongoing effects of Jim Crow laws and practices?)
- Statements like “the merciless Indian savages whose known rule of warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions” (translated today for example into cruel immigration policies.)
Today our U.S./Catholic imagination must grapple with these faults in our national life. For example, the Declaration spoke about “truths that are self-evident.” Today our public discourse, particularly in modern social media, tends to deny that any truths are self-evident, and that truth itself is what the individual wants it to be.
The Declaration spoke against the tyranny of the British Empire. At the same time the U.S. has become the most powerful empire in human history with an unimaginable global economic, militaristic and political reach – and guilty of the same sins as other empires.
The Declaration condemned the British king for “keeping among us, in times of peace, standing armies without the consent of our legislatures.” The United States has 750 military bases in 80 countries and colonies around the world.
This synodal moment in our Church gives movements like Pax Christi USA a new opportunity to exercise the “Catholic imagination.” The synodal vision brings to us the opportunity of joining with the People of God for what the Instrumentum Laboris calls Conversations in the Spirit: listening, sharing, making space for others and group discernment.
*Edited to correct the date of the Commonweal publication.
Joe Nangle OFM is a Pax Christi USA Ambassador of Peace. As a member of the Assisi Community in Washington, D.C., he is dedicated to simple living and social change. Joe also serves as the Pastoral Associate for the Latino community at Our Lady Queen of Peace, Arlington, Virginia.