Patriot Catholic or Patriotic Catholic?
This is the choice seemingly raised by the US Catholic bishops’ recent letter, “Our First, Most Cherished Liberty.”
To get things going, let me share a dream I had two decades ago.
I entered a church. The pews on both sides were full. On one side, everyone was wearing New England Patriots jerseys; on the other, the jerseys were those of the Chicago Bears. I took my seat with the Patriots.
I thought the dream had to do with the conflict between my Massachusetts undergraduate training and my graduate studies in Chicago. I also considered that the symbolism might have to with my ursine tendencies to sleep all day and eat a lot. So, I talked with my spiritual advisor about it. Unimpressed by my interpretations, he asked me: “Do think of yourself as a ‘Patriot Catholic’?”
It took me a moment. “Patriot Catholic?” Then I got it—someone who passionately defends the counter-cultural aspects of Catholicism. I was that, certainly. But I also thought that I was a “Patriotic Catholic”—someone at home in America, who believed Catholicism and American culture could inform each another. Patriot Catholic or Patriotic Catholic? Which was I?
While the bishops do not use the idiosyncratic wording preferred by my spiritual advisor, they do address the distinction. It is a false choice: Catholics are patriotic Americans precisely in their catholicity. In their letter, the bishops argue this both clearly and evocatively, and enter a rhetorical space that is sure to embolden some and unnerve others.
But there is also a subtext to the letter that has to do with American Catholic dreams—dreams of people like me. But let’s consider the conscious agenda of the letter before we get to its unconscious resonances.
In “Our First, Most Cherished Liberty,” the bishops do not focus on contraception, Catholic teaching on sexuality, or any of the points of contention between Catholicism and the larger culture. Instead, the goal is to reclaim a narrative that places Catholic distinctiveness within the broader context of what makes American society distinctive. The letter leads off by referencing Baltimore archbishop James Gibbons’ defense of American “civil liberty”— a defense that would eventually contribute to Vatican concerns about “Americanism,” which Pope Leo XIII addressed in his 1899 letter “Testem Benevolentiae Nostrae.” While the bishops do not mention the “Americanism” debate specifically, they do acknowledge how American Catholic experience has enriched Catholicism as a whole.
The bishops argue that all other freedoms flow from the freedom of religion. “Our First, Most Cherished Liberty” discusses Protestant and Catholic settlers who came to Maryland and were able to live together under the “Toleration Act” of 1649. But that experiment ended, which is one reason why religion must act not as government’s “servant,” but as its “conscience, guide, and critic.” Accordingly, freedom of religion is not just about freedom of worship since religion has a much wider role to play within society. Here the bishops’ letter foregrounds the words and example of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and opens what seems to me to be a very different rhetorical field.
In addition to its discussions of “unjust laws,” the bishops’ letter is replete with evocative examples of Catholic resistors: St. Thomas More, St. John Fisher as well as Peter, Paul, and those who are, to us, nameless Christians who have been killed because of their religious identity in other parts of the word. Reverend King’s prominence in the bishops’ reflections points to a striking use of images that together are American, American Catholic, and Catholic. This is an essential part of visualizing the substantive point that the bishops want to make about religion’s contribution to the dynamic of American civil society.
But it is here that we see the dreams of American Catholics shaping discourse as well.
When the HHS mandate was first announced, especially surprising to some was how negative reactions were expressed by Catholics who were doubtless uncomfortable with church teaching on contraception, not to mention with the current state of affairs in American Catholicism.
The original HHS mandate was seen as potentially encroaching on Catholic spaces by a different order of magnitude than similar state laws. Those Catholic spaces include not just churches, but hospitals and educational institutions-- spaces that were created out of the dreams Catholics had both as Catholics and as Americans.
Looking back on my “Patriot Catholic” dream now, I realize that it was about where I could be safe during a particularly uncertain time in my life. Today we are far removed from vituperations about “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion.” But every Catholic can point to experiences in which she or he has been considered strange or suspect. So, while the rhetoric surrounding American Catholicism has changed, the dream of having a safe space as a Catholic can still become quite powerful indeed. However that dream plays out for individual Catholics, the bishops’ letter reminds us that it is properly connected to a larger dream that is not about seeking refuge, but about seeking to be fully American and fully Catholic. The crucial issue is how this larger dream can continue to find expression in waking life.