Citizenship and Faith
My intent in writing this essay is not to persuade others to become Catholic, hide the Church’s transgressions both ancient and modern, or promote a political agenda. Rather, I hope to ignite meaningful discussion between Catholics and non-Catholics alike in grateful recognition that the American Constitution affords us this privileged opportunity. I learned a lot about myself in drafting this piece and hope others are somewhat enlightened in reading it.
I piously attend mass each Sunday. I pray for my family and friends on a daily basis. I accept Jesus Christ as the Messiah, He who died and was raised from the dead for our sins. I try to love God and follow His Commandments. I receive the sacraments. I am a Catholic. But am I a good one?
I fervently believe in a freely-governed lifestyle. I loyally pledge allegiance to the flag. I gratefully support those in our armed services and am in awe of their bravery. I dutifully vote and believe democracy to be the greatest form of governance, one that promises a good life for most, if not for all. I am an American. But am I a good one?
Catholicism in America dates back to the founding of Maryland by Lord Baltimore in 1634 as a haven for Catholics. Like many in this early period of our nation’s settlement, they were a persecuted people looking for freedom and liberty. Despite such efforts, widespread societal hatred and segregation continued even into the nineteenth century throughout the United States: “From the burning of Boston’s Charlestown Convent in 1834 and the rise of the single-issue, anti-immigrant Know Nothing party in the 1850s—to the No Irish Need Apply signs of the 1890s—immigrant Catholics faced the brunt of Protestant America’s rage.”
As decades passed, however, the Catholic Church transformed into a powerful entity within the United States, establishing comforting centers of prayer and enlightening institutions for education to which the needy flock and from which the impassioned emanate. Catholic schools and universities have and continue to serve as strong communities of intellectual advancement for about 2 million students, and parishes, although dwindling in number today, serve as courageous centers of charity and community. The progression from a humble colony in 1634 to an American institution with which one-in-five U.S. adults affiliate is a remarkable one, a quintessentially-American transformation from persecution to power.
Despite these strong and beneficent contributions to American society, being a Catholic in America has been and continues to be a societal and political challenge, one I find to be a perpetual struggle. Socially, non-Catholic Americans view the power garnered by the Church as a negative influence, one that has led to both political and sexual abuse; only 47% of religiously-affiliated non-Catholics in America view the Church in a favorable manner. Consequently, I have found that, especially among younger generations, a certain stereotypical identity surrounds and defines the faithful. We are all either anti-gay propagandists or radical populists - corrupt and privileged power mongers or right-wing fanatics so deeply blinded by our religious leaders that we have lost all acceptance for those unlike ourselves. Jesus’ love for “the least of these” is not our focus, but homogeneity. In this way, we do not promote American liberties and freedoms, but restrict them. Obviously, this is an erroneous characterization, but critics who look to the abundance of sexual abuses and instances of corruption in the Church’s history to support this view do have a point.
The Church has, at times, hidden scandals and broken sacred bonds of trust, a sin that continues to cause harm and thus demands repentance if we are ever to renew our confidence in the clergy and Church officials. The inalterable past mars the image of this institution and deters some from practicing their faith. However, according to Pew, the Catholic Church in America is changing as “immigrants make up a considerable share of Catholics, and many are Hispanic. At the same time, there has been a regional shift, from the Northeast (long home to a large percentage of the Catholic faithful) and Midwest to the Western and Southern parts of the U.S.” The faithful are migrating and becoming more diverse, moving even farther away from the societal stereotypes that surround the institution. Therefore, I want to move past these instances of corruption, abuse, and mistrust to focus on doctrinal belief and my relationship with God.
Politically, it goes without saying that the Catholic Church in America has chosen two issues to take strong stances against, oppositions that flood the airwaves and consume the faithful: same-sex marriage and abortion. For the purpose of this essay, despite my wariness in dealing with this issue as many seem to allow it to wholly define their faith identity and dictate their relationship with the Church, I will focus on same-sex marriage. It is an important issue that can be, at times, used as an excuse for lack of faith or an excess of religious apathy. Nevertheless, it accurately depicts the contradiction found between law and faith. Despite my removal from the issue, as Church doctrine forbidding same-sex marriage does not personally affect me, only those around me, I know that Catholic teachings, formulated through the sacred combination of scripture, faith and intellect, are not meant to marginalize or discriminate. Instead, they seek to help congregations lead steadfast lives in accordance with the Catholic interpretation of God’s will. Thus, we see that Pope Francis’s conclusion in his recent apostolic exhortation entitled Amoris Laetitia (The Joy of Love)—“that marriage is between only a man and a woman”—is the result of careful discernment, study, and prayer. His words, the teaching of the Church, are intended to be forces of good that are based on sacred scripture, God’s word and law. They do not intend to challenge the American Constitution or limit the freedoms of men and women. It can then be said that the Pontiff, on behalf of God, is not saying no to same-sex marriage, the American ideals of rights and freedoms or even love, but yes to what he and the Church believe God wants from each of us.
Concerning same-sex marriage, the Church and I simply do not agree. Despite my absolute reverence for God’s Law as given to us in Scripture, I cannot whole-heartedly accept the Church’s stance on same-sex marriage as it does not provide all Americans the liberty they deserve. So do I think the Pope is wrongly interpreting God’s Will? Am I disobeying God in taking a stance contrary to His? Or should I stay out of the issue altogether as my life is not directly affected by the teaching - is it any of my concern?
This is where I begin to have trouble. I am proud of my Catholic faith and the institution of which I have been a part since baptism, yet I am also proud of the rights my nation affords each of its citizens. As a political science major, I’ve become increasingly interested with the Supreme Court and its decisions, especially the ways in which it distinguishes between the rights of the states and the duties of the federal government. Historical precedent supports the idea that the obligations of the federal government must include protecting the civil rights of each individual, rights that, in my opinion, include marriage. The ruling of the highest court in the land, that “The right to marry is a fundamental right inherent in the liberty of the person, and under the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment couples of the same-sex may not be deprived of that right and that liberty. Same-sex couples may exercise the fundamental right to marry,” is correct because, in essence, no free government can tell its citizens who they are allowed to love. It cannot prevent them from concretely solidifying this bond in the act of marriage.
The constitution’s Fourteenth Amendment, which affords all Americans equal rights only to be revoked after diligent due process, was ratified in 1868 as the final step in eradicating slavery in the United States. It was meant to ensure that all Americans are provided the life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness that the Declaration of Independence promised almost a century before, a goal I know we have yet to fully realize. Though the words of the Fourteenth Amendment, “No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law,” were drafted specifically to guarantee civil rights and liberties for slaves, they were ratified by Congress and ingrained in the American psyche to secure civil rights for all of the nation’s marginalized henceforth. Any individual, Catholic or Jewish, Anglican or Agnostic, who opposes this ruling in favor of states’ rights is in error; it is the role of the federal government to protect the right for all persons to marry whomsoever they please, no matter the Catholic Church’s (or any church’s) views to the contrary.
So now the question remains, where do my loyalties lay? Am I a better Catholic than I am an American or visa-versa? How am I to reconcile such a contradiction? I know this issue is only one aspect of both the Catholic faith and the fight for American civil liberties and, again, I oppose the way in which both sides allow it to define their relationship with God, His Church, and all His Children, but I think it is the greatest demonstration of the contradiction I live with. I support same-sex marriage because of both the political implications and the equal quality of life that it affords my fellow citizen, my fellow child of God. However, I know that my parish priest, someone I call my friend, would starkly disagree, an opinion he is allowed to have because of the very constitution that he, at times, opposes. If I simply say that I agree with most of what the Church teaches (i.e. charity, love, etc.), though, I could be accused of being a “cafeteria Catholic,” one who picks and chooses his beliefs based on his own view of society. My faith could even be seen as excessively personalized, lacking true doctrinal backbone.
At times, this is how I view myself and feel rather ashamed to do so. However, I cannot in good conscience say that I am against same-sex marriage because, as demonstrated above, I am clearly not, even though I understand and appreciate the source of the Church’s teaching. I love God and I take scripture as His Holy Word, but at times question and disagree with what the Church teaches as His Commandments. The Church and the American government are not always in agreement. There would not be as much turmoil within me if they were, and I continually try to reconcile the two, but it is not always possible.
I thought that, in writing this, I would achieve some level of intellectual tranquility, that the dichotic split on this issue between my fervent faith and ardent patriotism might reconcile itself. Instead, I have come to realize that the dilemma I face may never be resolved, but may in fact be a force that deepens my faith in God and His Holy Church and increases my pride in the rights our nation guarantees its citizens. This could just be a way of making myself feel better for not being a good Catholic or a good American, or both. Even if it is, I have come to find solace in the words of Abraham Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, in which he exclaimed to the American people, “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in.” One of the greatest American presidents called upon God to aid him in his duty and pleaded with his people to show charity to their fellow Americans, their fellow brothers and sisters under God. This interestingly mirrors the words of Jesus Christ to his apostles as recounted in Matthew’s Gospel: “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’”
Charity, love and kindness are the cornerstones of the Catholic faith, and are values embedded in the core of the American psyche. It is quite possible that I have conjured the relationship between these statements and common values to appease the guilt within my soul, but as I attempt to resolve my internal struggle, I look to both aforementioned men as examples: the savior of the world, my Messiah, and the great unifier who countlessly invoked God for help and strength. I do not equate the two as I piously accept the divine nature of Jesus, but I look to both as the foremost models of strength in the hope that one day I will be able to achieve internal peace, and unify both my nation and my faith as one indivisible entity under God.
(Overheard photo: Carol Highsmith, as seen in the Library of Congress)