On this day in 1776—well over two hundred years ago—our forebears began a bold experiment, one that had not been tried since ancient Greece, or perhaps the earliest days of the Roman Empire, and never before on so great a scale. Within a hundred years the experiment spanned an entire continent, and in a hundred more stood on the frontiers of outer space. The experiment took some time to get running; two wars with a country that we have always thought of as our friend, a failed government under the Articles of Confederation, and a massive expenditure of human brain and muscle power. It was founded on the then novel idea that men could govern themselves; that rights flowed not from government, not from a king, not even from an elected president; but that rights flowed from "the laws of nature and of nature's God," that men "are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights" including "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."(1)
Man was free to speak the truth, or to publish it in print, or to discuss it with others in peaceful assembly; free to worship God without government interference; free to arm himself in order to protect his own security and that of his neighbors; he was to be secure in his person, home, possessions and papers; entitled to due process of law. His rights were not limited by the fact that all of them might not be written down; indeed, to the contrary, all prerogatives were retained by him and his neighbors unless specifically delegated to the federal government.(2) All of these things were rights, granted not by government, but by God Himself in the Natural Law.
The American experiment in government was unsettling to many who had been brought up in the tradition of monarchy or aristocracy. It was unsettling to those who belonged to whatever was the established church in their respective countries. It was unsettling to many who didn't feel themselves up to the task of government that now fell upon ordinary citizens. Even the founders of this new republic recognized that some of their work might need to be changed, and left us a procedure for amending the supreme law of the land.
The experiment relied heavily on a free market—not just an economic market, but a free market in ideas. Those who announced the best programs would be elected, and those who were elected would be removed if they failed in their duties. The Church was put in the position to be able to teach her truths on this same free market; Catholicism could compete for the minds and souls of men based on its merits, and not on the whims of governors and kings. Pope Leo XIII spoke highly of the results that he saw within the first hundred years or so:
In 1776, and even today, some misguided Catholics have insisted that the Republic was a mistake; that only a Catholic king could rule over any government acceptable to God. But that's simply not true. Feudalism served Western Civilization very well, and served it during the period in which the Church was at the height of its political influence. As a result some ill-advised "Traditionalists" consider feudalism the "official" political system of the Church, which, of course, it is not. The rise of nation states and the broadened scope of rapid transportation have made feudalism no longer necessary, but have also brought with them some difficulties in the relationships between the Church and the states. Our need is to develop new ways of convincing people (and many of the hierarchy!) of the truth of the Catholic Faith—returning to feudalism is no more desirable than it is possible.
According to St. Thomas Aquinas, legitimate governments can exist even among pagans, and may take different forms.(4) After the Revolution it would have been absurd to expect the largely Protestant and anti-monarchy population of the former British colonies to form a Catholic monarchy! The government that they did form was certainly more favorable to Catholicism than any established Protestant church would have allowed—more favorable than any other kind of government they might realistically have been expected to fashion.
But there are two ingredients that must be present in a Republic if it is to be kept from failure; two things that go beyond even the patriotism that people naturally feel for their native land; two things necessary to keep it from decaying into a tyranny run by a handful of the political elite. The first of these is knowledge and concern about the workings of society. In a republic, every citizen must play his part. He must understand his rights and his responsibilities, and demand that those who are elected to office—from the highest to the lowest—govern strictly in accord with the fundamental law of the land. Having not read the Constitution since fifth grade is the civic equivalent of never having gone beyond Baltimore Catechism #2; one must understand these things as an adult. To the best of his ability, every citizen must understand the issues which concern the Republic, and also know which ones are none of the Nation's business. A free people must be vigilant over their society.
A second necessary ingredient in the Republic is virtue, both in citizens and in those whom they send to office. With virtually every citizen having a say in the running of the government, there is a tremendous temptation to form voting blocks in order to gain some special privilege at the expense of other citizens. Such special privileges not only destroy morale and productivity, but make citizens dependent upon and beholden to government as though it were the source of individual rights instead of God Himself. A free people must be virtuous.
Perhaps you will notice that the things necessary to be a good citizen of the Republic are also things necessary to be a good Catholic. That shouldn't surprise us when we realize that the Republic is supposed to be a mechanism for making "the laws of nature and of nature's God" work here on earth.
The words which close our Declaration of Independence set a standard to which we need regularly to re-dedicate ourselves -- that we would support both our Church and our Republic "with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, mutually pledg[ing] to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor."(5) May God help us if we allow ourselves to think about either Church or State in any other manner!
Mary Immaculate, conceived without sin, designated patroness of our Land -- pray for us who have recourse to thee!