In Saint John's Gospel, when He appeared before Pontius Pilate, and the Roman Governor reminded our Lord that he had the power to crucify Him, Jesus said to him, "Thou wouldst have no power at all over Me if it were not given thee from above." In so saying, our Lord tacitly indicated that the government of the Roman Empire was a legitimate one (it had such power from above) -- and, even more importantly, He indicated that all authority over the affairs of men comes ultimately from God. Saint Paul says the same in his Epistle to the Romans: "there exists no authority except from God, and those who exist have been appointed by God. [Authority] is God's minister to thee for good." Saint Thomas Aquinas puts it this way: "Since the eternal law is the plan of government in the Chief Governor, all the plans of government in the inferior governors must be derived from the eternal law.... all laws, in so far as they partake of right reason, are derived from the eternal law." Our own Declaration of Independence, two hundred twenty seven years ago today, appealed to the authority of "the laws of nature and of nature's God." And those of us proud to live in a Southern State will recall that the Constitution of the Confederate States -- modeled very much on the original US Constitution -- was enacted to "establish justice, insure domestic tranquillity, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, invoking the favor and guidance of Almighty God."
The exact form of government, God leaves to those being governed. The Rome of the Bible was a republic, evolving through aristocracy to monarchy (or dictatorship). For most of the Church's existence, Europe was ruled by feudal aristocracies, until it evolved into a small number of nation-states governed by kings. Constitutional monarchies, and various kinds of republics (such as our own) have been common only for the past few hundred years. Saint Thomas tells us that: "the making of law belongs either to the whole people or to a public personage who has care of the whole people." But he is a bit vague about how such "representatives" or "rulers" which he calls "public personages" are to be selected. He favors monarchy as most efficient, but admits the possibility of it occasionally bringing forth tyrants instead of kings. Leo XIII put it rather clearly: "the Empire, the Monarchy, and the Republic.... Catholics, like all other citizens, are free to prefer one form of government to another precisely because no one of these social forms is, in itself, opposed to the principles of sound reason nor to the maxims of Christian doctrine."
Our American Republic was a rather bold experiment in its time. Apart from the Church and a few governments of antiquity, the world of 1776 had little experience with people choosing their own rulers, and even less experience with the concept that rulers had to face periodic re-election. It was, perhaps, even more unusual for not having a national religion. And in contrast to the European movement toward unified nation-states, the American Republic was to be a federal union of individual States, each of which delegated only certain powers to the central government, with other powers "reserved to the States respectively, or to the people."
In many ways this bold experiment paid off handsomely. The providence of God, combined with the industry of man to make the American experiment uniquely successful. Not only was there economic prosperity, but there was also a great flourishing of intellectual, technical, and cultural activity. Although but a small denomination on the first Independence Day, over the years the Catholic Church was able to exert a growing influence on the Republic, with Its comprehensive charities and schools, Its general impact on the moral rectitude of the nation, and the contributions of Catholic individuals in all walks of civic life. As Pope Leo XIII acknowledged, the Church became a major factor in American life precisely as It lost influence in a number of European nations formerly Catholic for many centuries -- and, thus, America became an important factor in the wellbeing of the Universal Church. In many ways, Pope Leo could point to the government of the Republic as being in accord with the "right reason" and the justice demanded of a nation rightly governing with the "power given it from above."
Yet, no nation can look to its past, and rashly assume that things must always be the way they were. And this is probably true most of all in republics like our own where many rights are "retained by the people," and rapid changes of public opinion can radically alter the nation's policies and laws. Several men are credited with saying that "the price of liberty is eternal vigilance." Perhaps, even more to the point, we can say that the bold experiment of American government can work (and continue to work) only if our citizens play their part. Given our system of government, we cannot ignore the affairs of State and assume that the "king and his lords" will do whatever is necessary for the common good, or that they will engage in "right reason" according to the "eternal law." It is the continuing duty of all citizens to see to it that these things are done.
Of course, on a day such as this it would be wrong to read off a list of our failings as a people -- just as it would be impossible to list all of the good and holy things that have issued from this "bold experiment." But as citizens of "the Republic ... one Nation under God" -- and as baptized and confirmed Christians who have received the eternal law through divine revelation -- we have that obligation to "eternal vigilance." We have that obligation to know what is going on in our Nation, and of making sure that our voices are heard both in the "free market of ideas" and in communication with our elected representatives in government.
In the fourth century BC, the Greek Demosthenes may have been the first to urge that "eternal vigilance:" He said, "There is one safeguard known generally to the wise, which is an advantage and security to all, but especially to democracies as against despots. What is it? Distrust." Twenty five centuries later, things have not changed appreciably. For our Republic to keep on working, our electorate has to return to the practice of critically and logically evaluating world, national, and local affairs -- and a measure of Demosthenes' "distrust" needs to be thrown in as well -- particularly in a world where a tiny elite is capable of defining public opinion, and even of re-defining the Eternal Law in man's image instead of God's.
In the same century as our Lord and Saint Paul, there lived a Roman commentator named Juvenal. And as Juvenal watched the decline of his Republic, he wrote: "the people that once bestowed commands, consulships, legions, and all else, now meddles no more and longs eagerly for just two things — bread and circuses." Thus, Juvenal lamented the long expired civic virtue of the Roman people. Let us pray that the American people will not succumb to the same civic numbness as our Roman counterparts. Let us pray that God will give us the responsibility to be concerned with more than just our own indulgence and entertainment -- let us pray that our fellow citizens will once again declare their independence, and resolve to occupy themselves with more than the "bread and circuses" that have become our national obsessions, and which have all but obliterated our necessary civic virtue.
Please join with me, today and every day, in calling upon Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception, the chosen patroness of our Republic, that she would ask her Divine Son to renew those civic virtues in all of us. Ask that He move us to make our Nation's will conform to His own divine will; a Nation whose activities are clear manifestations of God's eternal law. Ask that He renew within all of us the sentiment so beautifully articulated two hundred twenty seven years ago today -- that in order to make the American experiment a successful reflection of the Eternal Law, we may place "firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, mutually pledging our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor."
Those in Government
We pray Thee, almighty and eternal God, who through Jesus Christ hast revealed Thy glory to all nations, to preserve the works of Thy mercy; that Thy Church being spread through the whole world, may continue with unchanging faith in the confession of Thy name. We pray Thee, O God of might, wisdom, and justice, through whom authority is rightly administered, laws are enacted, and judgment decreed, assist, with Thine Holy Spirit of counsel and fortitude, the President of these United States, that his administration may be conducted in righteousness, and be eminently useful to Thy people, over whom he presides, by encouraging due respect for virtue and religion; by a faithful execution of the laws in justice and mercy; and by restraining vice and immorality. Let the light of Thy divine wisdom direct the deliberations of the Congress, and shine forth in all the proceedings and laws framed for our rule and government; so that they may tend to the preservation of peace, the promotion of national happiness, the increase of industry, sobriety, and useful knowledge, and may perpetuate to us the blessings of equal liberty.
We pray for his Excellency, the Governor of this State, for the members of the Assembly, for all Judges, Magistrates, and other officers who are appointed to guard our political welfare; that they may be enabled, by Thy powerful protection, to discharge the duties of their respective stations with honesty and ability.
We recommend likewise to Thine unbounded mercy all our brethren and fellow citizens, throughout these United States, that they may be blessed in the knowledge, and sanctified in the observance of Thy most holy law; that they may be preserved in union and in that peace which the world cannot give; and, after enjoying the blessings of this life, be admitted to those which are eternal.
O, Mary, Conceived Without Sin, Patroness of these United States, Pray for Us Who Have Recourse to Thee.