Back in 1940, Msgr. Fulton J. Sheen wrote: “Americanism, as understood by our Founding Fathers, is the political expression of the Catholic doctrine concerning man. Firstly, his rights come from God and therefore cannot be taken away. Secondly, the State exists to preserve them. “’We hold these truths to be self-evident….’”
“[Some] men confuse the temporal background of a truth with the truth itself…. The doctrine of the inalienable rights of man, founded on the worth of the person may be stated during the days and in terms of the language of Deism, or the Enlightenment or Rationalism, but that does not make the truth expressed any less true.”
In 1870, the third session of the First Vatican Council (the good Vatican Council) declared that mankind has two distinct sources of knowledge, one being faith, the other being reason. Through the use of natural human reason, man is capable of knowing that there is a God, of knowing something about God, and of knowing what God wants of us in the world.
The concept of “natural rights” and a “natural law” are as old as Civilization itself. They are reflected in the writings of Aristotle and the Greeks, of Cicero and the Romans, of Aquinas and the medieval scholastics, and in the civil and common law traditions of Western Civilizations. Being placed on earth by his Creator, man has a natural right to work out his time on earth in a quest for what is good—to do what he ought. He has rights to life, liberty, property, and a family life undisturbed by outsiders for these things are necessary for his salvation, and for the salvation of his wife and children. From the perspective of law, it is painfully obvious that civilization just can not function if everyone is free to steal, kill, beat, cheat, and lie to everyone else.
Saint Thomas and others have looked to the natural law to judge the legitimacy of laws made by human governments. A civil law that violates the natural law or takes away natural rights is not a law. Conversely, governments are legitimate—even among pagans—if they are based, generally, on the natural law. Saint Paul, for example did point to the necessity of Catholics to obey the officers of Roman government, for Roman law generally approximated the natural law—its taxes were moderate by modern standards and a heretofore unknown era of peaceful and prosperous trade flourished under the Empire’s protection and uniform code of laws.
Of course Rome’s or any other’s laws were unjust, and not to be followed, if they violated the core tenets of the natural law or of divine positive law. In the twelfth century, the natural law would enform the Decretals of Gratian, and would be analyzed carefully in the Summa Theologica of Saint Thomas.
The Declaration of Independence’s ideas of “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” being rights with which human beings are unalienably endowed by their Creator—and that there are “Laws of Nature and Nature’s God” which rise above laws passed by kings and nations—are thoroughly Catholic ideas, even when agreed to by Deists, Protestants, and Freemasons—even though Charles Carroll was the only Catholic among their lot.
To summarize, the founders of the Republic recognized that there is a transcendent God; that men and women derived their rights from their relationship with God as their Creator; and that the laws of society ought to reflect the Natural Law of God to the best degree that human reason would allow.
Now, I have heard traditional Catholics complain that the Founders should have established a Catholic Monarchy to govern the new nation. Such folks miss the point made by the saintly Pope Leo XIII (writing about government in France):
14. Various political governments have succeeded one another in France during the last century, each having its own distinctive form: the Empire, the Monarchy, and the Republic. By giving one's self up to abstractions, one could at length conclude [that] ... such and such a form of government may be preferable because of being better adapted to the character and customs of such or such a nation. In this order of speculative ideas, 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.
22. Legislation is the work of men invested with power, and who, in fact, govern the nation; therefore it follows that, practically, the quality of the laws depends more upon the quality of these men than upon the power. The laws will be good or bad accordingly as the minds of the legislators are imbued with good or bad principles, and as they allow themselves to be guided by political prudence or by passion.
Even a Catholic Republic was quite impossible in the Colonies in 1776, for many of the inhabitants had come to America precisely to escape the awful punishments meted out to those of the “wrong” religion in both the Catholic and Protestant countries of Europe. The idea of religious freedom was new to many in those days, but the freedom enabled the Catholic Church to expand in ways unheard of in Europe.
... thanks are due [wrote Pope Leo] to the equity of the laws which obtain in America and to the customs of the well-ordered Republic. For the Church amongst you, unopposed by the Constitution and government of your nation, fettered by no hostile legislation, protected against violence by the common laws and the impartiality of the tribunals, is free to live and act without hindrance.
And, indeed, the Church was quick to take advantage of this opportunity. Georgetown University was opened by the Jesuits in 1789 at Father John Carroll’s request. Seeing the need for an American hierarchy, Father Carroll was first (1784) named Superior of the Missions in the thirteen United States of North America, with power to give Confirmation; named Prefect Apostolic in 1785, consecrated Bishop of Baltimore in 1790, and in 1808, Bishop Carroll became Archbishop, with suffragan sees at New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and Bardstown. Bishop Carroll established the first American seminary, and ordained the first priests ever ordained in the territory of the thirteen States—and his priests would add many more Catholics to the American flock. He gave an address to celebrate George Washington’s inauguration, and got Washington to appoint a priest to minister to the Indians.
The year after President Washington died, “Having been invited by the unanimous resolution of Congress, in common with the clergy of all denominations and congregations of Christians throughout the United States, [Archbishop Carroll] preached a panegyric of the President in St. Peter's church in Baltimore, 22 February, 1800.”
Perhaps Archbishop Carroll’s greatest contribution to the Church in America was placing it under the patronage of the Mother of God—a patronage that continued even among the dioceses that would be spun off from Baltimore in future years. “Archbishop Samuel Eccleston of Baltimore called the Sixth Provincial Council of the Church in America in 1846. Twenty-two bishops responded, and the Council passed as its first decree the resolution to choose Mary Immaculate as the Patroness of the United States and to make December 8 the patronal feast. This was eight years before Pius IX defined the Immaculate Conception as a dogma of the Faith.
In the Pastoral Letter issued by the Council, dated May 5, 1846, we read:
“We take this occasion, brethren, to communicate to you the determination, unanimously adopted by us, to place ourselves and all entrusted to our charge throughout the United States, under the special patronage of the holy Mother of God, whose Immaculate Conception is venerated by the piety of the faithful throughout the Catholic Church. By the aid of her prayers, we entertain the confident hope that we will be strengthened to perform the arduous duties of our ministry, and that you will be enabled to practice the sublime virtues, of which her life presents the most perfect example.”
“The following year the Sacred Congregation of the Propaganda Fide sent its announcement that ‘our Holy Father Pius IX most willingly confirmed the wishes of the Council that has selected the Blessed Virgin, conceived without sin, as the patroness of the Church in the United States of America.’”
Unfortunately, on this 228th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, we find that many—in the Church as well as the State—no longer think like Jefferson, Washington, Archbishop Carroll, or Popes Pius IX and Leo XIII. Many in modern society reject the rule of “Nature’s God,” that transcendent Deity Who gives natural rights to men and women, and Whose Natural Law should form the basis for all positive legislation. Today we find many who are deluded with the idea that rights are defined by society, often at the expense of the individual, whose true rights are violated to facilitate some alleged “common good,” decided upon by the ruling class. This is contrary to our history as God-fearing Americans, and contrary to the authentic teachings of our Catholic Faith.
We must look to the founders of our Country, and the founders of It’s Catholic hierarchy—men who pledged their “sacred honor” to uphold the idea of a transcendent God, natural law, and natural rights. It is for us a sacred obligation to know the principles upon which our nation is formed. Together with the bishops of the Sixth Provincial Council of the Church in America, we must continuously invoke the Immaculate Virgin Mary, that “By the aid of her prayers, we [may] entertain the confident hope that we will be strengthened to perform the arduous duties of our [citizenship], and that [we] will be enabled to practice the sublime virtues, of which her life presents the most perfect example.”
May God bless us all, May God bless America, and keep us always under the patronage of His Immaculate Mother. O Mary, appointed patroness of our Republic, pray for us who have recourse to thee!
 Msgr Fulton J. Sheen, Freedom Under God.(Milwaukee: Bruce, 1940) pages 148-149.
 Ibid., page 151.
 Pope Leo XIII, Au milieu des sollicitudes, 16 February 1892 http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/leo_xiii/encyclicals/documents/hf_l-xiii_enc_16021892_au-milieu-des-sollicitudes_en.html
 Pope Leo XIII, Longinqua oceani, 6 January 1895. http://www.vatican.va/holy_father/leo_xiii/encyclicals/documents/hf_l-xiii_enc_06011895_longinqua_en.html
 Richard J. Cushing, “Mary Immaculate Patroness of America” http://campus.udayton.edu/mary/questions/yq/yq203.html