The Virtue of Patriotism
When the secular virtue of patriotism comes up, Catholics often cite Ven. Fulton Sheen’s treatment of this secular virtue. Sheen cited St. Thomas Aquinas, who tied patriotism to piety. For me, even addressing the topic of patriotism feels far more complicated of a discussion today than it has ever been. Different generations of Americans have different conceptions of what this means. With the initial complexity of the topic, bringing in Aquinas seems a bit archaic. How helpful can a 12th century Dominican be to our present-day discussion of patriotism? Believe it or not, Aquinas is helpful on this issue by using piety as an anchor for discussing patriotism.
The Piety of a Disciple
When it comes to the Catholic faith, piety is one of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit. Aquinas notes that these gifts render the soul “amenable to the motion of the Holy Ghost”; among the ways the Spirit moves us is toward “having a filial affection towards God, according to Romans 8:15, “you have received the spirit of adoption of sons, whereby we cry: ‘Abba’ (Father)’” (II-II, q. 121, a. 1).
Fr. John Hardon, SJ expanded on the latter part of Aquinas’ definition. He described the function of piety along the lines as a virtue of completion. That is, we owe appreciation to God for the immense debt we have. God created the heavens and earth for us; He gave us an intellect to know Him and to know the world around us; He sent Jesus to restore our relationship. Our gratitude is a matter of mere justice. Thanks to the work of the Holy Spirit, the gift of piety:
“enables a person to see in God not only one’s sovereign Master, but a loving Father… It engenders in the soul a filial respect for God, a generous love toward him, and an affectionate obedience that wants to do what he commands because it loves the one who commands.” (Modern Catholic Dictionary).
All of the gifts of the Holy Spirit belong in their fullness to Christ (Catechism #1831). When the disciple approaches God with love, he/she does so within the heart of Jesus Christ.
The Piety of a Patriot
Aquinas takes this same path when touching on patriotism. A natural (i.e. non-religious) piety “pays duty and homage to our parents and country” out of charity (Summa II-II, q. 101, a. 3). Just like religious piety, patriotism has a justice element to it—the duty that Aquinas mentioned—but also the heartfelt element of charity. That there is something larger than and beyond the individual that is worthy of devotion.
Taking a step away from these definitions, the topic of patriotism is a tough one today. The thought of being a patriot has a charged political meaning these days, in ways that would be foreign to previous generations. Every country has problems; no surprise since countries are composed of fallen men and women. How do we speak of love of country in light of imperfections? That’s just on the milder end of things. Can we love our country when it comes to immense societal evils allowed and promoted by our government?
Speaking as an American, this is not an easy question for adherents to both sides of the political aisle. But if we take a step back and consider the good of the larger country, this natural piety gives us a foundation to withstand deficiencies in all directions. Even so, a natural piety gives us the desire to love our neighbor and seek the good of the country as a whole in whatever situation: whether our party has control of congress or not; when corruption infects government and leaders abuse their authority; whether it is a time of peace or a time of turmoil.
Ideals Coupled with Christ
Fulton Sheen described the Founding Fathers’ search for a foundation of human rights. If rights were only guaranteed by the state, elected officials, a king, or dictator, those supposed fundamentals could change with every election cycle. The solution? “They rooted them in God. Hence our Declaration of Independence reads: all men ‘are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights… among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.’” (source)
So when the country grapples with any social or political issue, the best way forward for the Catholic is to return to the foundational roots. The Catholic committed to all the Church’s teachings is an incredible asset to their country. They can look at moral and social issues and respond to them in a Christ-like manner. They seek to bring their country into the life of Christ. His grace gives and sustains life. The converse is also true: turning away from Christ means turning away from life. The Psalmist said this in a different way, “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain” (Psalm 127:1).
What Does This Look Like?
One of the first things that the Catholic patriot must have settled is a firm grasp on the stance of current moral issues. A Catholic can never support what is immoral or evil—no matter how well-meaning or compassionate they think. And for extraordinary cases, it’s helpful to have a proper understanding of the oft-cited principle of double effect.
After that, be willing to get involved. This is where natural piety and religious piety come together. We can serve others as Christ while at the same time helping to inject Christ’s life into our community. Not everyone will be a politician, but do not automatically discount the possibility. If it fits for one’s state in life, do consider that our cities, counties, states, and country need solid Catholics in office. No matter one’s professional state in life, everyone should vote. Also, everyone can and should get involved in community initiatives. Many parishes have opportunities to serve the community, but many non-profits also exist to serve others. God gave each of us unique gifts. These gifts are not only for us, but for the entire world. It’s easy to remember the first part, but do not forget the latter!
Whether it is the best of times or the worst of times, our country is worthy of our natural piety. It will benefit greatly from the exercise of our religious piety. May God richly bless our country!