With the conclusion of the week of Independence Day, it is a good occasion to focus on the virtue of patriotism and the Catholic meaning of that virtue. In his last book Memory and Identity, Saint John Paul II wrote “patriotism is a love of everything to do with our native land: its history, its traditions, its language, its natural features” extending also “to the works of our compatriots and fruits of their genius.” He portrayed the history of nations as a struggle to bring out the unique culture that God intends for them in opposition to things that would destroy them, whether decadence and tyranny within or enemies without.
As he wrote, “Freedom – a continuing conquest. // It cannot be simply possessed! // It comes as a gift, but keeping it is a struggle.” Thus, a patriot will fight for his country and appreciate her gifts, but will also seek to correct the flaws that keep his country from becoming the sacred land that God wishes her to be. As G.K. Chesterton pointed out, to say, “My country right or wrong” is like saying, “My family drunk or sober.”
Someone who truly loves a person or a nation will not justify their faults, but rather try to overcome them. Thus, the prophets of Israel defended God’s vision for their nation against all foes, physical or moral. As St. Justin the Martyr wrote in a letter to the Roman emperor around 160 A.D., the persecuted Christians were the best of Romans, for they lived out the justice and order that had made Rome great. In the early 16th century England’s greatest patriot was the Catholic martyr St. Thomas More, who defended the rule of law and virtue that England had stood for, when most others were fawning over King Henry VIII and praising his vices; he died declaring, “I am the king’s good servant, but God’s first.”
And likewise, a true American patriot will defend this country and all that is best in it, including her calling to defend human rights and dignity, gifts that are often observed most clearly by others. Thus, for example, in his classic work Democracy in America, the French social reformer Alexis de Tocqueville described many of our defining characteristics, including our defense of the rights and goodness of each person and a desire that all people have a good education and an opportunity for success.
As Catholics, we oppose the culture of death, decadence, mediocrity, and relativism, which contradict this vision; and we work and pray so that this country will truly become a people of freedom under divine law, “one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for al