With Independence Day approaching, and in the midst of the Fortnight for Freedom, the two weeks set aside by the American bishops to pray for religious liberty, it is helpful to reflect upon a great classic of American political thought that has unfortunately been largely neglected in recent years. In 1960, Fr. John Courtney Murray published We Hold These Truths, which argued that America was founded upon certain propositions that have sustained the national spirit throughout the centuries. He warned that those propositions were under threat by the pessimism, relativism and decadence of the modern era, but that the Church was in an excellent position to defend them.
In particular, Fr. Murray outlined five propositions that were behind the new political realms that the Revolution created. First, nations and governments are under the law of God. Second, that law can be ascertained by reason, and is thus available to people of all faiths, or even no particular faith. Third, this law of God includes fundamental human rights, such as the right to life, freedom of speech and religion, human dignity, and parents’ ability to raise their children with their values. Fourth, all people should be able to participate, not only in government, but in all of society. And fifth, the continuing freedom of a people depends upon it remaining a virtuous people.
As Fr. Murray pointed out, even though few of America’s founders were Catholic (with the notable exception of the great businessman Charles Carrol, who helped finance the Revolution), the Catholic faith is in an excellent position now to uphold these great propositions of our country. In particular, the Church maintains a great tradition about natural law, that is to say laws discernible by reason that govern human nature and society. And, with her social teaching, particularly developed from Leo XIII’s 1891 encyclical Rerum Rovarum onwards, the Church has strongly upheld a society guided by the law of God and a focus of human dignity, family and social responsibility. Furthermore, the Church’s belief that there is a universal call to holiness and that God pours forth wisdom even into the simplest person is a strong basis for allowing all people to participate in society. And finally, the Christian faith maintains that truth and freedom from sin is essential to any authentic idea of liberty. In this way, faithfulness to Christ and loyalty to this nation’s heritage of virtuous liberty are joined together. As Jesus said, “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” John 8:32.