Catholicism and the Declaration of Independence

A guest post by my friend Greg Mockeridge.

John Adams foresaw the all pomp with which we celebrate the 4th of July, but the date he gave for that was not the 4th but the 2nd. The reason he gave the 2nd was that independence was voted on and decided by the Continental Congress on the 2nd. What took place on the 4th was that final draft of the Declaration of Independence, after about a hundred revisions to Thomas Jefferson’s original draft, was approved.

It is actually more fitting that we celebrate independence on 4th as opposed to the 2nd because it isn’t merely independence we celebrate, but the ideas, principles, and truths this country was founded on. Fidelity to these very ideas really enable Americans to be Patriots as opposed to merely Nationalists. Just as one cannot be a good Catholic without a concerted effort to know and understand what it is he gives his assent of faith to, one cannot be a true American Patriot unless he likewise makes an effort to understand our heritage as Americans. No other U.S. founding document expresses these truths better than the Declaration of Independence. If more Americans became better acquainted with the Declaration, there would not be so much confusion regarding the Constitution.

Our Catholic faith not only does not relieve us of this patriotic duty, it actually reinforces it. An 1884 statement of the American bishops said it this way:

Teach your children to take a special interest in the history of our country. We consider the and laws as a work of special Providence, its framers “building wiser than they knew,” the Almighty’s hand guiding them….As we establishment of our country’s independence, the shaping of its liberties desire therefore that the history of the United States should be carefully taught in all our Catholic schools, and have directed that it should be specially dwelt upon in the education of the young ecclesiastical students in our preparatory seminaries; so also we desire that it form a favorite part of the home library and home reading.

A document from the Second Vatican Council “Pastoral Constitution of the Church in the Modern World” better known by its Latin title Gaudium et Spes says: “Citizens should cultivate a generous and loyal spirit of patriotism… “(#75)

This would naturally give rise to the question of what, if anything, does the Declaration of Independence have in common with Catholic principles. Thomas Jefferson called the Declaration of Independence an expression of the American mind. What this essay will demonstrate is that Declaration of Independence is not only an “expression of the American mind” but also the Catholic mind as it pertains to civil/secular government, despite the fact that out the 56 signers of the Declaration, only one of them, Charles Carroll of Maryland, was Catholic.

But before we see precisely how that is, let’s take a few minutes and actually read the Declaration of Independence:

When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that, to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying its foundation on such principles, and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security. Such has been the patient sufferance of these colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former systems of government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over these states. To prove this, let facts be submitted to a candid world.

He has refused his assent to laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good.

He has forbidden his governors to pass laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his assent should be obtained; and, when so suspended, he has utterly neglected to attend to them.

He has refused to pass other laws for the accommodation of large districts of people, unless those people would relinquish the right of representation in the legislature, a right inestimable to them, and formidable to tyrants only.

He has called together legislative bodies at places unusual uncomfortable, and distant from the depository of their public records, for the sole purpose of fatiguing them into compliance with his measures.

He has dissolved representative houses repeatedly, for opposing, with manly firmness, his invasions on the rights of the people.

He has refused for a long time, after such dissolutions, to cause others to be elected; whereby the legislative powers, incapable of annihilation, have returned to the people at large for their exercise; the state remaining, in the mean time, exposed to all the dangers of invasions from without and convulsions within.

He has endeavored to prevent the population of these states; for that purpose obstructing the laws for naturalization of foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migration hither, and raising the conditions of new appropriations of lands.

He has obstructed the administration of justice, by refusing his assent to laws for establishing judiciary powers.

He has made judges dependent on his will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and the amount and payment of their salaries.

He has erected a multitude of new offices, and sent hither swarms of officers to harass our people and eat out their substance.

He has kept among us, in times of peace, standing armies, without the consent of our legislatures.

He has affected to render the military independent of, and superior to, the civil power.

He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our Constitution and unacknowledged by our laws, giving his assent to their acts of pretended legislation:

For quartering large bodies of armed troops among us;

For protecting them, by a mock trial, from punishment for any murders which they should commit on the inhabitants of these states;

For cutting off our trade with all parts of the world;

For imposing taxes on us without our consent;

For depriving us, in many cases, of the benefits of trial by jury;

For transporting us beyond seas, to be tried for pretended offenses;

For abolishing the free system of English laws in a neighboring province, establishing therein an arbitrary government, and enlarging its boundaries, so as to render it at once an example and fit instrument for introducing the same absolute rule into these colonies;

For taking away our charters, abolishing our most valuable laws, and altering fundamentally the forms of our governments;

For suspending our own legislatures, and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever.

He has abdicated government here, by declaring us out of his protection and waging war against us. He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burned our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.

He is at this time transporting large armies of foreign mercenaries to complete the works of death, desolation, and tyranny already begun with circumstances of cruelty and perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the head of a civilized nation.

He has constrained our fellow-citizens, taken captive on the high seas, to bear arms against their country, to become the executioners of their friends and brethren, or to fall themselves by their hands.

He has excited domestic insurrection among us, and has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers the merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes, and conditions.

In every stage of these oppressions we have petitioned for redress in the most humble terms; our repeated petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people. Nor have we been wanting in our attentions to our British brethren. We have warned them, from time to time, of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity; and we have conjured them, by the ties of our common kindred, to disavow these usurpations which would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too, have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity which denounces our separation, and hold them as we hold the rest of mankind, enemies in war, in peace friends.

We, therefore, the representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the name and by the authority of the good people of these colonies solemnly publish and declare, That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, FREE AND INDEPENDENT STATES; that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British crown and that all political connection between them and the state of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved; and that, as free and independent states, they have full power to levy war, conclude peace, contract alliances, establish commerce, and do all other acts and things which independent states may of right do. And for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.

The first thing that becomes “self-evident” when reading the Declaration is how false this notion spread by groups like the ACLU and People for the American Way, and others like them that God and religion was to have no influence in the public political sphere. In his Farewell Address in 1796, George Washington said:

“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and morality are indispensable supports.  In vain would that man claim the tribute of Patriotism, who should labour to subvert these great Pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of Men & citizens. ”

In light of the what we have seen from the above-cited groups in the last century or so, President Washington’s words seem prophetic.

Speaking of the Constitution, John Adams says “Our Constitution is for a religious and moral people. It is wholly inadequate for another.”

Notice the basis upon which the Declaration sees as its entitlement to be a sovereign nation: God and the natural law. This should raise every Catholic eyebrow that reads it. It certainly caught the attention of the late Pope John Paul II. In a 1998 letter to then U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See Lindy Boggs he says this:

“The Founding Fathers of the United States asserted their claim to freedom and independence on the basis of certain “self-evident” truths about the human person: truths which could be discerned in human nature, built into it by “nature’s God.” Thus they meant to bring into being, not just an independent territory, but a great experiment in what George Washington called “ordered liberty”: an experiment in which men and women would enjoy equality of rights and opportunities in the pursuit of happiness and in service to the common good. Reading the founding documents of the United States, one has to be impressed by the concept of freedom they enshrine: a freedom designed to enable people to fulfill their duties and responsibilities toward the family and toward the common good of the community. Their authors clearly understood that there could be no true freedom without moral responsibility and accountability,and no happiness without respect and support for the natural units or groupings through which people exist, develop, and seek the higher purposes of life in concert with others.

At the heart of these “natural groupings” is the family. It is the family where life, the most inalienable of these inalienable rights, is brought forth and nurtured. It was not by accident that life is listed first by the Declaration. Our founders understood just as any honest sensible person understands that without life there is no liberty or ability to pursue happiness. The idea that the deliberate taking of innocent human life (e.g. abortion) can be considered a constitutional right in any way, shape, or form is an oxymoron if there ever was one. It would pit the Constitution against its very foundation. In the case of abortion, all thirteen colonies had laws that treated abortions performed after quickening (which was defined as perceptible fetal movement) as homicide. These laws remained in force long after the Constitution was ratified. Rev. John Witherspoon, signer of the Declaration of the Independence, and once head of Princeton University said in a sermon entitled The Dominion of Providence Over the Passions of Men, 17 May 1776:,

“he is the best friend to American liberty, who is most sincere and active in promoting true and undefiled religion, and who sets himself with the greatest firmness to bear down profanity and immorality of every kind. Whoever is an avowed enemy of God, I scruple not to call him an enemy of his country.… “

Now being a Presbyterian, he certainly didn’t have Catholicism in mind as “true and undefiled religion”. However, the Church teaches that the Catholic faith is the one and only true faith. And by spreading that faith are promoting “true and undefiled religion”. Consequently, by raising our Catholic voices in the cultural and political arena, especially as it pertains to the dignity of human life and the means through that life is transmitted and environment it is reared, we are not only not opposed to American liberty, but act as its greatest protectors.

Another important, but not well-known, commonality between Catholicism and the Declaration of Independence is the political philosophy that is foundational to the Declaration. The belief that governments “derive their just powers from the consent of the governed”, which is to say that while all political authority, as well as all legitimate authority, comes from God, but He bestows it upon the people as a whole and they in turn entrust it to a ruler or rulers has distinct Catholic roots. We clearly see this in the writings of Ss. Thomas Aquinas and Robert Cardinal Bellarmine, especially Bellarmine. Aquinas states:

“Therefore the making of a law belongs either to the whole people or to a public personage who has care of the whole people” (Summa, la llae, q. 90, a. 3). “The ruler has power and eminence from the subjects, and, in the event of his despising them, he sometimes loses both his power and position” (“De Erudit. Princ.”Bk. I, c. 6).

In his 1926 book on the Political Philosophy of St. Robert Bellarmine, Catholic historian Fr. John Rager points out:

In England, under the Tudor monarchs Henry VIII, Edward VI, and Elizabeth, government absolutism, not freedom, was the fruit of the revolt against the Catholic Church. Protestant philosophers such as Tyndall in his Obedience of a Christian Man insisted that kings ruled by Divine Right and citizens owed them servile obedience.

This doctrine reached its nadir in the reign of King James I, whose persecution of Catholics was founded upon it. Bellarmine challenged James in a series of pamphlets. His disputation was so powerful that the king was forced to reply in a pamphlet of his own, which Bellarmine quickly demolished, necessitating yet another rejoinder from the desperate Protestant monarch, whose self-serving arguments unraveled before the world.

Against the Reformation notion of the absolutism of kings, Bellarmine posited the mediaeval philosophy of natural rights, popular sovereignty and the freedom of municipalities and guilds. He advocated the Catholic via media (middle way) between anarchy and the Anglican, Lutheran, and late Anabaptist concept of slavish obedience to civil authority.

It was Robert Bellarmine who proclaimed, “Unjust laws are, properly speaking, no laws,” thereby articulating the limits of the state, the Dominion of God and the Scriptural principle of freedom from tyrannical oppression, upon which the American War for Independence and all legitimate movements for government by consent of the people, are based.

Bellarmine himself states:

“It depends upon the consent of the multitude to constitute over itself a king, consul, or other magistrate. This power is, indeed, from God, but vested in a particular ruler by the counsel and election of men” (“De Laicis, c. 6, notes 4 and 5). “The people themselves immediately and directly hold the political power” (“De Clericis,” c. 7).

If the people directly hold the political power, as both Aquinas and Bellarmine, as well as the Declaration of Independence, contend, then they hold the right to change their form of government should circumstances require it. St. Thomas says: “If any society of people have a right of choosing a king, then the king so established can be deposed by them without injustice, or his power can be curbed, when by tyranny he abuses his regal power” (“De Rege et Regno,” Bk. I, c. 6).Bellarmine states: “For legitimate reasons the people can change the government to an aristocracy or a democracy or vice versa.(“De Laicis,” c. 6).

Obviously, changing the form of government, especially in the case of declaring independence from a major power, is a very serious matter which history has shown to cause great upheaval and hardship . And it is a moral imperative that it should be determined that a failure to do so would bring greater evils than what would result from such action. In the language of Catholic moral theology this is known as the principle of proportionality.

The Founding Fathers were more than well aware of this. The Declaration states:

Prudence, indeed, will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.

The statements from certain individual Founders as to how reluctant they were to do this reinforces this point. For example, we have Ben Franklin saying to Lord Chatham (William Pitt) in March 1775: “ I have not heard in any conversation, from any person, drunk or sober, the least expression for a wish for a separation or even a hint that such a thing would be advantageous for America. “ Around that same time George Washington, in a conversation with Rev. Jonathan Boucher, said, “If I ever heard of his joining such measures as independence, I had his leave to set him down for everything wicked.”

It is important to note that the Battles of Lexington and Concord began around this time.

John Adams who, by his own account, made himself “obnoxious for the cause of independence” recalled later in his life , “For my part, there was not a moment during the revolution that I would not have given everything I ever possessed for a restoration to the state of things before the contest began.”

But they knew, as the testimony of human experience down through the ages gives witness to, that peace cannot be had at the price of acquiescence to tyranny. In this instance, this would have meant that America would have gone the way of Ireland and Scotland at that time. And this they could not afford.

The last phrase “And for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor” speaks a language we Catholics should understand and that is the language of sacrifice. It says it very beautifully, as a matter of fact. Many of the signers spoke this language not only in words. Of those 56 who signed the Declaration of Independence, nine died of wounds or hardships during the war. Five were captured and imprisoned, in each case with brutal treatment. Several lost wives, sons or entire families. One lost his 13 children. Two wives were brutally treated. All were at one time or another the victims of manhunts and driven from their homes. Twelve signers had their homes completely burned. Seventeen lost everything they owned.

One signer of particular interest to me is Caesar Rodney of Delaware. He is certainly not amongst the best known signers. However, he is the most pivotal of them. I had stated earlier that independence was far from a knee jerk reaction on the part of the Founders. Even at this juncture, independence was not a sure thing. The evening prior to the actual vote for independence, it was clear that whether or not independence was going to pass depended on Delaware. Delaware had three voting delegates. One was for independence, one was against. Rodney, being the third and tie-breaking vote was called back home a few days before due to a family emergency. At about two in the morning of the 2nd, he gets a knock on the door from a courier telling informing him that he was needed back in Philadelphia, that everything will turn on his vote. By his own account, Rodney “rode like the Devil” 89 miles to Philadelphia.

An 89 mile ride on horseback at night was a treacherous journey, particularly at that time, given there was not the benefit of electric streetlights that we enjoy today. For light, the rider held out a lantern. To make matters worse, it was raining heavily. By the time he arrived later that morning, he was covered in mud and was so exhausted he had to be carried into the chamber of what is known as Independence Hall to cast his vote for independence.

John Adams called Caesar Rodney the oddest looking man he ever saw. That was due to the fact that his face was disfigured from cancer. He had cancer of the cheek and of one of his eyes. He had planned to travel to England to see the only doctor in the world who was able to treat that form of cancer at the time. His vote for independence made that trip impossible. He would have surely been arrested and likely executed for treason if he had made that trip.

We are able to celebrate our independence on the 4th of July because a cancer-stricken man got on a horse and rode to the point of physical exhaustion to cast a vote for independence, thus, in effect, denying himself much-need cancer treatment. If that is not an act of exemplary sacrifice, few things are.

When we thank God for all the blessings He has bestowed, do we thank God for being American? Not just for all the material blessings that being American entails but for the opportunity to be a part of what Pope John Paul II called “the extraordinary human epoch that is the United States of America.”

Although it is becoming more and more politically incorrect to say so, but there is something extraordinary about America. This is not to say that America’s history has been a perfect history. After all, fallen human nature has made its mark on American history. But no other nation has been as great a force for good as the United States. No other country has enjoyed the kind of military and economic power as the U.S. has and abused it the least.

America’s history has also been marked by the struggle to live up to the noble ideas expounded by the Declaration of Independence. During his 2008 Apostolic Journey to the United States Pope Benedict XVI put it this way:

From the dawn of the Republic, America’s quest for freedom has been guided by the conviction that the principles governing political and social life are intimately linked to a moral order based on the dominion of God the Creator. The framers of this nation’s founding documents drew upon this conviction when they proclaimed the “self-evident truth” that all men are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights grounded in the laws of nature and of nature’s God. The course of American history demonstrates the difficulties, the struggles, and the great intellectual and moral resolve which were demanded to shape a society which faithfully embodied these noble principles. In that process, which forged the soul of the nation, religious beliefs were a constant inspiration and driving force, as for example in the struggle against slavery and in the civil rights movement. In our time too, particularly in moments of crisis, Americans continue to find their strength in a commitment to this patrimony of shared ideals and aspirations.

In the aftermath of the Second World War Pope Pius XII said, “America has a genius for great and unselfish deeds. Into America’s hands God has placed the destiny of an afflicted mankind.”

Lastly, the most significant thing the Catholic faith and the Declaration of Independence have in common is that they tell us that the best things in life are those things worthy of “our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor”.

Published in: on July 13, 2012 at 5:30 am  Comments (2)  
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  1. It amazes me how many of the bullet points in opposition to King George and a bullying parliament are once again a problem.
    Getting into the fight for the upcoming election.
    Thank you for the good work on this blog.
    Always learning, always growing/
    In Christ, Dennis McCutcheon

    • Thank you Dennis! These come to mind for me in regard to the present administration:

      He has refused his Assent to Laws, the most wholesome and necessary for the public good
      He has erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance.

      He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation:

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