July 4th weekend in the US aligns with a vital Gospel passage for the universal Catholic Church. Christ tells us:
Come to me, all you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart; and you will find rest for yourselves. For my yoke is easy, and my burden light. (Matthew 11:29-30)
How do we carry the yoke of Christ — as individuals as well as a nation?
I don’t know about you, but between work and family needs, I rarely feel lightness in my burdens. And I feel great heaviness of spirit as I read newspapers and view news reports. As I watch our nation pressed by the flow of illegal adolescent Mexican immigrants, I know that no one in the southwest US feels lightness in these burdens. As I watch American leaders falter in public discourse as ISIS overtakes Iraq and Syria, as new reports of Taliban insurgency strike in Afghanistan, as 300 Nigerian school girls remain missing and acts of terror appear daily in many regions of Africa — no where do the burdens seem light.
Then again, while Jesus seems to emphasize the easy yoke and light burden, the preliminary point might be overlooked — “take my yoke upon you and learn from me.” To take this yoke means to accept the harness of God’s commandments and to allow God to lead us. It takes humility to accept this harness; it takes docility to follow another’s lead. Jesus gently states that only by accepting this yoke meekly will we find rest while carrying a yoke that “is easy” and a “burden light.”
The reality is that we live in a world that has cast off the yoke of Christ. We live in a world and in a nation unhinged. Watch the daily news to realize the horrors unleashed by beasts charging out-of-control. Sometimes these unyoked beasts trample the earth in broad daylight, but often they trample souls unaware.
America’s Severed Founding
As America celebrates the birthday of its independence, Catholics in the US must remember that America’s founding and history have never been accepting of the yoke of Christ. In the founding of America, few Catholics had flourished in Colonial America. There are exceptions. Charles Carroll of Maryland was the one Catholic who signed the Declaration of Independence. St. Elizabeth Ann Seton had fled New York to find more acceptance in Maryland as a Catholic convert, only to find protestants overtaking the state once declared a haven for colonial Catholics. She fled to western Maryland and founded a school and order. Despite the growing numbers of Catholics throughout America’s history, the principles that Catholics hold dear remains a minority voice in the US. Yet saints abound.
Even among faithful protestants Christians, their views did not hold sway in the founding of America. Instead, the Deists dominated. Deists believed in a distant Creator who established the world on mechanistic principles that required no further divine intervention. God was imaged as a clock-maker who created the clock to operate on its own.
There was a religious battle in the early forming of America, but the Christians did not win; they were relegated to the margins. Catholics had an even harder struggle to gain acceptance in America, and it seems the only Catholics who are fully accepted in America today are those who reject tenets of their faith. I think of those who call themselves “pro-choice” and Catholic, including all-too-many “Catholic” politicians. Oxymorons abound.
Both True Catholic and American Patriot?
When we examine the dominant culture pulsing through American media, public schools and town halls, being Catholic in America is a challenge. We don’t need to overdramatize this tension; we are not in danger like our Catholic, Coptic and Orthodox brothers and sisters in Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. The challenges we face are more subtle and pervasive. The enemy does not carry a gun or a suicide bomb and endanger our physical lives. The enemy eats away at us inwardly or through our children. A culture of tolerance presses us to accept homosexual couples as an act of loving acceptance. As we live “in the world,” we don’t want to restrict too harshly our children’s participation in all aspects of American life. For Catholics are not the Amish.
Then I think about the 57 million babies aborted since the US Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision in 1973, and the position of being Catholic in America seems increasingly untenable. I think about the march toward redefining marriage that continues to gain acceptance across the US, and I wonder how our children will hold to the basic tenets of natural law. I watch the bombardment of pop culture which accepts immorality of language and action as “normal,” and I wonder how our children will learn to live by true principles. Too often, our Catholic voices seem faint amidst the roaring dominant culture.
The Principle of Subsidiarity
Yet, God placed us here — in our particular families, within our particular communities and parishes, and in our particular nation. This is not accidental but providential. Given that fact, we must ask God how we are to serve where He has placed us.
Through the principle of subsidiarity, the Church tells us we are to serve in the closest spheres first: our home, our parish, our communities. This is where we have the most effective impact. Likewise, nothing should be delegated to a central authority that can be managed more locally.This principle should guide our votes as citizens too.
Catholic principles align with the protection of individual rights and the goals of local, state control with limited federal government. The Catholic commitment to life aligns perfectly with the first principles established in the preamble to the Declaration of Independence:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
This alignment in principles,however, often leads to conflict in practice. Catholics play a vital role in reminding America of its fundamental principles, and we continue to take an active role as citizens to witness to those principles in all aspects of life. Recent Supreme Court decisions have reaffirmed freedom of religious expression as individuals, through our intellectual property, and through our privately-held businesses. We need to continue to press for free expression in our schools, universities, town halls and state houses. The clarity of recent Supreme Court decisions provide a glimmer of hope that the Court will defend the Constitution even as the President, Congress and powerful groups seek to erode this foundation.
Pope St. John Paul II on Patriotism vs. Nationalism
JPII reminded us that our love of country is appropriate whereas the impulse toward nationalistic pride is not. As Americans this 4th of July weekend, let’s embrace our patriotism while reaffirming our Catholic witness within a culture that has never accepted the yoke of Christ and whose direction remains precarious. In Memory and Identity: Conversations at the Dawn of a Millennium (2005), Pope St. John Paul II distinguished patriotism from nationalism:
Patriotism is a love for everything to do with our native land: its history, its traditions, its language, its natural features….The cultural and historical identity of any society is preserved and nourished by all that is contained within this concept of a nation.”
“Whereas nationalism involves recognizing and pursuing the good of one’s own nation alone, without regard for the rights of others, patriotism, on the other hand, is a love for one’s native land that accords rights to all other nations equal to those claimed for one’s own. Patriotism, in other words, leads to a properly ordered social love.
Let us love our country’s best principles and reaffirm our commitment to giving witness to what is true and good and beautiful in all the spheres of life where we can have an impact. If we accept the yoke of Christ and respond to His direction, He will guide us home and keep us safe.
And remember that He has guided us in placing us within the United States of America. Follow His lead as you serve and witness as Catholics in America. We each have a role to play, and if we embrace the yoke and listen to God’s direction, we will grow in trust that God is in command, and we but have to do His bidding as we carry our burdens with ease in His light.