“For religious believers, our times offer a daunting yet exhilarating challenge,” said Pope John Paul II in the year 2000 at the U.S. National Prayer Breakfast. “I would go so far as to say that their task is to save democracy from self-destruction.”
They were bracing, surprising words.
But they precisely name the task our generation of Catholics is called to.
In the wake of the 2008 election, there has been a lot of talk about the extent to which we should fear the president of the United States.
After all, a president who rejects the right to life and other moral standards can do significant damage.
President-elect Obama has promised supporters that he will use the tools the federal government gives him to advance the interests of the abortion industry. In addition to judges, executive orders and legislation, with a president comes an army of fresh-faced executive-branch bureaucrats, most of whom are ideologues. They will spend every working day tinkering with regulations in Health and Human Services, the Education Department, Housing and Urban Development, and on and on. In the normal course of their work, they will assert their ideology in dozens of hidden ways we would never dream of.
If we’re not afraid, the unborn certainly should be.
Why, then, did Pope Benedict XVI congratulate Obama on the “historic occasion” of his election? The Pope “assured the president-elect of his prayers that God would help him with his high responsibilities for his country and for the international community.”
Because ever since his opponents asked Jesus: “Is it lawful to give tribute to Caesar?” Catholic social teaching has taught that civic responsibility is necessary for social cohesion.
The Catechism puts it this way: “God’s fourth commandment also enjoins us to honor all who for our good have received authority in society from God” (No. 2234). It adds: “Submission to legitimate authorities and service of the common good require citizens to fulfill their roles in the life of the political community” (No. 2239).
What is our role when we don’t like the president? What is our role when his plans oppose fundamental rights? Our role is to oppose his policies relentlessly, and win more voters to our cause.
Christ’s “Be not afraid,” repeated so often by Pope John Paul II, holds. Especially in America.
In a 1995 address in Baltimore, John Paul reminded us that democracies can morph into quasi-totalitarian systems that respond “only to the power of the majority or the wishes of the most vocal.”
He didn’t use the words “dictatorship of relativism” — but might as well have. In 2008, we know that his words were prophetic.
However, “The United States possesses a safeguard, a great bulwark, against this happening,” said John Paul. “I speak of your founding documents: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights. These documents are grounded in and embody unchanging principles of the natural law whose permanent truth and validity can be known by reason, for it is the law written by God in human hearts.”
America, in other words, is not founded on the sands of public opinion. It’s founded on the rock of the “laws of nature and of nature’s God,” to quote the Declaration of Independence. It’s a nation founded not just on a people, but also on a creed:
“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.”
In America, our freedom depends on each generation holding to this creed.
When Pope Benedict XVI visited the White House last April, he, too, reminded Americans of this. “Freedom is not only a gift, but also a summons to personal responsibility,” he said. “President Washington expressed in his Farewell Address that religion and morality represent ‘indispensable supports’ of political prosperity.”
Then Pope Benedict referred to John Paul’s Poland in words that can both warn and console us. The warning: We can easily go the way of the Poland of John Paul’s youth. The consolation: We could also go the way of the Poland of John Paul’s old age.
“In reflecting on the spiritual victory of freedom over totalitarianism in his native Poland and in eastern Europe,” Benedict said, John Paul “reminded us that history shows, time and again, that ‘In a world without truth, freedom loses its foundation,’ and a democracy without values can lose its very soul.”
America is a great nation, built on a mighty foundation. If we remove that foundation, America will quickly and easily fall. But if we strengthen that moral foundation, America’s greatest days lie ahead.
The popes are right. Our job is to “save democracy from self-destruction.”
Yes, the president-elect’s policies oppose the right to life. But polls say that the number of pro-life Americans has steadily grown and that today, most Americans oppose abortion. Let’s grow the number more.
Yes, homosexual “marriage” has become law in two states, forced into law against the people’s wishes by unelected judges. But voters have toppled it in a third and foreclosed it in others. Let’s do the same in more places.
We haven’t yet witnessed the end of American democracy. Majorities are still on the side of the truth. Our task, to deepen and broaden those majorities, is difficult — but not impossible.
Look to the Register for help: articles you can pass on and our guides to re-introducing people to the Sunday Mass, confession and the basics of Catholic living.
Be not afraid. Charity entails telling people difficult truths in ways that will be heard. And charity always wins, one way or another, because it has the power of God in it.