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At Nation’s Founding,Did Divine & Human Providence Conspire?

BY Michael Novak

April 13-19,1997 Issue | Posted 4/13/97 at 2:00 PM

 

ON MARCH 7-9, the Catholic Common Ground Initiative convened the first annual Cardinal Bernardin Conference, coverage of which last week featured excerpts from the keynote address by Archbishop Oscar Lipscomb of Mobile, Ala., who succeeded the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin at the head of the Common Ground Project (CGP). This week, the Register features philosopher Michael Novak, winner of the 1994 Templeton for Progress in Religion and a member of the CGP committee, who addressed participants on the theme of “Catholic faith and American culture.”

He argues that the Founding of the United States benefited from “the gracious guidance of the Almighty … [and] the limited wisdom of his image here on earth, human providence or prudence or political wisdom.” Americans, whom he has called “an almost chosen people,” Novak maintains, inhabit a nation whose founding principles reflect a “cosmic vision” that has “a stunning universal resonance far beyond the shores of America.”

Not only in Catholic circles, but also in Washington and in the law schools, a debate is sweeping like a prairie fire across the land, concerning the nature of the American founding. Some Catholic commentators, such as David Schindler, hold that the “logic” of the American founding is antithetical to Catholic faith, and necessarily on a collision course with it. Judge Robert Bork in Slouching Towards Gomorrah holds that American liberal culture today—that is, the culture of the journalists, popular television, and the arts; in other words, the culture of the symbolmakers and mythmakers—is rushing headlong toward the destruction of our national experiment in limited government and liberty for persons, Bork holds, in some respects not unlike Schindler, that the “logic” of liberalism begins in the rhetorical excesses of the Declaration of Independence—a document read differently in its own time than today, and now unmoored from the culture that gave it birth.

It seems impossible to make any headway in resolving the question about the relations between Catholic faith and American culture without a clear grasp of the principles of the American Republic. For if we mistake what those principles are, we grapple with a scarecrow.…

Allow me to begin by recalling some crucial phrases from the Declaration of Independence of the United States, July 4, 1776:

“When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary … the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God … Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown.…

“We, therefore … appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions … with a firm reliance on the Protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor” (emphasis added).

If I read these snippets correctly, a cosmic vision supports this Declaration. Unless Providence blesses them, ideas do not succeed in history—Providence in two senses: The gracious guidance of the Almighty, the Lord of probabilities and contingencies; and generally, the limited wisdom of his image here on earth, human providence or prudence or political wisdom. In the case of the United States v. George III in 1776, the United States had the blessings of both forms of Providence, divine and human, in a rare conjunction of historic opportunity and historic outcome.…

The six or seven fundamental ideas that undergird the Declaration are intimately interrelated; they form a complex whole. Divine Providence, human political realism (prudence), the laws of nature and nature's God, public and private virtue, freedom of conscience, public gratitude to the Almighty, and the equality of humans as humans—an equality in their nature, and not in any accident or circumstance of their being; in their nature, and not in any exercise of that nature—all these ideas are interrelated. They belong to a family of traditions, ideas, convictions, practices, and institutions that gave to the words of the Declaration of Independence its popular meaning—that made its words ring, that made them fit experience, that gave them good ground in which to grow like an ever-increasing tree (that could one day drive slavery down the road into extinction).…

When a human being faces a new course of action, the outcome of that action is shrouded in mere probabilities and necessarily in doubt. Human action, therefore, cannot proceed under necessary knowledge, but only under probabilistic knowledge—not out of theoretical knowledge, but out of practical knowledge, or prudence, or human providence. This is the law of human nature. And here the laws of nature and nature's God illustrate a radical harmony: the Providence of God and the practical wisdom of humans joined as one. Providence and the provident.

Moreover, in human action, human beings proceed by careful reflection and deliberate commitment.… The human dimension is the habit of thinking first, reflecting, deliberating, and only then making the choices that they will stick to, and on which they can be depended; in other words, the choices by which they will display good character. Only when they exercise that aspect of their nature, their human nature, that “better angel of their nature,” do they follow, in the mode appropriate for humans, the law of nature and nature's God.

The Declaration of Independence does not stand alone. It expresses a ‘way of life,’ a ‘life form,’ a whole package of convictions and practices, and a well-articulated and deeply understood system of interlocked ideas: nature, virtue, liberty, equality, and the law of God.…

But in order to have psychic space in which to think, to reflect, and to choose with deliberation, our children have had to learn a special set of habits or virtues. They have had to learn such “cardinal” (“hinge”) virtues as self-control, temperance, fortitude, and the practice of giving every person and thing the full attention due these objects of their actions. To act as free women and men, in other words, our children need to learn to master, and to appropriate, a basic set of virtues, habits, or dispositions. Liberty without virtue is a form of wishfulness, a mere fantasy.

Yet so powerful are self-interest and self-deception that unless our children learn to look upon their actions as an omniscient observer does—from outside, without prejudice, and in fierce and blazing justice—they are not likely to have the insight or the courage to discover the right course of action, and to follow it. In other words, to paraphrase George Washington's farewell address, we should look with suspicion on the view that in the long and common run of cases moral behavior is to be expected from people of no religion. Far more likely is it that individuals will follow the general convictions, beliefs, and interest of their own groups.

In a word, the Declaration of Independence does not stand alone. It expresses a “way of life,” a “life form,” a whole package of convictions and practices, and a well-articulated and deeply understood system of interlocked ideas: nature, virtue, liberty, equality, and the law of God.…

… How, then, should we interpret the propositions and allusions of the Declaration? One thing I have always wanted to find out for myself is, how did the Americans of the founding generation interpret them? If you search it out, the empirical evidence is not far to seek. The package of ideas that I have summarized above will be found intact, again and again: Both in the inaugural address and in the farewell address of George Washington, for example; in letters about the nation's founding principles written by John Adams, Noah Webster, Samuel Adams, and countless others; and in such legislative acts such as the Virginia Declaration of Rights, the Constitutions of the new Commonwealths and States of Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and others.

Permit me to set forth [some examples]: “No people can be bound to acknowledge and adore the Invisible Hand which conducts the affairs of men more than those of the united States. Every step by which they have advanced to the character of an independent nation seems to have been distinguished by some token of providential agency; and in the important revolution just accomplished in the system of their united government, the tranquil deliberations and voluntary consent of so many distinct communities from which the event has resulted cannot be compared with the means by which most governments have been established without some return of pious gratitude, along with an humble anticipation of the future blessings which the past seem to presage.

‘No people can be bound to acknowledge and adore the Invisible Hand which conducts the affairs of men more than those of the united States. Every step by which they have advanced to the character of an independent nation seems to have been distinguished by some token of providential agency.’

— George Washington

“[T]here is no truth more thoroughly established than that there exists in the economy and course of nature an indissoluble union between virtue and happiness; between duty and advantage; between the genuine maxims of an honest and magnanimous policy and the solid rewards of public prosperity and felicity; since we ought to be no less persuaded that the propitious smiles of Heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right which Heaven itself has ordained; and since the preservation of the sacred fire of liberty and the destiny of the republican model of government are justly considered, perhaps, as deeply, as finally, staked on the experiment entrusted to the hands of the American people” (George Washington, first inaugural address, April 30, 1789).

“That no free Government, or the blessing of liberty, can be preserved to any people but by a firm adherence to justice, moderation, temperance, frugality, and virtue, and by frequent recurrence to fundamental principles.

“That Religion, or the duty which we owe to our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence; and, therefore, all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience; and that it is the mutual duty of all to practice Christian forbearance, love, and charity, towards each other” (Virginia Declaration of Rights, June 12, l776).

“Good morals being necessary to the preservation of civil society; and the knowledge and belief of the being of GOD, His providential government of the world and of a future state of rewards and punishment, being the only true foundation of morality, the legislature hath, therefore, a right, and ought to provide, at the expense of the subject, if necessary, a suitable support for the public worship of GOD and of the teachers of religion and morals …” (Massachusetts Constitution, 1780).

Such texts as these persuade me that much more was acting on the informed consciousness of the first generation of Americans than Lockean philosophy (particularly as interpreted in an atheistic way)— including biblical religion, ancient Greek and Roman teachings about character and virtue, and high medieval views of liberty and conscience as rooted in the practical intellect of individual human persons.… If I am not mistaken, the Declaration of Independence incorporates within itself, on a par with the external checks and balances among the executive, legislative, and judicial powers of the separate branches of government outlined in the Constitution, a set of internal checks and balances—internal, that is, to every human person. The moral psychology behind the Declaration of Independence presupposes a set of checks and balances designated by five terms: the laws of nature; the laws of nature's God; national laws rooted in the consent of the governed; the private and public virtues of citizens; and the self-interest of individuals and groups. No one of these five sets of realities may be discounted. Each places the other in check. The prospects of liberty depend upon their appropriate balance.…

The conclusion I would like to draw from these reflections is this. Such terms as “nature's law,” “Prudence,” “virtues,” “character,” and the type of “liberty” based upon “reflection” and “choice”—terms crucial to the Declaration of Independence—may today thrive nowhere so vitally as in the soil of the living Catholic tradition.…

I would agree with Judge Bork and others that American culture has in recent decades been in rapid free-fall from the heights of moral principle reached at the founding and maintained for many generations thereafter. Catholic traditions on the key terms that undergird the Declaration, such as those delineated above, are now available to help reinvigorate those founding principles. Catholics today ought to defend vigorously the founding principles, and the key terms under-girding them, against those on the right or left urging us to abandon them.

The Bishops of the United States who at the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore declared that our framers, under Providence, built “better than they knew” showed discernment it would be wise today to follow.

We ought to recover terms such as “God's law,” “nature's law,” “reflection,” “choice,” “virtue,” “happiness,” and other terms from our tradition, and work these out in the American context. Our corporate Catholic failure to think in an American vocabulary, steeped in American intellectual traditions, is quite striking. Our bishops and most of our writers have preferred a Continental social democratic vocabulary, as well as a Continental vocabulary for the expression of Catholic social thought. We have been remarkably delinquent in learning the vocabulary of American constitutional and American social philosophy (as distinct from social science). These failures are all the more saddening because the ideas of the Declaration have proven to have a stunning universal resonance far beyond the shores of America.

From abroad, this coincidence of the Catholic faith with the tradition—and continuing vocation—of the United States may be more obvious to serious observers than it is to us. Pope John Paul II, for example, on his visit to the United States in 1995 made some remarkable observations…:

“America has always wanted to be a land of the free. Today, the challenge facing America is to find freedom's fulfillment in the truth: the truth that is intrinsic to human life created in God's image and likeness, the truth that is written on the human heart, the truth that can be known by reason and can therefore form the basis of a profound and universal dialogue among people about the direction they must give to their lives and their activities.

“One hundred thirty years ago, President Abraham Lincoln asked whether a nation ‘conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal’ could ‘long endure.’ President Lincoln's question is no less a question for the present generation of Americans. Democracy cannot be sustained without a shared commitment to certain moral truths about the human person and human community The basic question before a democratic society is: ‘how ought we to live together?’ In seeking an answer to this question, can society exclude moral truth and moral reasoning? Can the biblical wisdom which played such a formative part in the very founding of your country be excluded from that debate? Would not doing so mean that America's founding documents no longer have any defining content, but are only the formal dressing of changing opinion? Would not doing so mean that tens of millions of Americans could no longer offer the contribution of their deepest convictions to the formation of public policy? Surely it is important for America that the moral truths which make freedom possible should be passed on to each new generation. Every generation of Americans needs to know that freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought” (Homily at Camden Yards, Baltimore, Md., 1995).

“Today, religious tolerance and cooperation among Americans cannot simply be a pragmatic or utilitarian undertaking, a mere accommodation to the fact of diversity. No, the source of your commitment to religious freedom is itself a deep religious conviction. Religious tolerance is based on the conviction which requires us to respect and honor the inner sanctuary of conscience in which each person meets God. The Catholic Church wholly supports this conviction, as the Fathers of the Second Vatican Council proclaimed in the historic Declaration on Religious Freedom.

“The challenge facing you, dear friends, is to increase people's awareness of the importance for society of religious freedom; to defend that freedom against those who would take religion out of the public domain and establish secularism as America's official faith. And it is vitally necessary, for the very survival of the American experience, to transmit to the next generation the precious legacy of religious freedom and the convictions which sustain it” (Greeting in Baltimore Cathedral, 1995).

“I say this, too, to the United States of America: today, in our world as it is, many other nations and peoples look to you as the principal model and pattern for their own advancement in democracy. But democracy needs wisdom. Democracy needs virtue, if it is not to turn against everything that it is meant to defend and encourage. Democracy stands or falls with the truths and values which it embodies and promotes.

“Democracy serves what is true and right when it safeguards the dignity of every human person, when it respects inviolable and inalienable human rights, when it makes the common good the end and criterion regulating all public and social life. But these values themselves must have an objective content. Otherwise they correspond only to the power of the majority or the wishes of the most vocal If an attitude of skepticism were to succeed in calling into question even the fundamental principles of the moral law, the democratic system itself would be shaken in its foundations (cf. Evangelium Vitae, 70).

“The United States possesses a safeguard, a great bulwark, against this happening. 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 (cf. Rom 2, 25).

“At the center of the moral vision of your founding documents is the recognition of the rights of the human person, and especially respect for the dignity and sanctity of human life in all conditions and at all stages of development. I say to you again, America, in the light of your own tradition: love life, cherish life. defend life, from conception to natural death.

“At the end of your National Anthem, one finds these words: Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just, And this be our motto: ‘In God is our trust!’

America: may your trust always be in God and in none other. And then, The star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Thank you. and God bless you all” (Departure address, Baltimore-Washington International Airport, 1995).

‘Every generation of Americans needs to know that freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought.’

‘At the center of the moral vision of your founding documents is the recognition of the rights of the human person, and especially respect for the dignity and sanctity of human life in all conditions and at all stages of development. I say to you again, America, in the light of your own tradition: love life, cherish life. defend life, from conception to natural death.’

— Pope John Paul II