Red, White and Marian Blue? The Immaculate Conception and the American Catholic Experience

ROUNDTABLE: The Register speaks with Bill McCormick, Jenny Kraska and Joe Capizzi on patriotism, Americanism and the significance of the United States’ patroness on her feast day.

The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC.
The Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, DC. (photo: Carol M. Highsmith / Wikimedia Commons / Library of Congress / Public Domain)

Today, Catholics across the world are celebrating the Feast of the Immaculate Conception. But the solemnity has an added significance in the United States of America — where Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception is recognized as the national patroness.

The U.S. bishops’ unanimous 1846 declaration of the Blessed Mother under this particular title actually preceded the Church’s definitive confirmation of Mary’s Immaculate Conception, which happened in 1854 under the authority of Blessed Pope Pius IX. But Pius IX approved the bishops’ declaration in 1847, and some believe the Church in America’s devotion to Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception may have helped affirm his decision to define the dogma.

“We take this occasion, brethren,” the U.S. bishops wrote in 1846, “to communicate to you the determination, unanimously adopted by us, to place ourselves, and all entrusted to our charge throughout the United States, under the special patronage of the holy Mother of God, whose immaculate conception is venerated by the piety of the faithful throughout the Catholic church. ... To her, then, we commend you, in the confidence that ... she will obtain for us grace and salvation.”

And in 1979, during his visit to the United States, Pope St. John Paul II entrusted the American people to Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception at the national shrine dedicated to her in Washington, D.C.

But what does Mary’s patronage of the U.S.A. mean practically today? To unpack the significance of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception for American Catholics, the Register spoke with William McCormick, a Jesuit priest-in-formation and professor of political theory at Saint Louis University; Jenny Kraska, the executive director of the Maryland Catholic Conference; and Joseph Capizzi, a moral theologian and executive director of the Institute for Human Ecology at the Catholic University of America.

 

Instances of blending elements of our faith with our national identity — like Walker Percy’s satirical account of a version of American Catholicism where the Star-Spangled Banner is played during the Mass at the elevation, or the real-life Patriot’s Bible — seem to reduce Catholicism to a kind of uncritical endorsement of all things American. But it’s interesting to note that, specifically as Americans, the Church gives us the Immaculate Conception as our patroness. What does this suggest about the proper Catholic understanding of patriotism? 

Capizzi: When the bishops unanimously approved Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception as our national patroness in 1846, they noted that this came from the people: from an ardent desire of Catholics in the U.S. that Mary — full of grace — look out for America, express to her Son our gratitude, beseech him for mercy on our behalf, and protect us. 

These 19th-century American Catholics loved the country. They loved it precisely the way we are taught to love our country: as a gift to us from a gracious and merciful God, as a gift far surpassing our merit, as a means through which we could express our devotion to him and our solicitude for our neighbor. That 19th-century American Catholics’ desire for this moved the bishops to unanimously give our country over to Our Lady should make us confident that love of country is another way we express our love of God. We too must be grateful for the great gift of the land we call home.

McCormick: Civil religion domesticates faith for political purposes. When we invoke the patronage of Our Lady for our nation, however, we are not reducing her to an ideological tool, but rather asking her aid in receiving God’s graces to be a better nation, a holier people. So the logic is precisely the reverse.

The spiritual challenge of patriotism is to love the God who gave us the blessings of our native country even more than we love that country, and to allow his radical love to transform us in all of our being.

Kraska: The feast of the Immaculate Conception calls us to be united in our love for the Mother of Jesus, who was bestowed with the grace of being immaculately conceived. Similarly, our Catholic understanding of patriotism calls us to be united in our love of country, despite our differences.


The Immaculate Conception was recognized as the USA’s patroness at a time when Catholic teaching on governance and politics was seen as somewhat incongruous with the vision advanced in the American founding. And, of course, the so-called “Americanism” heresy was condemned by Pope Leo XIII in 1899. What’s one significant tension you see today between the Gospel and the American status quo? And how does Mary show us a way of addressing it?

Capizzi: There’s been far too much discussion about governance and politics! Let’s answer this question by calling to mind the Magnificat. If we look to Mary, we see fidelity, humility and great strength. Mary’s faith is in God, in his activity: God has acted in her. By choosing her to bear the Savior, he has magnified her for all generations. He has magnified and blessed this lowly handmaiden, he has scattered the proud and thrown down the mighty. 

Many Catholics in the U.S. are far too comfortable, spiritually and materially. In the Magnificat, the lessons for us all abound: we are too proud, too rich, too conceited. We should see in Mary not only the humility and kindness of a mother, but her stern concern for us as well. We should read the Magnificat as a warning. Mary tells us that God has turned everything upside down. What does that mean for us?

McCormick: A constant refrain of the Gospel is “Do not be afraid.” And yet fear pervades U.S. society, both as a condition of life and as a tool used against people. In the short term, fear motivates like little else. In the long run, fear erodes the relationships that structure social life and the hope that animates it. Fear also exacerbates the overwhelming sense of alienation and passivity in the U.S., that as members of a mass society we have little agency in our own lives. To paraphrase FDR , our fearful paralysis about our national condition is as great a problem as any of those problems.

Mary’s humility makes her bold: she was not afraid to receive the great gifts God gave her, and to put them to his service. If we American Catholics could learn to imitate her receptivity and boldness, Christians could be better Christians and citizens.

Kraska: Mary’s complete trust in God’s will is a model for each of us as we seek to bring the message of the Gospel to a culture that rejects or is often indifferent to Christ. By seeking Mary’s guidance and intercession we can accompany those we encounter whose views and beliefs may differ from ours.

 

As Professor Capizzi already noted, the bishops’ 1846 declaration of Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception as our nation’s patroness was done, in part, “to gratify a pious desire pervading the whole United States.”What’s one widespread desire among the Catholic faithful in the U.S. today that you’d like to see our Church leaders address? 

Capizzi: Continuing the thought from the prior question, I think we need to challenge those places where we find ourselves the most comfortable. To some degree, I think a lot of the divisions among Catholics stem from fighting over inessentials — for instance, arguing politics — rather than emphasizing that we are first a people of faith. Look again to Mary the lowly handmaiden (Luke 1:48). She had no standing, no expectations, no conceit, and yet through her God gave to us the Messiah. We are all conceit and expectation. There’s never been a better time to dismantle those in favor of humility and poverty. We all need to recognize this. Again, we’ve been warned. 

McCormick: I would like to see the U.S. Church encourage the global Church in its response to clerical sex abuse, including the cover-up scandal. Many Catholics in the U.S. want to see this happen, as indeed do many who have left the Church. 

The process of truth-seeking and reconciliation is going to be long and slow, but we owe it to the victims to engage in it. We also owe it to Christ, whose children we have wounded. If there is something in the Church worth crying Hagan lío! [“Make some noise!”] over, it’s this.

We should push for this process, and we should also support it. The U.S. Church has many resources, including many dedicated laypeople with all sorts of relevant expertises. How can we work with the Holy See to put those resources at the disposal of the Church in other countries?

Kraska: How we treat the most vulnerable members (the elderly, the poor, the unborn and the immigrant) of society is an ongoing concern for the Catholic faithful in the United States. Church leaders must remain steadfast in their advocacy in defense of the vulnerable and continue to find ways to accompany them in their time of need.

 

As American Catholics, we’re good at making a big deal of national holidays, like the 4th of July and Thanksgiving, and religious ones, like Christmas and Easter. But the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, which is something of a national and religious holiday, doesn’t seem to get anywhere near the same level of attention. Specifically as American Catholics, should we be more intentional about this feast day, and how would you encourage others to do so? 

Capizzi: Not only do we Catholics not celebrate the feast of the Immaculate Conception as a special national holiday, we don’t really even celebrate it the way Catholics do in other countries, like Spain or the Philippines, for instance. We should be much more intentional about this as Catholic Americans. It would be wonderful to see the bishops rally Catholics around an idea like this, that celebrates both Our Lady and the special role she plays for our great country. We should seize upon any opportunity to bring Catholics together in expressions of gratitude. Who knows what fruits such celebrations might bear?

Kraska: Yes, we should be more intentional about this feast day. Other holidays we celebrate are marked by traditions, signs, symbols, etc., and there is no reason not to mark the feast of the Immaculate Conception in a similar way. Finding special ways to celebrate this feast, such as attending Mass, a special meal, taking/giving a day off, or making a pilgrimage to a Marian site or church allow us the opportunity to be more intentional about honoring this special feast.

 

Mary, under the title of Immaculate Conception, is our patroness. What’s one thing we, as citizens of both the U.S. and the Church, should specifically be asking her intercession for? 

Kraska: To heal the divisions in our country and our Church.

Capizzi: That we have the wisdom to know and the strength to do God’s will for us.

McCormick: That we may be made worthy of the promises of Christ.

Pope Francis conferred on Catholics the lay ministries of catechist and lector at a Mass for the Sunday of the Word of God on Jan. 23.

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