Ven. Fulton Sheen: ‘The Declaration of Independence Is a Declaration of Dependence’

‘Because God made us free, we have rights,’ said Archbishop Sheen. ‘Because God made us creatures, we have duties.’

‘Declaration of Independence’
‘Declaration of Independence’ (photo: Susan Law Cain / Shutterstock)

July 4 is a red- white- and blue-letter day to recall the Declaration of Independence. Who better to give insights about it than Archbishop Fulton Sheen? As perceptive and prophetic as ever of what was to come decades later, Venerable Sheen wrote the book A Declaration of Dependence in 1941, when the United States entered World War II.

“The Declaration of Independence, I repeat, is a Declaration of Dependence,” Sheen emphasized. He continues:

We are independent of dictators because we are de­pendent on God. God is the necessary factor of our salvation. As a result, he is to be the center of our lives. His ways ought to permeate every aspect and area of our lives: education, employment, pleasure, mourning, socializing, etc. All is done in sight of the omnipotent Lord, and all we do should be done reflecting this knowledge. Our every interaction should be filled with the love of our Savior.

He ties this to the rights highlighted in the Declaration:

Our Declaration of Independence affirms that liberty is an ‘unalienable’ right, because a gift of the Creator. In other words, it makes us independent of tyrannies and dictators by making a Declaration of Dependence on God.

What happens if man ignores that?

The real evil in the human situation, then, lies in man’s unwillingness to recognize his finiteness, his creaturehood, or the possibility that there exists something greater than himself.

In several writings during the 1940s, Sheen warned of ominous clouds on the horizon.

He said, “It is the duty of those interested in God and morality and peace to emphasize a less popular theme — and a more needed one — the danger from within.” And again, “Defeat springs less from invasion than from corruption.” He believed, without a doubt, that the U.S. would prevail in the war. But then what?

The 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence were not godless men. Sheen pointed out:

When Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, he stated it was ‘self-evident’ that man derives his rights and liberties from God, his Creator … since rights and liberties were not State-given, but God-given, they existed before any State. The only reason a government was instituted was, in the language of the Declaration of In­dependence, ‘to secure those rights,’ that is, to protect and safeguard rights already existing in virtue of the value of the human person created by God.

Sheen explains it this way:

In establishing our government on the principle that the State exists for the person, our political forebears were merely reiterating the great Christian tradition that the supreme value on this earth is the human person because God made him, because Christ died for his sins, and the Holy Spirit sanctified him. Not upon any psychological or anthropological or biological theories concerning man was this democratic doctrine grounded, but upon the Chris­tian tradition that a single man is precious because he has an immortal soul. What, therefore, our ancestors in the Declaration of Independence called ‘self-evident’ was, in reality, a matter of faith and tradition. … Our Constitution puts politics under theology, democracy under God.

But eight decades ago, Bishop Sheen also saw cracks appearing and lengthening and then warned of the reasons why:

The fact is that what was self-evident to our Founding Fathers, namely, that rights are God-given and not State-given, is not regarded as self-evident today.

Sheen continued to paint the picture while there was time to repair the cracks, pointing out what would continue growing if not repaired, as he said:

But today, politics denies its divine foundation. Politics is today the supreme and absolute science.

Sheen pointed out something that historian Arnold Toynbee observed: 16 out of 19 civilizations in the world fell not from outside forces but through their own inner corruption. He wondered:

Shall we as a whole nation be so self-righteous as to become indignant against applying to ourselves the warning to the Pharisees: ‘Thou blind Pharisee, first make clean the inside of the cup and of the dish, that the outside may become clean. Woe to you ... you are like to whited sepulchers, which outwardly appear to men beautiful, but within are full of dead men’s bones’ (Matthew 23:26–27)?

Centuries before Rome fell, and while it was strong, Sts. Peter and Paul knew it would fall “because it had forgotten God,” Sheen wrote. “In their eyes the city had written its own sentence of death with its own godless hands.”

He envisioned the present path as he explained that for the last 400 years, modern man has continued to strive “for total independence and absolute autonomy: first from the Church as a spiritual organism; then from the Bible as the revealed Word of God; then from the authority of Christ; and finally from religion. By progressive steps he rebelled against his divine destiny.”

And the cracks widen into canyons. Sheen asked:

Why are we a troubled nation today? Why do we live in fear — we who defined freedom as the right to do whatever we pleased; we who have no altars in our churches, no discipline in our schools, and no sacrifices in our lives? We fear because our false freedom and license and apostasy from God has caught up with us, as it did with the prodigal.

And this was in the days when church attendance was high, cars could be kept unlocked and Sundays were kept free for church.

“The Creator has endowed man with certain unalienable rights,” reminded Sheen. But “education has a tendency to divorce these human rights from God. It cannot be done. If our rights come from God, no one can take them away — they are ‘unalienable,’ as the Declaration of Independence puts it. If they come from the State, the State can take them away.”

He reminded us, “No signer of the Declaration of Independence was educated in a non-religious school. For a century the United States did not have a single president who was educated in a nonreligious school.” Yet something has happened outside the Declaration when God is not supposed to be mentioned in schools or graduation speeches.

“Here is the dilemma facing this country,” Sheen observed back then. “On the one hand, government admits that good citizenship is impossible without religion and morality, and that such an integration has been our philosophy of democracy from the beginning. On the other hand, what encouragement is given by the states to fos­ter religious and moral education?” That has come down to no encouragement in recent years.

Instead, politics took over. “How did politics become so important?” Sheen asked rhetorically, answering, “Through a loss of the moral law. In the days when Christianity was the soul of civilization, when all men recognized they had a common end, both eternal and temporal, politics and economics held a secondary place.” The venerable archbishop knew “the safeguard of American democracy and freedom is in the extension of religious and moral training, and not in its suppression through excessive burdens.”


Rights, But Duties Too

Sheen detailed how we have rights, “but there are never any rights without duties. … Because God made us free, we have rights. Because God made us creatures, we have duties.”

He relates this necessarily joined pair to the Declaration of Independence, which affirms that “the Creator has endowed man with certain unalienable rights.” He says:

The State is not autonomous, but subject to a higher law. … God is the absolute in democracy. Democracy will rest on this divine foundation, or it will be laid to rest. There are no rights of man without duties to God, and if we doubt it, then point to any Totalitarian system which denies the rights of man and I will show you they also deny duties to God. Democracy, the value of a person, liberty, and like, are fruits that grow on the tree of belief in God.

Yet, he asks, “Why is nothing done about that which our tradition says is the indispens­able condition of democracy?”

Our American history shows us we can realize “Divine Judgment” if we ignore the duties to God. Sheen pointed to Abraham Lincoln when, during the Civil War, in his 1863 proclamation for a fast, the president said:

It is the duty of nations as well as of men, to own their dependence upon the overruling power of God; to confess their sins and transgressions in humble sorrow, yet with assured hope that genuine repentance will lead to mercy and pardon; and to recognize the sublime truth, announced in the Holy Scriptures and proven by all history, that those nations only are blessed.

Lincoln continued:

And insomuch as we know that by his divine law nations, like individuals, are subjected to punishments and chastisements in this world, may we not justly fear that the awful calamity of civil war which now desolates the land may be but a punishment inflicted upon us for our presumptuous sins, to the needful end of our national reformation as a whole people? We have been recipients of the choicest bounties of Heaven. … We have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too if we were too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us: It behooves us, then, to humble ourselves before the offended Power, to confess our national sins, and to pray for clemency and forgiveness.

Sheen called it “one of the greatest documents ever written by the pen of any American.” He said Jefferson gets the credit for our Declaration of Independence, and Lincoln gets the credit for our Declaration of De­pendence. “Jefferson declared we were independent from tyrants; Lincoln added, we are dependent on God. The ethical complement to our Bill of Rights, he told us, is our Bill of Duties.”

Sheen said we have a triple mandatory obligation:

  • First, “Preserve the moral law in domestic politics. America can be destroyed in one of two ways: by a revolt against it, or by selling its soul.”
  • Second, “Keep America on the single standard, by conforming to the moral law of God.”
  • Third, “Love America as a duty” because of the “three principal forms of piety: love of God, love of neighbor, and love of country. All three are grounded in justice.”

Sheen saw what was coming. He said that while no particular religion should be the national religion, “it was never intended that the nation should be devoid of religion … evident both from the words of great Americans and from the tradition of our government.”

To prove it, he quoted George Washington’s First Inaugural Address in New York City in 1789:

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.

Including the right to life for the born and unborn, and the realization that God made us male and female.

Then in his Farewell Address to the People in 1796, Washington again emphasized:

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 labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness.

Sheen concluded with Lincoln again, and that 1863 Proclamation:

It is the duty of nations as well as of men to own their dependence upon the overruling power of God; to confess their sins and trans­gressions in humble sorrow, yet with the assured hope that genuine repentance will lead to mercy and pardon; and to recognize the sublime truth, announced in the Holy Scriptures and proven by all history, that those nations only are blessed.

Will the United States listen this July 4?

Gilbert Stuart, “Portrait of Commodore John Barry,” 1801

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