America’s Fourth Debt

I know that Europe’s wonderful, yet something seems to lack: The Past is too much with her, and the people looking back. But the glory of the Present is to make the Future free, We love our land for what she is and what she is to be.

— Henry van Dyke, “America for Me”

St. Thomas Aquinas wrote that every person has three debts that he can never repay: to God, who created him; to his parents, who gave him life and nurtured him; and to the nation that formed and educated him.

But on July 4, as we celebrate our nation’s freedom, we have a fourth unpayable debt to acknowledge. The men and women who went before us — pioneers and GIs, innovators and laborers — have left us a legacy of freedom from fear and freedom from want as they built a superpower.

America isn’t powerful enough to win all its wars or even its arguments, but it stands for now as King of the Hill, unmatched in its military and economic might.

But has America really ever been about power? The founders never sought it, after all. They sought something totally different, and that’s our fourth debt.


Its economy or its military will never make a nation great. We don’t celebrate the “greatness” of the Soviet Union or of the Ottoman Empire or of Babylon. Greatness comes from principle. More than being King of the Hill, the first generations saw America as a “city on a hill.”

America’s power and assertiveness today have merited it the enduring resentment of intelligentsias around the world, Europe’s in particular. So it’s surprising that one of the most notable intellectual voices there has been singing outside the choir for years: Joseph Ratzinger.

Pope Benedict doesn’t just admire America’s founding principles. He’s bullish on America’s future, and what that means for the world.

In October, he told Miguel Diaz, the new American ambassador to the Vatican, that he was “pleased to encounter a vibrant democracy” during his 2008 visit. He spoke of how America’s political process “has recaptured the imagination of the world, many of whose peoples look to the American experience and its founding vision” for guidance.

Perhaps he’s bullish because he realizes that America’s greatness is a borrowed greatness.

On July 8, 1776, tradition tells us that the Liberty Bell rang out from the tower of Independence Hall to summon the citizens of Philadelphia to hear the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence. That bell, cast in 1753, had been inscribed with a prophecy: “Proclaim LIBERTY throughout all the Land unto all the Inhabitants thereof” (Leviticus 25:10).

Is it much of a surprise that so many of the founding principles enshrined in the Declaration of Independence are deeply rooted in biblical ideals? In retrospect, perhaps it should surprise us. Pope Benedict finds America’s church-state arrangement “fascinating” because of how deeply it contrasts with the failed radical secularism that modern Europe chose for itself.

As he told President George W. Bush at the White House in 2008, what the Declaration of Independence spells out is intimately linked to a moral order governed by God the Creator: “The framers of this nation’s founding documents … proclaimed the ‘self-evident truth’ that all men are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights grounded in the laws of nature and of nature’s God. The course of American history demonstrates the difficulties, the struggles, and the great intellectual and moral resolve which were demanded to shape a society which faithfully embodied these noble principles.”

So America is an ally in his quest to rebuild modern society on the basis of natural law — God’s law. Hence the problem.

As Cardinal Francis George points out in his recent book The Difference God Makes, the Declaration of Independence affirms the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, but “the form of that life, the purpose of that liberty, and the proper ground of that happiness are left completely unarticulated.”

The founders left us to work that out for ourselves. They assumed that we would find the answers where they too had sought them: Christian truth. Though Cardinal Ratzinger wrote in his book Values in a Time of Upheaval that democracy is “the most appropriate of all political models,” he also cautioned that it “cannot survive and work effectively without shared ethical convictions.” That continues to be what John Paul II called America’s “noble challenge.”

Pope Benedict is no stranger to the weaknesses of our country and her democratic process, but he is fundamentally optimistic about what she offers to the world, so long as she remains faithful to the Christian ideals of her birth. That’s why his 2008 visit was entitled “Christ Our Hope.”

“Hope, hope for the future, is very much a part of the American character,” he told us at Nationals Park. “And the Christian virtue of hope — the hope poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, the hope which supernaturally purifies and corrects our aspirations by focusing them on the Lord and his saving plan — that hope has also marked, and continues to mark, the life of the Catholic community in this country.”

It does indeed take audacity to hope, if what we are hoping is that America be faithful to her vocation to moral greatness rooted in Christian truth. Then, and only then, can we “love our land for what she is and what she is to be.”