John Paul II's Challenge to America

It is a custom at the Register to publish remarks by Pope John Paul II about America every Fourth of July. These important documents show how much the Pope loves America — and they repeat his challenge to Americans to serve their country's founding vision faithfully.

Address Delivered by Pope John Paul II as he received the Diplomatic Credentials of U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See, Lindy Boggs

Here follows the Pope's December 16, 1997, remarks, omitting the introductory paragraphs:

The Founding Fathers of the United States asserted their claim to freedom and independence on the basis of certain “self-evident” truths about the human person: truths which could be discerned in human nature, built into it by “nature's God.”

Thus they meant to bring into being, not just an independent territory, but a great experiment in what George Washington called “ordered liberty:” an experiment in which men and women would enjoy equality of rights and opportunities in the pursuit of happiness and in service to the common good.

Reading the founding documents of the United States, one has to be impressed by the concept of freedom they enshrine: a freedom designed to enable people to fulfill their duties and responsibilities towards the family and towards the common good of the community.

Their authors clearly understood that there could be no true freedom without moral responsibility and accountability, and no happiness without respect and support for the natural units or groupings through which people exist, develop and seek the higher purposes of life in concert with others.

The American democratic experiment has been successful in many ways. Millions of people around the world look to the United States as a model, in their search for freedom, dignity, and prosperity.

But the continuing success of American democracy depends on the degree to which each new generation, native-born and immigrant, make its own the moral truths on which the Founding Fathers staked the future of your Republic. Their commitment to build a free society with liberty and justice for all must be constantly renewed if the United States is to fulfill the destiny to which the Founders pledged their “lives … fortunes … and sacred honor.”

I am happy to take note of your words confirming the importance that your Government attaches, in its relations with countries around the world, to the promotion of human rights and particularly to the fundamental human right of religious freedom, which is the guarantee of every other human right. Respect for religious conviction played no small part in the birth and early development of the United States.

Thus John Dickinson said in 1766: “Our liberties do not come from charters; for these are only the declaration of pre-existing rights. They do not depend on parchments or seals; but come from the King of Kings and the Lord of all the earth” (Cf. C. Herman Pritchett, The American Constitution, McGraw-Hill, 1977, p. 2).

Indeed, it may be asked whether the American democratic experiment would have been possible, or how well it will succeed in the future, without a deeply rooted vision of divine providence over the individual and over the fate of nations.

As the Year 2000 draws near and Christians prepare to celebrate the bi-millennium of the birth of Christ, I have appealed for a serious examination of conscience regarding the shadows which darken our times (cf. Apostolic Letter Tertio Millennio Adveniente, 36). Nations and States too can make this a time of reflection on the spiritual and moral conditions of their success in promoting the integral good of their people.

It would truly be a sad thing if the religious and moral convictions upon which the American experiment was founded could now somehow be considered a danger to free society, such that those who would bring these convictions to bear upon your nation's public life would be denied a voice in debating and resolving issues of public policy.

The original separation of Church and State in the United States was certainly not an effort to ban all religious conviction from the public sphere, a kind of banishment of God from civil society. Indeed, the vast majority of Americans, regardless of their religious persuasion, are convinced that religious conviction and religiously informed moral argument have a vital role in public life.

No expression of society's commitment to liberty and justice for all can be more basic than the protection afforded to those in society who are most vulnerable. The United States of America was founded on the conviction that an inalienable right to life was a self-evident moral truth, fidelity to which was a primary criterion of social justice.

The moral history of your country is the story of your people's efforts to widen the circle of inclusion in society, so that all Americans might enjoy the protection of law, participate in the responsibilities of citizenship, and have the opportunity to make a contribution to the common good.

Whenever a certain category of people — the unborn or the sick and old — are excluded from that protection, a deadly anarchy subverts the original understanding of justice. The credibility of the United States will depend more and more on its promotion of a genuine culture of life, and on a renewed commitment to building a world in which the weakest and most vulnerable are welcomed and protected.

As they have done throughout your country's history, the Catholic people of the United States will continue to make an important contribution to the development of American culture and society.

Thus John Dickinson said in 1766: “Our liberties do not come from charters; for these are only the declaration of pre-existing rights. They do not depend on parchments or seals; but come from the King of Kings and the Lord of all the earth”

'John Paul II

The recently completed Special Assembly of the Synod of Bishops for America has highlighted the range and variety of activity which Catholics, out of commitment to Christ, undertake for the betterment of society. May this transforming and elevating work continue to flourish for the good of individuals, the strengthening of families, and the benefit of the American people as a whole.

Your Excellency, these are some of the thoughts prompted by your presence here as your country's diplomatic representative. These reflections evoke a prayer: that your country will experience a new birth of freedom, a freedom grounded in truth and ordered to goodness.

Thus will the American people be able to harness their boundless spiritual energy in service of the genuine good of all humanity. Be assured that the various Offices of the Holy See will be ready to assist you in the fulfillment of your mission. Upon you and upon the people of the United States of America I cordially invoke abundant divine blessings.

Message of The Holy Father To U.S. National Prayer Breakfast

Here follow excerpts from the Pope's Jan. 29, 2000, remarks:

Your nation was built as an experiment in ordered freedom, an experiment in which the exercise of individual freedom would contribute to the common good. The American separation of Church and State as institutions was accompanied from the beginning of your Republic by the conviction that strong religious faith, and the public expression of religiously-informed judgments, contribute significantly to the moral health of the body politic. …

Looking back on my own lifetime, I am convinced that the epoch-making changes taking place and the challenges appearing at the dawn of this new millennium call for just such a “prophetic” function on the part of religious believers in public life.

And, may I say, this is particularly true of you who represent the American people, with their rich heritage of commitment to freedom and equality under the law, their spirit of independence and commitment to the common good, their self-reliance and generosity in sharing their God-given gifts. In the century just ended, this heritage became synonymous with freedom itself for people throughout the world, as they sought to cast off the shackles of totalitarianism and to live in freedom.

As one who is personally grateful for what America did for the world in the darkest days of the twentieth century, allow me to ask: Will America continue to inspire people to build a truly better world, a world in which freedom is ordered to truth and goodness?

Or will America offer the example of a pseudo-freedom which, detached from the moral norms that give life direction and fruitfulness, turns in practice into a narrow and ultimately inhuman self-enslavement, one which smothers people's spirits and dissolves the foundations of social life?

These questions pose themselves in a particularly sharp way when we confront the urgent issue of protecting every human being's inalienable right to life from conception until natural death.

This is the great civil rights issue of our time, and the world looks to the United States for leadership in cherishing every human life and in providing legal protection for all the members of the human community, but especially those who are weakest and most vulnerable.

For religious believers who bear political responsibility, our times offer a daunting yet exhilarating challenge. I would go so far as to say that their task is to save democracy from self-destruction. Democracy is our best opportunity to promote the values that will make the world a better place for everyone, but a society which exalts individual choice as the ultimate source of truth undermines the very foundations of democracy.

If there is no objective moral order which everyone must respect, and if each individual is expected to supply his or her own truth and ethic of life, there remains only the path of contractual mechanisms as the way of organizing our living together in society. In such a society the strong will prevail and the weak will be swept aside.

As I have written elsewhere, “if there is no ultimate truth to guide and direct political action, then ideas and convictions can easily be manipulated for reasons of power. As history demonstrates, a democracy without values easily turns into open or thinly disguised totalitarianism” (Encyclical Letter Centesimus Annus, No. 46).

Faith compels Christians in the public arena in your country to promote a new political culture of service, based on the vision of life and civilization that has sustained the American people in the positive character and outlook that has nourished their optimism, their hope, their willingness to be generous in the service of others, and will protect them from the cynicism which dissipates the very energies needed for building the future.

Today this optimism is being tested, but the Gospel of Jesus Christ remains the sturdy foundation of hope for the future.

I am convinced that, precisely at this crossroads in history, the Christian message of truth and justice, and of our universal brotherhood as God's beloved children, has the power to emerge once again as the “good news” for our times, a compelling invitation to real hope.

It will do so if “the power of God leading to salvation” (cf. Romans 1:16) is seen in the transformed lives of those who profess the Gospel as the pole-star of their lives and the deepest source of their commitment to others. To build a future of hope is, to use a favorite expression of the late Pope Paul VI, to build a “civilization of love”.

Love, as Scripture teaches, casts out fear: fear of the future, fear of the other, fear that there is not enough room at the banquet of life for the least of our brothers and sisters.

Love does not tear down but is rather the virtue that “builds up”. And this is my prayer for you: that as men and women involved in public life, you will truly be builders of a civilization of love, of a society which, precisely because it embodies the highest values of truth, justice and freedom for all, is also a sign of the presence of God's Kingdom and its peace.