Sunday, July 03, 2005


The Declaration of Independence from a Catholic Perspective

If I were to ask you the question “What took place on July 4, 1776?,” You would probably say, “Well, that’s a no-brainer. Why that’s the day America declared independence.” Although that answer would seem like a no-brainer, it wouldn’t be entirely correct. John Adams, writing back to his wife Abigail in Braintree, Mass. foresaw the celebration of independence by succeeding generations with the kind of pomp and circumstance we celebrate the 4th of July. But the date he gave was July 2nd because that was the day independence was actually decided. What took place on the fourth was that the final draft of the Declaration, after undergoing over a hundred revisions, was approved. If anyone is looking for proof that the Hand of God was active in guiding the events of the American Revolution, you need look no further than the fact that a committee of some 50 people edited the work of a great writer like Thomas Jefferson and not only didn’t screw it up, but vastly improved it. Nothing other than the Grace of God could pull a miracle of this magnitude off. Because when you normally allow a committee to take a hack at the work of a genius, the end result is something that is too horrific for the most iron- stomached imagination to contemplate.

In any event, independence is the object of our celebration. It’s the foundation of our country. It is therefore important that we as Americans have a basic understanding of what independence
means from a truly American perspective, particularly when you consider the fact that many people in our country, including but not limited to at least six out of our nine Supreme Court Justices, are confused as to what that is. Just as one cannot be a good Catholic without having
a fundamental understanding of the faith one cannot be a good citizen without knowing his own national heritage.

Nothing expresses the American heritage in a more succinct and timeless way than the Declaration of Independence. Thomas Jefferson rightly called the Declaration of Independence “an expression of the American mind.”

Far from relieving us this patriotic duty of learning our American heritage, our Catholic faith actually reinforces it. Vatican II, in it’s pastoral constitution on modern world Gaudium et Spes states that “Citizens must cultivate a generous and loyal spirit of patriotism.... (#73)”

It would naturally follow from this that the American Catholic would want to know what, if anything, do the ideas contained in the Declaration of Independence share in common with our Catholic faith. That’s the question I will take up in this short paper. And what this paper will demonstrate is that this document, although drawn up and signed by men who were predominately non-Catholic (the only Catholic signer was Charles Carroll of Maryland), along with being an expression of the American mind as to how men should govern themselves in the secular sphere, it is also an expression of the Catholic mind in that endeavor.

But before you go any further, take a few minutes and actually read it. Perhaps it can be said that we celebrate both our independence and the power the words of The Declaration of Independence convey as to its meaning every 4th of July.

And needless to say, I think the occasion warrants such reading.

Even a cursory reading of the Declaration of Independence immediately dispels two commonly held misconceptions. The first of which is that God or religion was to have no direct influence on civil society or body politic. This error is advocated with great zeal, by such groups as the ACLU, People for the American Way, etc. It has also been buttressed by a number of high court rulings. For example, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco ruling that the phrase “ Under God “ in the Pledge of Allegiance was unconstitutional back a few years ago.

On this basis, they would have rule the Declaration of Independence itself as unconstitutional. It not only makes references to God, but appeals to Him as a judge. Now this is like pouring salt on an open wound to the “Separation of Church and State” crowd.

If any of them believe in God at all, He is nothing more than a benevolently senile old man whose only concern at the end of the day is that a good time was had by all. Our Founders saw the influence of religion not only as permissible, but essential to the survival of the republic. John Adams, speaking of the Constitution says: “ Our Constitution is for a religious and moral people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of another.”

In his Farewell Address of 1796, George Washington said: "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 labour to subvert these great Pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of Men & citizens. "

In light of the damage wrought by the “Separation of Church and State” advocacy groups along with their willing accomplices on the various Federal benches, President Washington’s words here were indeed prophetic.

The second misconception is that our Founding Fathers, especially Thomas Jefferson, the principal author of the Declaration, were Deists. Now, the fundamental doctrine in Deism is a belief that once God creates, He takes no active part in caring for what He has created. If our Founding fathers held such a view, you would think that they would’ve had enough sense to know that it would be useless to appeal to judgment of a God who could care less what they do or rely upon the providence of a God who cares nothing for them.

Now, despite some of the unorthodox religious beliefs held by our Founding Fathers, they believed as does the Catholic Church, that the hand of God was very active in history. This belief was the animating principle of the whole revolutionary effort .

Furthermore, the Catholic Church, as well as Christianity as a whole believes that God, in Christ, not only directly acts in human history, but actually takes on human nature and becomes an intimate part of that history. And Christianity, in one form or another, was the dominating religious belief of our founders.

The Church also believes that nature serves as a criteria by which moral judgments are made. You can’t get very far in learning about Catholic doctrine without seeing this. Contrary to what some people believe, Catholic moral doctrine is not mythical speculation of a bunch of cranky celibates locked in the Vatican. Nature also bears a clear witness to the existence of the Creator. The First Vatican Council states:

" If anyone says that the one true God, our Creator and Lord, cannot be known with certainty by the light of natural human reason by means of the things that are made, let him be anathema." (De Revelatione, can. 1)

So, when the Declaration states that our independence is an entitlement of the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God “ it ought to pique the attention of any Catholic. It sure made an impression on the the late (and Great) Pope John Paul II. In his letter to then-U.S. Ambassador to the Holy See Lindy Boggs back in 1997, he states:

“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 toward the family and toward 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 foundation of these “natural groupings” and hence society as a whole is the family despite all the spin-doctoring of today’s so-called experts who say that what the family is defined by a given culture. It is plain, or to borrow a phrase from the Declaration, “self-evident,”
that it is God Himself, speaking through nature, who defines what the family is. And it is in the
context of the family that God wishes brings forth life.

It is not by mistake that life, therefore, is listed as the first amongst these “trinity” of inalienable rights. Why? The simplest reason on earth. Without life there is no liberty or pursuit of happiness. Since the right to life is the most important of all rights, it would follow that the natural means through which that life is transmitted be held inviolate. It is to secure, not rewrite or reinvent, theses natural rights that governments are instituted among men.

Therefore, to deem as legitimate, by way of civil law, destruction of innocent life, from the moment of conception until the time of natural death for any reason or any offense to its natural transmission (i.e. fornication, adultery, homosexuality, contraception etc.), regardless what this or that court says, is not only immoral and un-Christian, it is also un-American. Often times, in the attempt to make God’s law irrelevant in civil society, one must also turns man’s law on its head.

The idea that governments derived their “just powers from the consent of governed” that is that all political authority comes from God, but He bestows upon the people and they, in turn, transfer it to some king or ruler finds its most immediate origins in the Catholic Middle Ages.

St. Thomas Aquinas States:
The ruler has power and eminence from the subjects, and, in the event of his despising them, he sometimes loses both his power and position” (“De Erudit. Princ.” Bk. I, c. 6).

In the latter part of the Middle Ages, due to the rise of extreme nationalism, rulers became more tyrannical and hostile to the rights of the people. And since the people saw the Church as the greatest defenders of their rights, these ruler saw the Church as their chief obstacle.
One of the main reasons why the Protestantism was able to gain so much traction in certain parts of Europe was that their political philosophy that held that rulers held their power directly from God without any consent of the people. The greatest defender of the traditional Catholic view against this Protestant novelty, known as Divine Right of Kings, was St. Cardinal Robert Bellarmine. He states:

“ In a commonwealth are born naturally free; consequently the people themselves immediately and directly, hold the political power so long as they have transferred this power to some king or ruler.”

Citing this quote in his political treatise Patriarcha, private theologian for King James I of England Sir Robert Filmer states:

“ This tenet was first hatched in the schools and hath been fostered by all succeeding papists.”
King James I used this theory as the basis of persecuting Catholics in the 17th century.

If God bestows political power by way of consent of the governed, as both the Declaration of Independence and Catholic political thought contend, it would naturally follow that the people can, should circumstances require, depose a ruler and/or change the form of government. The Declaration of Independence states: “ Should any government become destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it and institute new government.”

St. Thomas says:

“If any society of people have a right of choosing a king, then the king so established can be deposed by them without injustice, or his power can be curbed, when by tyranny he abuses his regal power” (“De Rege et Regno,” Bk. I, c. 6).

St Bellarmine:

“For legitimate reasons the people can change the government to an aristocracy or a democracy or vice versa” (“De Laicis,” c. 6).

This goes right into the next point. The Declaration states:
“ prudence indeed will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. “

This dispels another misconception that our founding fathers were possessed by a revolutionary spirit just looking for an excuse to buck the establishment. When we look at how the colonialists dealt with the tensions that arose between them and the Crown that began at the end of the French and Indian War in 1759 culminating with Independence in 1776, we see that the exact opposite is true. While standing firm against the Crown’s attempted encroachment on their rights granted to them under English law, independence was the furthest thing from their mind.

For example, we have Ben Franklin saying to Lord Chatham in March 1775: “ I have not heard in any conversation, from any person, drunk or sober, the least expression for a wish for a separation or even a hint that such a thing would be advantageous for America. “

John Adams, known as the Atlas of Independence and who, by his own account made himself obnoxious for the cause of independence recalls later in his life: “ For my part, there was not a moment during the revolution that I would not have given everything I ever possessed for a restoration to the state of things before the contest began.”

In July of that year, the colonial leadership drew up what was called the “Olive Branch Petition, ” which, as the title suggests was an appeal to the king for peace. This petition not only didn’t express any desire to cut the strings of the Mother Country, but sought to strengthen that bond all the more. They entrusted to Richard Penn grandson of William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania, with delivering it to the King.

So what happened? What was the straw that broke the camel’s back? It was the action of one man. His name wasn’t John Adams. Nor was it Ben Franklin. Nor was it Thomas Jefferson. His first name was George, but his last name wasn’t Washington. It was Hanover III, King of England. King George III would not even receive Richard Penn. We don’t even know if he had read the Olive Branch Petition. Instead he issued an intemperate statement threatening “condign punishment” to those “wicked and desperate” authors of the petition.And "condign punishment" for treason was far from a proverbial slap on the wrist.

But the idea expressed by the declaration here also reflects another Catholic idea that whether or not to take action in such a drastic case as this, one must take into account the evil effects that such an action might bring about and that it must be less than those that such action is intended to avoid.

As we all know, the issue of whether or not our war with Iraq was moral and just got a great deal of attention in the Catholic press. Along with that was a lot of talk about the Just War Doctrine. If you go to the Catechism, you will see in #2309 the conditions for a just war laid out, and in condition of #4 it says that “the use of arms must not produce evils and disorders graver than the evil to be eliminated.” Contrary to the view held by some, our Founding Fathers were not the patron saints of frivolous insurrections, but were role models of the Catholic principle of proportionality in action.

The closing phrase of the Declaration reads thus:

“ And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the
protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our
Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”

This speaks a language that the Catholic Church understands well, the language of sacrifice. Our Founders understood that a liberty that had not the willingness to sacrifice for the sake a the greater good was not worthy of the name. They spoke this language not only with words but with heroism and great personal suffering. Of those 56 who signed the Declaration of Independence, nine died of wounds or hardships during the war. Five were captured and imprisoned, in each case with brutal treatment. Several lost wives, sons or entire families. One lost his 13 children. Two wives were brutally treated. All were at one time or another the victims of manhunts and driven from their homes. Twelve signers had their homes completely burned. Seventeen lost everything they owned.

One particular signer I found most interesting was Caesar Rodney of Delaware. {1}Days before the vote in Congress, he had to go back home to tend to a family emergency. At two o’clock on the morning of July 2nd, he gets a knock on the door. It’s a courier with a message that he is needed back in Philadelphia to vote for independence, that everything will turn on this. So, he gets on his horse, and as he says, “Rode like the Devil“ 89 miles to Philadelphia.

Now, an 89 miles on horseback was a treacherous journey, particularly when you consider the fact that not only were the roads much rougher back then, but also the darkness was much more menacing because there were no electric street lights back then. You couldn’t just erase the darkness like we can now. To make matters worse, it was pouring rain. By the time he arrived at the State House, now called Independence Hall in Philadelphia, he was covered with mud and was so exhausted that he had to be carried in.

John Adams said of Caesar Rodney that he was the oddest looking man he had ever seen, tall and thin like a reed. The reason he was so odd looking is that he had cancer of the eye and check. He had planned to go to England to see a doctor who was the only doctor in the world who could treat this cancer. But that chance was thrown to the winds by his voting for independence. He would have been arrested, tried and executed for treason.

Now, if riding 89 miles on horseback in pouring rain and driving oneself to complete exhaustion to deny himself much needed medical treatment by voting for independence is not an example of great sacrifice, few things are!

Many of our Founding Fathers were well off and could have very easily stayed that way if they had gone along with tyranny of the Crown. They knew that they risked losing everything, including their lives, as some did, by declaring independence. But they also knew they had a duty to God and their posterity, as the impact of the American Experiment on the following 227 years of world history proves, to stand firm in the cause of justice and liberty.

The importance of America’s role in mankind’s destiny as foreseen by the Founding Fathers has not escaped the notice of the Church. Just after WWII, Pope Pius XII said, “America has a genius for great and unselfish deeds. Into the hands of America God has placed the
destiny of an afflicted mankind.”

A genius for great and UNSELFISH deeds. An interesting choice of words. It is not very often that we hear those words in conjunction with one another. But it is in the welding of these two attributes that most characterizes both this country and our faith. I had the honor being in St. Peter’s Square when Pope John Paul II canonized Philadelphia native Katherine Drexel. In his homily, he said that Katharine Drexel is an excellent example of that practical charity and generous solidarity with the less fortunate which has long been the distinguishing mark of American Catholics.

Much is said, and correctly so, unfortunately about what’s wrong with the Church in America as well as America as a whole, particularly in light of the priestly sex abuse scandal. But let us not forget what is right with the Church in this country. For example, the combination of apostolic zeal and American enterprise has given birth to apologetic, evangelization, charitable outreaches, and various that have not only been successful here, but have served as a model for the rest of the
Catholic world.

Although we have barely begun to see what the birth of this great nation has in common with our Catholic faith, one thing’s for certain. Both are well worth “Our Lives, Our Fortunes, and Our Sacred Honor.”


{1} On the quarter for the state of Delaware, the image of the man riding the horse is Cesar Rodney.


The Declaration of Independence and Catholic Sources by the late Father John Rager.

The Political Philosophy of St. Robert Bellarmine by Father John Rager. Published by the Apostolate of Our Lady of Siluva.
P.O. Box 4787, Spokane, Washington 99202-0787

Why the Colonies Declared Independence, The Writing of The Declaration of Independence, Michael Medved-Recorded July 3, 1998

Rush H. Limbaugh Jr. (Father of talk radio phemon Rush Limbaugh) speech: The Americans Who Risked Everything)


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