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Congratulations to Trenton Mattingly for winning second place in our third annual Student Essay Contest. Here is his response to prompt #3St. Augustine says that we are on a pilgrimage through this world. On this pilgrimage, can we have a “home” to which we should be loyal?

The University of Notre Dame’s Basilica of the Sacred Heart sits on a portion of campus known as “God Quad.” The basilica is 218 feet tall, contains 116 stained glass windows, sits beside a 4,000-pound gold statue of the Virgin Mary, and is home to the oldest carillon in the United States. Yet another remarkable feature is the basilica’s World War I Memorial Door. Dedicated on May 30, 1924, it commemorates fifty-six students, alumni, and faculty from the university who gave their lives during the Great War. Directly above it, a carving reads: God, Country, Notre Dame. At the door’s dedication ceremony, Rev. Thomas E. Walsh, C.S.C., former president of Notre Dame, said, “We should imitate our dead in that they have shown us the lesson of patriotism.” We ought to consider this statement carefully. Is patriotism for our earthly home something to imitate? St. Augustine wrote that our time on earth is but a pilgrimage; our true citizenship, our true home, is in heaven—the city of God. With our eternal destination in mind, is it wise or moral to cultivate loyalty for an earthly home? The answer is yes: Fostering love for an earthly home is not only moral and wise, but necessary.

Before we can address the nuances of this argument, we must return to the World War I Memorial Door, thinking of “God, Country, Notre Dame” as a list of priorities. This inscription may strike us as odd: Why does “country” appear on the side of a church at all? Many in the United States would never dream of including “country” on a list of their primary loyalties. Visit your nearest institution of higher education and ask around. It will not be difficult to find young undergrads or seasoned professors who demonstrate little love for America. Most are simply indifferent, though others provide detailed reasons for why they are not particularly fond of the United States.

This isn’t only true in secular circles—Catholics in particular, on both ends of the political spectrum, feel they do not have a place in the contemporary United States. Isolated in a culture that frequently opposes their core values, they fear being too much “of the world”—a fear that often leaves no room for patriotism. “I can’t make a difference,” say many Catholics. “Things are too far gone. I’m just going to stay home and pray.” These valid concerns demonstrate evidence of a healthy conscience, but they can lead us in a dangerous direction. Too little love for country can be deeply problematic.

In fact, it can lead one toward a kind of Gnostic dualism, which declares the physical world unimportant or even evil. To reject one’s country, even with the desire to orient oneself to the City of God, is to reject God’s plan for mankind to subsist in a world that is both physical and spiritual. God created the material world and called it good. He created humanity with a temporal body and an eternal soul and called this creation good as well. Thus, humanity should foster a general love not only for the eternal world, but also for the slice of the temporal world they reside in: their home country. Though it may be broken and corrupted by sin, it is still a creation of God.

Some might question how one can love a country that permits heinous practices such as abortion or euthanasia. But patriotism does not necessitate turning a blind eye to immorality. On the contrary, patriotic citizens should be less willing to allow problematic issues to fester. As St. Pope John Paul II said in a 1998 address: “It is a basic human right to live in one’s own country. However, this right becomes effective only if the factors that urge people to emigrate are constantly kept under control.” We must always strive to keep these factors under control. Love does not entail ignoring faults or abstaining from criticism. Acknowledgment of great evil in a country is love of country; an exhortation for change is an expression of love. Christ himself conducted much of His earthly ministry in this manner. Without critique, there is no room for progress, and eventually disillusioned citizens, as John Paul II said, may be forced to leave. But if every citizen fostered a great love of their country, faults would be less likely to go unchecked. Elie Wiesel, in a 1999 speech at the White House, warned against the dangers of indifference. The society of the Holocaust era consisted of three parties: “the killers, the victims, and the bystanders.” This is an extreme example, but it demonstrates what has, and could, happen if a large portion of a population does not love their country enough to fight the atrocities within it.

In a 1938 radio broadcast, Venerable Fulton Sheen observed that St. Thomas Aquinas included patriotism, or love of country, under Piety in the Summa Theologica. Sheen explained that Aquinas’s reasoning is based on the belief that patriotism is, at its root, simply love of neighbor. Aquinas declares that our parents and our country are responsible for our “birth and nourishment” and that we are in debt to both parties for the good they’ve bestowed upon us. This debt can only be paid by assisting, respecting, and loving your parents and the citizens of your country. All too often people think they aren’t patriotic because they don’t wave flags around or belt out anthems. But while those practices may often be symptoms of patriotism, they need not be the only expressions of it. Aquinas’s definition is the correct way to think about allegiance to country. Catholics needn’t like or support every decision a government makes, but they cannot forget that all governments are animated by fellow citizens. As James Schall, S.J. explains, “The polity is not a ‘thing,’ apart from existing citizens, claiming its own substantial life.” Dislike of government decisions need not carry over into a dislike of country.

The Church likes the idea of loving neighbor so much that it has developed a rich tradition of Catholic Social Teaching (CST) around it. CST, as stated on the USCCB website, is “a rich treasure of wisdom about building a just society and living lives of holiness amidst the challenges of modern society.” According to CST, “people have a right and a duty to participate in society, seeking together the common good and well-being of all, especially the poor and vulnerable.” We should emphasize the word “duty.” This is not a suggestion, but a responsibility supported by a variety of Church documents and papal encyclicals, including Gaudium et Spes and Familiaris Consortio. This responsibility finds its roots in Sacred Scripture. Consider Hebrews 10:24–25 or James 2:14–17. Disengaging from society is not an option for Catholics, as it removes a perspective from the world that could be used to build a better one. Engagement in society that does not seek the common good, or seeks it in inappropriate and damaging ways, is also not an option. It is clear, then, that the only moral alternative left is to participate in society.

With that said, patriotism can be quite intimidating. It is easy to become discouraged as evils increase in our nation. Nevertheless, faithful Catholics would do well to remember that they have valuable gifts to bring to American society. As George Washington said in his farewell address to the people of the United States:

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, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens.

Never allow anyone to tell you that your Catholic faith has no place in your earthly home or that your Catholicism should prevent you from loving your country. Your faith demands love and loyalty for your country. Furthermore, it provides insights that our nation desperately needs, that it cannot find anywhere else.

Trenton Mattingly is a graduate student in theology at the University of Notre Dame.

Photo by Eccekevin via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

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