Over fifty years ago, Fulton Sheen spoke to his TV audience about a seemingly lost virtue – patriotism. His address is eerily prophetic; if it were given without the blurred graphics and muted colors, you would be likely to think he were speaking in the middle of 2020.
What is Patriotism?
For St. Thomas, patriotism is actually a daughter of the virtue of pietas – piety. Piety is a form of justice, a respect given to those to whom we cannot repay a debt: God, parents, and yes, country. Thomas holds this under the virtue of justice because of the necessity we have as human persons upon each other and upon a hierarchy to live under. The fact that we are dependent on each other (and dependent on law & order) was never understood as a detriment to the dignity of the human person. It was only in a society that understood the role of pietas where the dignity of the human person could be said to live the “quiet, peaceful life” that St. Paul speaks of. It was this virtue that Sheen saw vanishing in a tumultuous America that, in Sheen’s own words from over fifty years ago, cried: “down with Churches, down with government, down with the police!”
With the loss of this virtue, Sheen warned us that we had only two options. For one, we may fight to defend what the founding fathers deemed inalienable: the dignity of man. This was the Jeffersonian track, based upon a revolution that sought absolute truth and the freedom to govern ourselves on the most local level possible (the principle of subsidiarity). The other option was from a contemporary of Jefferson named Louis St. Just. St. Just was a leader of the French Revolution whose edict was violence and destruction of anything associated with the past.
Jefferson and the founding fathers had as their guiding principle these inalienable rights with only one unmoveable foundation: God Himself. It was the basis upon which everyone was protected. For this reason, the electoral college was also developed, an invention that made the majority “the custodian of minority rights,” as Sheen put it, so that the majority might not become totalitarian over the minority.
St. Just’s principles operates, rather, under the pretext of violence. This is an “elitism… a dominant minority that makes a lot of noise and uses violence to force its will upon others… they have no flag, they only know what they are against and do not know what they are for.” It is run by a false “mysticism” with an all or nothing mentality that believes human freedom is really the license to do whatever one wants rather than, as John Paul II said it, “the ability to do what one ought.” Lastly, Sheen labels this a form of false messianism, in which the law and order inscribed on the human heart by Love and Goodness itself is subverted, abused, and dictated by human power.
Quo Vadis, America?
This was the title of the talk that Sheen gave so many years ago. It is Latin for “Where are you going, America?” Today (and in the days that follow) choices are being made to answer that question. Regardless of the outcome, a restoration of pietas and patriotism is in order. But the battle for the dignity of the human person is here. Therefore, “Put on the armor of God so that you may be able to stand firm… For our struggle is not with flesh and blood but with the principalities, with the powers, with the world rulers of this present darkness” (Eph 6:11-12). Let our weapons be prayer, family, community, and solidarity under the truth. Let the chain of the rosary unite us and turn us back to the truth. May we all be under the mantle of Mary’s protection.
(Postscript) Sheen’s address can be found here: https://youtu.be/gy6VtXVcGFw