What makes a Catholic patriot?

Alex Brandon AP A flag and and a copy of the U.S. Constitution are held in front of Independence Hall … Continued

Alex Brandon


A flag and and a copy of the U.S. Constitution are held in front of Independence Hall during a rally for religious freedom organized in part by the Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia Friday, March 23, 2012 in Philadelphia. The rally was in objection to the Health and Human Service mandate that private health care cover women’s contraception.

Patriot Catholic or Patriotic Catholic?

This is the choice seemingly raised by the US Catholic bishops’ recent letter, “Our First, Most Cherished Liberty.”

To get things going, let me share a dream I had two decades ago.

I entered a church. The pews on both sides were full. On one side, everyone was wearing New England Patriots jerseys; on the other, the jerseys were those of the Chicago Bears. I took my seat with the Patriots.

I thought the dream had to do with the conflict between my Massachusetts undergraduate training and my graduate studies in Chicago. I also considered that the symbolism might have to with my ursine tendencies to sleep all day and eat a lot. So, I talked with my spiritual advisor about it. Unimpressed by my interpretations, he asked me: “Do think of yourself as a ‘Patriot Catholic’?”

It took me a moment. “Patriot Catholic?” Then I got it—someone who passionately defends the counter-cultural aspects of Catholicism. I was that, certainly. But I also thought that I was a “Patriotic Catholic”—someone at home in America, who believed Catholicism and American culture could inform each another. Patriot Catholic or Patriotic Catholic? Which was I?

While the bishops do not use the idiosyncratic wording preferred by my spiritual advisor, they do address the distinction. It is a false choice: Catholics are patriotic Americans precisely in their catholicity. In their letter, the bishops argue this both clearly and evocatively, and enter a rhetorical space that is sure to embolden some and unnerve others.

But there is also a subtext to the letter that has to do with American Catholic dreams—dreams of people like me. But let’s consider the conscious agenda of the letter before we get to its unconscious resonances.

Alex Brandon


Flags and signs are held during a rally for religious freedom organized in part by the Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia in front of Independence Hall Friday, March 23, 2012 in Philadelphia. The rally was in objection to the Health and Human Service mandate that private health care cover women’s contraception.

In “Our First, Most Cherished Liberty,” the bishops do not focus on contraception, Catholic teaching on sexuality, or any of the points of contention between Catholicism and the larger culture. Instead, the goal is to reclaim a narrative that places Catholic distinctiveness within the broader context of what makes American society distinctive. The letter leads off by referencing Baltimore archbishop James Gibbons’ defense of American “civil liberty”— a defense that would eventually contribute to Vatican concerns about “Americanism,” which Pope Leo XIII addressed in his 1899 letter “Testem Benevolentiae Nostrae.” While the bishops do not mention the “Americanism” debate specifically, they do acknowledge how American Catholic experience has enriched Catholicism as a whole.

The bishops argue that all other freedoms flow from the freedom of religion. “Our First, Most Cherished Liberty” discusses Protestant and Catholic settlers who came to Maryland and were able to live together under the “Toleration Act” of 1649. But that experiment ended, which is one reason why religion must act not as government’s “servant,” but as its “conscience, guide, and critic.” Accordingly, freedom of religion is not just about freedom of worship since religion has a much wider role to play within society. Here the bishops’ letter foregrounds the words and example of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and opens what seems to me to be a very different rhetorical field.

In addition to its discussions of “unjust laws,” the bishops’ letter is replete with evocative examples of Catholic resistors: St. Thomas More, St. John Fisher as well as Peter, Paul, and those who are, to us, nameless Christians who have been killed because of their religious identity in other parts of the word. Reverend King’s prominence in the bishops’ reflections points to a striking use of images that together are American, American Catholic, and Catholic. This is an essential part of visualizing the substantive point that the bishops want to make about religion’s contribution to the dynamic of American civil society.

But it is here that we see the dreams of American Catholics shaping discourse as well.

When the HHS mandate was first announced, especially surprising to some was how negative reactions were expressed by Catholics who were doubtless uncomfortable with church teaching on contraception, not to mention with the current state of affairs in American Catholicism.

The original HHS mandate was seen as potentially encroaching on Catholic spaces by a different order of magnitude than similar state laws. Those Catholic spaces include not just churches, but hospitals and educational institutions– spaces that were created out of the dreams Catholics had both as Catholics and as Americans.

Looking back on my “Patriot Catholic” dream now, I realize that it was about where I could be safe during a particularly uncertain time in my life. Today we are far removed from vituperations about “Rum, Romanism, and Rebellion.” But every Catholic can point to experiences in which she or he has been considered strange or suspect. So, while the rhetoric surrounding American Catholicism has changed, the dream of having a safe space as a Catholic can still become quite powerful indeed. However that dream plays out for individual Catholics, the bishops’ letter reminds us that it is properly connected to a larger dream that is not about seeking refuge, but about seeking to be fully American and fully Catholic. The crucial issue is how this larger dream can continue to find expression in waking life.

Mathew N. Schmalz
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  • JDale_123

    “What makes a Catholic patriot?”

    A lobotomy would be a good start.

  • DavidJ9

    Anyone who puts the demands of a foreign head of state above his own nation is not a patriot. John Kennedy knew that the pope, as a foreign head of state, would not be the one telling him what to do. The American bishops seem to have forgotten that they need to follow the example of Kennedy and stop acting as agents for a foreign nation.

  • mikestech

    “They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; your word is truth.” –John 17:16-17

    THAT’S what makes someone a patriot Catholic. God first, country second.


    Catholics cannot be patriotic Americans if their first allegiance is to foreign power, the Vatican.

  • ccnl1

    Recognizing the flaws, follies and frauds in the foundations of Islam, Judaism and Christianity, the “bowers”, kneelers” and “pew peasants” are converging these religions into some simple rules of life. No koran, bible, clerics, nuns, monks, imams, evangelicals, ayatollahs, rabbis, professors of religion or priests needed or desired.

    Ditto for houses of “worthless worship” aka mosques, churches, basilicas, cathedrals, temples and synagogues.

  • jwyates214

    Our “allegiance” is to God.

  • macnietspingal1

    Everyone can now speak to YHWH directly. When will you all simply use COMMON ENGLISH BIBLE, The Trope Trainer, Davka Soncino Talmud and undo all the damage Helen, mommy of Constantine, did in the Middle East when as Josephus observed it was simply Antony, Cleopatra, Arab and Jew.
    Analyze that observation if your brains can handle it.


    The Vatican was part of the Axis in WWII – the Nazis and the fascists.

  • catatonicjones

    Catholics bow before a foreign despot before they ‘nod’ to the constitution. How can they be seen as anything but traitors?

  • catatonicjones

    Who manages your god for you, the Pope? David has it exactly right, traitor.

  • catatonicjones


  • catatonicjones

    America is a safe place for Catholics. The rest of us don’t trust you to put America before the Pope, but hey …. you still get to vote, don’t you?

  • nkri401


    Your allegiance is to God –

    Which God is this? And why is this important?

  • Rongoklunk

    How do you make a patriotic Catholic? Easy. Fill his head full of Catholic religious teachings when he’s stll a child. Tell him often there’s a white bearded old God who lives in the sky, watching over us. That is absolutely essential. Then have him attend church as often as possible, keep him away from athiests, send him to a Catholic school and later to a religious college. That should do it. By the time he’s all grown up he’ll be totally hypnotized – and will emerge as a patriotic Catholic, probably for the rest of his life.

    Works like a charm.

  • mikestech

    The only God there is. And it’s important because when I die, I won’t be answering to President Obama.

  • mikestech

    Who manages my God for me? God manages Himself. I trust the pope because Jesus did first (Matthew 16:18).

    You calling me a traitor because I don’t put President Obama before God doesn’t hurt my feelings in the least. I suggest you reorganize your priorities.

  • ThomasBaum

    And this God has a Plan that is truly catholic, universal, not just for all of humanity but for all of creation.

  • mikestech

    I’m a born, raised and educated (that’s the key) Catholic, and I certainly was never kept away from atheists. In fact, today I seek them out. Catholics have nothing to fear from atheists because unlike many denominations, we actually do profess logic and reason in our beliefs. And while many can’t, there are Catholics — myself included — who can and will defend our beliefs on an intellectual basis. And when you really study it, Catholicism makes a lot more sense than atheism.

    Atheism, like it or not, is a religion. And Richard Dawkins –who, by the way, refuses to debate Catholic theologian Dr. Edward Feser — is your pope.

  • Rongoklunk


    Don’t agree, of course. First off…atheism is disbelief in God or gods. We don’t believe they could possibly exist. And there’s not a scrap of evidence to suggest they do, and a whole lot of evidence to suggest they don’t.
    Firstly we know now that all the ancient gods from Apollo to Zeus, from Thor to Isis, were mythical; invented by people. It’s what we do, we invent gods. At the last count there were more than 3,500 gods, all mythical. Your God, and Allah, and Brahma, and Vishnu are on that list. Mythical.That’s why nobody ever saw one. That’s why nobody ever had any contact with one. That’s why prayers don’t work. That’s why no god ever rushes into reality and stops tsunamis, or earthquakes, or volcanoes, or floods, or famines, or wars, or murders, or pedophilia. That’s why siamese twins can be born with two heads, because there’s no god supervising things.
    To posit a god as being responsible for the creation of the cosmos and existence, is exactly as silly as positing that mother nature is a little old lady with headscarf and clogs. It is THAT absurd. It is that anthropomorphism that angered even Einstein who wrote that it was “naive, even childish” to posit a person (even a super one) i when it’s all about chemistry and eons of time. It is a process, not a person. And there’s absolutely no reason to believe in a person of any kind as being involved. It actually complicates things much more, because we then have to ask “Where did He come from?”

    Dawkins, by the way, can’t debate every crackpot who claims there’s a god. He’s got better things to do. Besides he does debate with many bigger believers like the Archbishop of Canterbury. You should try reading one of his books. He;s quite brilliant. Try reading his “The Greatest Show On Earth”. It’s all about how life evolved over billions of years. It’s outstanding and essential and true. Truth is more important than any religion.