American ‘proposition’ presumes sovereignty of God

September 26, 2010
by Bishop Thomas John Paprocki

My dear brothers and sisters in Christ,

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of a very significant book, We Hold These Truths: Catholic Reflections on the American Proposition, by Father John Courtney Murray, S.J. It is significant not only for what he said but for when he said it. He wrote just before the Second Vatican Council took place. In fact, he was an expert who was called on at that council for his theological expertise, particularly in the area of the relationship between church and state.

Father Murray opened his book by citing Springfield’s most famous citizen, Abraham Lincoln, saying, “It is classic American doctrine, immortally asserted by Lincoln, that the new nation that our Fathers brought forth on this continent was dedicated to a ‘proposition’ … made clear by the Declaration of Independence in the famous phrase, ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident … .’ Today, when the serene, and often naïve, certainties of the 18th century have crumbled, the self-evidence of the truths may legitimately be questioned.”

Father Murray wrote that the sense of this famous phrase is simply this: “There are truths, and we hold them, and we here lay down as the basis and inspiration of the American project, this constitutional commonwealth.”

For President Lincoln, the guiding truth proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence was the noble utterance, at once declaratory and imperative, “All men are created equal.”

Already in 1960 Father Murray identified two serious challenges to the consensus of this proposition, namely, pragmatism and pluralism. He explained, “For the pragmatist there are, properly speaking, no truths; there are only results. But the American proposition rests on the more traditional conviction that there are truths; that they can be known; that they must be held; for, if they are not held, assented to, consented to, worked into the texture of institutions, there can be no hope of founding a true City, in which men may dwell in dignity, peace, unity, justice, well-being, freedom.”

The challenge of pluralism means “the coexistence within the one political community of groups who hold divergent and incompatible views with regard to religious questions — those ultimate questions that concern the nature and destiny of man within a universe that stands under the reign of God. Pluralism therefore implies disagreement and dissension within the community. But it also implies a community within which there must be agreement and consensus. There is no small political problem here. If society is to be at all a rational process, some set of principles must motivate the general participation of all religious groups, despite their dissensions, in the oneness of the community. On the other hand, these common principles must not hinder the maintenance by each group of its own different identity.”

The first truth of the American proposition is the sovereignty of God over nations as well as over individual men and women. President Lincoln echoed this tradition with his proclamation of May 30, 1863: “Whereas the Senate of the United States, devoutly recognizing the supreme authority and just government of Almighty God in all the affairs of men and nations, has by a resolution requested the President to designate and set apart a day for national prayer and  humiliation. And whereas it is the duty of nations as well as of men to own their dependence upon the overruling power of God, to confess their sins and trespasses in humble sorrow, yet with the assured hope that genuine repentance will lead to mercy and pardon.”

This was in stark contrast to the laicist or secular tradition of Continental Europe that was the force behind the French Revolution. This laicist or secular tradition proclaimed the autonomous reason of man to be the first and sole principle of political organization. In 1960, Father Murray saw the rise of American secularism but identified it clearly as a dissent, citing a 1952 opinion of the United States Supreme Court that asserted, “We are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being.”

Since that time this presupposition is not so clear, nor can we safely say that secularism is a minority dissenting opinion, at least not among the cultural elite of our institutions of higher learning, government and entertainment. This is especially evident in the reality of abortion on demand, legalized by judicial fiat since 1972, prior to which abortion was commonly held as contrary to God’s law and consequently was outlawed in every State in the Union.

On this Respect Life Sunday, we pray for the grace to restore respect for all human life from conception to natural death, as Mr. Lincoln put it, by “devoutly recognizing the supreme authority and just government of Almighty God in all the affairs of men and nations.”

May God give us this grace. Amen.

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