The Decline of Patriotism


By RIGHT REV. MSGR. FULTON J. SHEEN, of the Catholic University, Washington, D. C.

Baccalaureate Sermon Delivered at the 97th Annual Commencement Exercises at the University of Notre Dame, June 1, 1941

Vital Speeches of the Day, Vol. VII, pp. 623-625.

THE greatest danger of a nation is that face to face with a crisis, it may seek to save too much. Under the impact of war, the assumption is growing that we should seek to preserve the American way of life, just as it is and in its entirety.

Is not our nation today very much like Peter on the mountain of the Transfiguration, who, seeing the face of Our Lord blazing as the sun and His garments white as snow as he spoke with Moses and Elias, cried out in the ecstasy of joy: "Lord, it is good for us to be here. Let us build three tabernacles: one for Thee, one for Moses and one for Elias." Peter felt that everything should be kept just as it was; that the present transient glory should be captured, and that the status quo should be preserved in its totality.

But not so with the Saviour. While Peter was saying: "Stay here on the Mount of the Transfiguration," Our Lord was practically saying: "Go to Mount Calvary." While Peter was contemplating building tabernacles, Our Lord was talking to Moses and Elias of His death. Peter was concerned only with saving: but the Saviour's interest was in regeneration.

Peter did not understand that the vision of glory which he was bequeathed was in the future, not the present, and in order to attain it one had to take up a Cross. There were two beats in the Transfiguration: Withdrawal and return. Withdrawal from the present glory for a crucifixion and a return to a greater glory because of it. This momentary detachment from present glory of the Saviour's was not a truancy to duty; it was a withdrawal according to plan to seize the initiative at another time and in another way. His attitude was like that of a soldier chosen from the rank and file for a greater mission, and a greater glory through sacrifice. It was the spiritual confirmation of an old law, then as now forgotten, that greatest victories are won only by the same surrender of lesser glories. As the athlete withdraws himself from the legitimate pleasures of life, and disciplines his body in order to win greater glory the day of the meet, so too the Saviour suggested that Peter withdraw himself from the present, surrender the easy way out, go down to momentary defeat in order to purchase true glory later on, for unless there is a Good Friday in our lives there will never be an Easter Sunday; unless there is a crown of thorns there will never be the halo of light; unless there is the scourged body there will never be the glorified body.

Are not too many Americans like Peter who say: "Lord, it is good for us to be here. Let us build tabernacles for all our customs, practices and philosophies."

Is it not truer to say that the American way of life is not something so good as to be defended just as it is; rather it is something to be amended. There is a hierarchy of values; the life is more than the meat; the body is more than the raiment and the whole world is not worth a single soul. Are we not to make a distinction between the good and bad? Have we no sense of values? Do we realize that we are no longer a young and growing nation; we have begun to grow old, to soften and decay in spots. Hence we do not meed the same kind of men now as when the nation wasyoung. In the early days we needed conquerors who would push back the frontiers of civilization; now we need saviours who will rescue us from decay; then we needed adventurers who would make new advances; now we need those who will play the more thankless role of saviour. There was once a time in our national life when we needed captains to defend the front line trenches; now we need those who will recognize that possibly our front line trenches are not worth preserving, and who will retreat as Christ did on the Mount from a disintegrating structure in order to take up defence lines from the back and there prepare for a greater offense and a greater glory later on.

Just as in this war battles are fought not on what might be called front lines nor by field forces, but behind the lines in services of supply, hidden air fields, home defenses, so too civilization will be preserved today not by those who fight to preserve the material periphery, but by those who struggle to preserve the spiritual center.

Not everything is so good and perfect that we should keep it in its totality; the ship of democracy will not sink because we knock off a few barnacles; but there is danger that by seeking to save our skin, we may lose our souls.

What I am trying to say is that in these days of crisis and challenge we should make an inventory of what is essential and non-essential; when the ship is sinking we must not think of the cargo; when the house is burning we should dash into it and save the child, but not our sport clothes; when Our Lord announced the destruction of Jerusalem on the day when the abomination of desolation would sit in the holy place, He said: "Go not back for your coat." It is not America as it is, that ought to be saved, but America as it ought to be, for in these days of disintegrating cultures there is much in our Western Civilization that does not deserve to survive; we would be better if it perished. Some things are not worth fighting for—

(a) A monopolistic capitalism, as defined by the Papal Encyclicals, which freezes credit, concentrated wealth in the hands of the few, excludes labor from a share in the profits, and considers the right to property as so absolute as to be unbounded by its use, is not worth preserving.

An economic system which under the cloak of organizing labor permits subversive groups and racketeers to infiltrate into its ranks either to serve foreign political ends, or to enrich the pockets of leaders by filching from the workers their hard earned wages, is not worth preserving—Let it perish!

A system of education, which ignores, sometimes repudiates religion and morality, which trains the intellect to the utter disregard of the will, which teaches that there is no such thing as right and wrong, and which in just one college in the United States hires at least twenty Communist professors who abuse American freedom to destroy it—is not worth preserving—Let it perish!

A legal system which declares that the State is the source of all rights and liberties, which affirms that education is the right of the State and not the right of the governed; which teaches that the laws of justice are the creation of themoods of the community at any given times, and that law itself is only the instrument of power—that kind of legal system is not worth preserving—Let it perish!

A social system which destroys the sacredness of treaties by permitting the break-up of marriage through divorce, to the tune of one divorce for every five marriages and thus prepares for the destruction of honor in international agreements and treaties is not worth preserving—Let it perish!

A system of tolerance which reposes upon indifference to truth and morality rather than upon charity and the sacredness of the person, and thus produces on the one hand a national impotency to deal with fifth columnists, because if there is no wrong how can they be wrong, and on the other hand, breeds atheism, anti-religion and anti-Semitism is not worth preserving—Let it perish!

Let the trees in our national way of life die and fall; let the dead branches rot and perish, but the inner life and energy, preserve with all the ardor of our souls to give new branches and new leaves at another season and shade to the generation yet to be born.

And if there are certain things that are not worth fighting for, there are some things that are; above all else, that one thing is the foundation of our rights and liberties. The essence of Americanism is not revolution, but the recognition of the sacredness of human personality, and the inherent inalienable rights which every man possesses independent of the State. That is why when our country began, our Founding Fathers were most anxious to find some basis for human rights, some foundation of human liberties, some guarantee of human personality which would be above encroachments of tyranny and abuse. But where find the basis for the right of a man to be his own master, captain of his own soul, free in his right to pursue his ultimate end with a free conscience? Where root and ground the right to own property as the extension of personality? Where find the rock of all liberties which would be strong enough to withstand governments and powers and States which would absorb them as the monarchies did then, and as certain dictatorships do now?

For such a foundation the Fathers looked first to England. There the theory was advanced that our liberties and rights are rooted in Parliament. This theory they rejected on the ground that if Parliament gives rights and liberties, then the Parliament can take them away.

Next they looked to France, where it was held that the liberties and rights of man are rooted in the will of the majority. The Fathers equally rejected this on the ground that if the rights of man are the gift of the majority, then the majority can take away the rights of the minority. Where find the source of the liberties and the rights of man? On what stable foundation are they to be reared? What is their source? The answer they gave was the right one. They sought the foundations of man's rights and liberties is something so sacred and so inalienable that no State, Parliament, no dictator, no human power could ever take them away and so they rooted them in God. As the Declaration of Independence reads: "All men are endowed by the Creator with certain inalienable rights" and among them are "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." Note that the word used is "inalienable"; that means that rights belong to the sacredness of human personality and are not the gift of the State, or a dictator, either Fascist, Nazi or Communist.

There was no question of ceding rights as is the case in Russia and Mexico. The only rights the citizens of those countries enjoy are those granted by the constitution. With us, it is different. Man has rights and liberties previous by any constitution and because they are God-derived, and notman-derived, it follows that no State can ever take them away. That is why our government recognizes that the rights of man are broader than the Constitution as is stated in Amendment 9 of the Constitution, "The enumeration in the Constitution of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people."

In other words, man's right to own private property, man's right to educate his own family, man's right to adore God according to the dictates of his conscience, come not from the Constitution, the government, parliament, nor the will of the majority, but from God. Therefore no power on earth can take them away. This is the essence of Americanism. Now, if the essence of Americanism is the sacredness of human personality as a creature of God, who is doing most to preserve that Americanism? The schools that never mention His name? The universities and colleges that dissolve the Deity into the latest ultimate of physics and biology? The professors who adjust their ethics to suit unethical lives?

The answer obviously is that the forces that are building constructive Americanism are those that take a practical cognizance of the existence of God. It is the non-religious schools which are out of the tradition of Americanism: they are on the defensive. In the beginning of our national life practically all of our schools and colleges were religious schools. It was assumed by our Constitution and by its spirit that they would be religious. The reason was obvious. If human dignity and liberty come from God, then it follows that loss of faith in Him means loss of faith in those liberties which derive from Him. If we wish to keep our forests we must keep our trees; if we wish to keep our perfume we must keep our flowers; if we wish to keep the light we must keep the sun, and if we wish to keep our rights, then we must keep our God. It is just as vain to try to keep triangles without keeping three-sided figures as to try to keep liberty without the spirit which makes man independent of matter and therefore free.

Be not deceived by slogans about Democracy, as if it were like an heirloom which once possessed needs only to be preserved. Democracy is an endowment like life, and needs to be repurchased in each new generation. Democracy is not the luxury of civilization; it is not affluence which obscures injustice by the comparative comfort of the oppressed; it is not a license which allows freedom to be destroyed by invoking rights without duties.

Christianity has a new battle before it; it is no longer with scorn that calls itself Scepticism; no longer with dilettantism which masquerades as Learning; no longer with injustice which calls itself Progress—but with the new Pride which would free governments from the moral restraints of God and authority. In the hour that is dawning the Church must defend democracy not only from those who enslave it from without, but even from those who betray it from within. And the enemy from within is he who teaches that freedom of speech, habeas corpus, freedom of press, and academic freedom constitute the essence of democracy. They do not. They are merely the accompaniments and safeguards of democracy. Given a freedom which is independent of God, independent of moral law, independent of inalienable rights as the endowment of the Divine Spirit, and America could note itself out of democracy tomorrow. How can we continue to be free unless we keep the traditions, the grounds, and the roots upon which freedom is founded? We could not call our soul our own unless God exists. Why, we would not even have a soul! Democracy has within itself no inherent guarantee of freedom; these guarantees are from without. That is why I say our Declaration of Dependenceon God is the condition of a Declaration of Independence of Dictatorship.

The decline of patriotism in America is due to a decline of religion. As men cease to love God, they also cease to love their neighbor. No one proves this better than Matthew, the author of the first Gospel. He was at one time as unpatriotic a citizen as ever lived; his land was overrun by a foreign power, his fellow citizens lost many of their civil and political rights—and yet he welcomed the foreign Slower to his bosom for the basest of all motives, financial booty. He became a publican; that is, a collector for the Romans, thus not only selling out his countrymen, but even filching them to enrich himself by becoming subject to the invaders. One day while collecting his taxes and counting his profits, our Divine Saviour passed by. "Come, follow

Me," he said to Matthew, and Matthew, with no other promise than a peace in the Kingdom of Heaven, became an apostle, an evangelist and a martyr. He became more than that—the greatest patriot in the Gospels. His Gospel might be called the Gospel of Patriotism. Tirelessly, he unfolds the glories of his people, the traditions of his land, and the prophecies of its spiritual triumphs. Time and time again he goes back to the past, turns over the pages of Isaias, Jeremias, Micheas, David and the Kings; ninety-nine times to be exact, he quotes from the glorious pages of his people, and crowns it all with the thrilling message: You are a great people! From Israel comes the Saviour; from our clouds come the Messias; from our earth the Redeemer. Hail! Christ is your kind.

He became a patriot because he found his God.