My dear friends in college . . . and beyond,
The Fourth of July has always captured my imagination. Temperatures soar. The aroma of barbecued hamburgers and hot dogs wafts through the air. Fireworks explode in the nighttime sky. Our thoughts turn towards Independence Hall in Philadelphia and the fifty-six signers of the Declaration of Independence. “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal,” Jefferson wrote in that landmark document, “that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
These days, truth does not appear to be nearly as self-evident. It seems to me that the self-evident nature of truth (if there is any longer such a thing as “truth”) comes under direct attack or subtle erosion almost every day. I attended a high-school graduation recently at which the salutatorian confidently proclaimed to the audience of relatives and friends that there is no truth except the truth that we create for ourselves. (Don’t worry: it was my niece’s high-school graduation, not a Marianist high-school graduation!) To use a popular buzzword, we now “self-identify.” And relativism like this is enshrined not only in our pop culture, but in our laws. “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life,” Justices Anthony Kennedy, David Souter, and Sandra Day O’Connor wrote in the 1992 Supreme Court decision in the case of Planned Parenthood v. Casey.
We have “evolved,” it seems, from truths that are self-evident to all to truths that are self-determined by each individual.
Is this indeed the meaning of the independence and of the liberty that we celebrate on Independence Day? Is this what American independence really means – a wholesale independence from an underlying moral law and the human community that a common moral code safeguards?
I certainly hope not!
It has been my custom to steer clear of the so-called “culture wars” that pit “liberals” against “conservatives,” “progressives” against “traditionalists,” Democrats against Republicans, and, sometimes – tragically – one race against another. And I will continue to do so. The Church is not a debating society, and her representatives are not culture warriors. No, the Church is, as our Holy Father Pope Francis has so beautifully put it, a “field hospital.”
But, as one of the medics in that “field hospital,” I would beg each side – or, more accurately, all of the many sides – in our current culture wars to lay down their arms of individualism and take up the healing balm of the common good. I have watched in dismay as the civility of political discourse in our country has slowly deteriorated, and I have wondered more and more if anyone is stepping outside his or her own special interest and taking up the cause of the common good. It is indeed true that our Founding Fathers fought for the sanctity of our individual rights, but we must never forget that they did so together, united, working for a common cause.
As much as they valued individual liberty and individual rights, America’s Founding Fathers also valued the common good. The Preamble to our Constitution makes this quite clear: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessing of Liberty to ourselves and to our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution of the United States of America.”
We the people of the United States of America in this Year of Our Lord 2015 face many challenges. We must decide wisely in many potentially divisive cases of jurisprudential and common law. I do not pretend to have all the answers. But this I know: if we are to have any hope of moving forward, we must rely on the pillars of our “more perfect Union” established by our Founding Fathers over 225 years ago.
And what are those pillars? I’d like to suggest that there are three: an abiding reverence for self-evident Truth, a tenacious commitment to the common good, and an unwavering respect for individual liberty. Honoring all three will require a balancing act, but it is a balancing act worth the effort. Without all three, our citizens will become ever more deeply embroiled in culture wars that threaten to tear the fabric of our nation apart.
How readily, how vociferously, we can insist on our own rights, our own self-determination, and our own way! Jesus teaches us another way: “For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.” (Matthew 16: 25)
And again: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” (John 14: 6)
If we acknowledge Jesus as “the way, the truth, and the life,” we will necessarily have to surrender our own way – and our own “right” of autonomous self-determination – on more than a few occasions. But we should not fear this prospect of surrendering ourselves to “the way, the truth, and the life.” We may fear that, in surrendering ourselves, we will diminish ourselves. Nothing could be further from the truth! For in surrendering ourselves to Jesus, we will find our true selves . . . and our true happiness. And then, “good measure, pressed down, shaken together, running over, will be poured into your lap, for the measure you give is the measure you will receive.” (Luke 6:38).
Those of you who have read my letters in the past already know one of my most fundamental beliefs: We are not alone. Nor are we autonomous. As the great seventeenth-century English poet and essayist John Donne famously proclaimed, “No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” (Meditation XVII)
My dear graduates of Chaminade and Kellenberg Memorial, this Fourth of July, and in the years that follow, let us raise the standard of our interdependence. Let us never shrink from searching for Truth, maintaining the common good, and preserving individual liberty. Let us go forth and reclaim, with both clarity and charity, our “one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.”
May God bless America, and may God bless every one of you!
On behalf of all my Marianist Brothers,