Two years ago, on the Sunday before Memorial Day, a visiting priest was celebrating Mass at my parish in West Virginia. Near the end of Mass, before he processed out of the church he wanted, in light of the upcoming holiday, to honor the soldiers who "made the ultimate sacrifice for us." All of this he said in front of a giant crucifix which, last time I checked, represents the "ultimate sacrifice" in which Christians believe and which, indeed, we had just celebrated in the Eucharistic action. As a fitting conclusion to the patriotic Mass, the congregation sang, not to Jesus, but to the country itself in the words of "America the Beautiful."
We get into a really dangerous place when we start confusing our myths and our holidays. Memorial Day honors the memory of those who gave their lives serving the United States in its military, many of them making the "ultimate sacrifice" (in the state's view) in service to the nation. That's fine. The state needs holidays like this to support its grand narrative and mythology, just like any community of persons. The Church, however, has its own "sort" of "Memorial Day." In fact, our celebration of the Christian "Memorial Day" spans two days: All Saints Day and All Souls Day, November 1 and 2, respectively. These are the days that Christians celebrate the lives of those who have gone before us giving their lives specifically as followers of Christ, many of them making the ultimate sacrifice as martyrs on the way of the cross. . . .
Should not Christians at least consider resisting American holidays as a way of resisting the American mythology, the metanarrative that, as Catholic theologian William Cavanaugh says, serves as an "alternative soteriology" to the Church's story of salvation history? Should we not look for opportunites to subvert the holidays of the empire in which we find ourselves, reminding ourselves of and drawing attention to the ways in which these holidays, as part of American mythology, try to shape our loyalties and practices according to the ideals of the nation-state?
When I speak or write this way, I am often asked if I am advocating a Catholic type of separatism or sectarianism. The answer is no; I am not suggesting a withdrawal from the world. Such a suggestion would deny the mission of the Church for the world. On the other hand, I don’t think the careless syncretism of patriotic Christianity is the only alternative to sectarianism. I think we need a healthy, Catholic suspicion of alternative metanaratives to our own, an ability to clearly understand the differences between the two, and the courage to let that test our celebrations and our social ethics as Catholic Christians.
- "I am Catholic, I love America, and So Should You" a lengthy, substantial response from Michael R. Denton (For the Greater Glory) May 26, 2007. [Follow Up: Reaction to the Memorial Day & Catholicism argument May 28, 2007.].
- Shades of (red, white, and) blue), by Patrick O'Hannigan (The Paragraph Farmer). May 27, 2007.
- Catholic Hatriotism, by Victor Morton (Coalition For Fog).
- From Radical Catholic Mom @ Vox Nova: Honoring the Dead May 28, 2007:
When my two Marine brothers were serving at the same time, one in Iraq the other in Afghanistan, I asked a local deacon at my parish to pray for them. Do you know what he said to me? He said, "What is wrong with your family to produce two killers?" I was absolutely stunned and speechless. My brothers joined the Marines directly because of 9/11. My family has produced one police officer, two teachers, and two soldiers: all service professions.The callous reaction of the Catholic Deacon in her account (which reveals a blatant disregard for the Church's understanding of legitimate use of force and the profession of a soldier) and the worldview of Michael J. Iafrate are not entirely unrelated.
I understand how Catholics can despise war. We are called to choose peace and live peace. But what do we do when there is war? How do we serve the families of those affected by it? My mother was in Hell when her only sons were in harm's way. She received many prayers and phone calls from lay Catholics, but none from her priests and deacons.
One of these soldiers who did not come home is being honored by an Afghan village where he served before he was killed by a sniper's bullet. He tried and succeeded to save the life of a little Afghan girl. The Taliban did not help her. But a United States Petty Officer did. If an Afghan village can honor him, can we not as well? His name is US Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class John Fralish. He served in my brother's unit the 1/3 Alpha Company Marine unit as a medic. He is remembered by the 1/3 family and hopefully by other Americans.
Incentives to Further Thought
- On Being Catholic American, by Joseph A. Varacalli. Ignatius Insight May 2005:
. . . a brief reflection, from what I take to be an authentic Catholic sensibility, on how Catholics ought to analyze their relationship to American society and culture. Put another way, the following question might be posed: "What does American patriotism mean to the serious and devout Catholic?" Or, perhaps and more precisely, the question is: "How can American patriotism be apprehended in a manner consistent with the tenets of the Catholic faith?"
- Civil Allegiance - a primer from the Catholic Enyclopedia (1917). Worth reading.
- Can Catholics be Real Americans?, by Mark Brumley. Ignatius Insight November 2004.
- Allegiance to God AND Country, by Dr. James Toner. ". . . too many Catholics today seem to accept the idea, not that our allegiance to the state is supreme, but that we ought to have no allegiance to the state (cf. 1 Peter 2:13-14)."