Governments, like the hierarchy of the Church, are composed of human beings wounded by sin. But it is natural that frustration should arise among us when we see our civic and clerical leaders fail to exercise their duties. As Catholics, however, we know that the Church is holy because it is the body of Christ and thus it shares in His holiness and by the power of the Holy Spirit dwelling in it as the soul gives life to the body. Furthermore, we know that the declaration “This is my body” is an infallible guarantee that our Lord is present for us in this sacrament of our salvation – and as we partake of the Eucharistic body of Christ, we become ever more the body of Christ, the Church.
For Catholic citizens of the nation, we must remember that we also belong to a civic body. Some would be tempted to say that this implies a tension or contradiction; for who can be part of the body of Christ and the civic body of the nation? Furthermore, we often see so many bad politicians leading our nation. Who would want to be associated with them? But the fact of the matter is that Catholic theology stresses a “both/and” mentality rather than an “either/or” mentality. We belong both to the nation and to the Church, rather than belonging either to one or to the other. And as it comes our civic leaders, we should remember that there is big a difference between the government and the nation.
There are many people who see our nation’s politicians and policies as a reason to reject the need for patriotic duty. President Lincoln, however, helps us better differentiate between authentic patriotism and the often flawed government affairs and officials. In the conclusion of his Gettysburg Address, he offers us three distinctions which should help us understand our patriotism as “an increased devotion to [the national] cause…” He offers us these three distinctions through concrete images: the sacrifice of soldiers, the nation under God, and the government of the people, by the people, for the people.
While we all hope and pray for our leaders, great leadership is often like finding a rare diamond. In other words, there are many presidents but only four get to be on Mount Rushmore. For Lincoln, the dedication and devotion which gives rise to patriotism should stem not from devotion to the Paul Ryan plan or from dedication to a political campaign, but from recalling the shared sacrifice which our soldiers have made on the battlefield. If these men “gave the last full measure of devotion” to the nation in sacrificial death, how much more should we be further devoted to their cause? In this way, the death of the soldier is not tragic. It is an act of sacrifice which consecrates the grounds on which their blood was poured out for the purpose of inaugurating “a new birth of freedom.”
Our government, a representative democracy, may be “of the people, by the people, for the people,” but it is first of all, according to Lincoln, a nation under God. Other nations may have different forms of government. There are, after all, nations in the world formed with governments of constitutional monarchies, parliamentary republics and the like – but regardless of what form of government the nation takes, each nation must first be a nation under God. Without this, the nation can fall to the tyranny of the vote just as easily as it can fall to the tyranny of the despot. Man will either bow to God or raise himself up as God. For Lincoln, the memory of “the honored dead” and the recognition that our nation is under God, infuses in us the authentic patriotism which unites us as brethren, even if our civic leaders and public policy sometimes fails to live up to our ideals.
Instead of lamenting war and rejecting the nation, let us honor our war dead and use the language of duty and sacrifice to shape the personalities of today’s young men, so that they can be the future leaders of the nations under God.