Over the past few years, as I’ve talked about Catholics and the obligations of citizenship, two quotations have always guided my thinking.
The first is from the French writer Charles Péguy. Péguy once said that “Freedom is a system based on courage.” What he meant is this: We’re never truly “free” until we have the courage to accept the idea that truth might actually exist outside and above ourselves; and then have the courage to seek the truth and to live it.
Freedom isn’t license. A large menu of equally bad choices is not freedom. Freedom is the ability to see what is right and the character to choose it. That’s why freedom requires courage. Freedom and truth always have a personal cost. They always place obligations on our behavior. And those obligations always remind us of our relationship with others – with other people, and also with God. The freest person in the world is the person who can see the world and himself honestly in the light of truth, without fear or excuses or alibis. Honesty is hard. But honesty is the beginning of humility, and humility is the beginning of sanity.
The second quotation is from the philosopher Henri Bergson. Bergson once wrote that, “The motive power of democracy is love.” For democracy to work, it needs to be powered by something more than the sum of everybody’s opinions and appetites. The kind of “love” that Bergson meant is sacrificial. It’s much more than a warm feeling or a habit of kind thoughts. It demands that we judge our own and other people’s behavior by a hard standard of justice.
Democracy requires the kind of love that places the common good above personal comfort or individual appetite. And the “common good” is never just a matter of people’s material needs. The common good is always about what best serves the well-being of the whole person and the whole of society. In other words, it always has a spiritual foundation in the truth about human purpose and dignity. Without that moral foundation, society – to borrow an idea from St. Augustine – is just an organized gang of thieves.
Catholics, along with other people of good will, play a vital role in strengthening the moral foundation of American life. The more deeply we live our Catholic faith, the better we serve our country. Why? Because we contribute the most precious thing we have – our Christian love of God and neighbor – to the language of America’s public square. “Faithful citizenship” demands that we give witness by our public choices and actions to what we claim to believe in the privacy of our homes and in church every Sunday. If we claim to be Catholic, then we need to act like it – all the way, with all our conviction and energy, all the time.
[Originally published 2008]