Who are We: Americans or Catholics?


The big Catholic news item in the United States these days centers around the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) mandate requiring nearly all employers to offer health insurance plans that provide zero-deductible coverage for “preventative services” like sterilization and contraception, including drugs that cause abortion.

When the mandate was first proposed, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), citing our Constitutional right to “religious liberty” in light of the fact that Catholic moral teaching forbids such practices, requested a “conscience clause” that would provide an exemption for Catholic institutions.

Apart from allowing an exemption for institutions that fit a very narrow definition, the Obama Administration refused the Conference’s request and the majority of the American bishops have since spoken out, many of them issuing letters in their own name expressing everything from disappointment to outrage; some even going so far as to vow civil disobedience.

Bishop Olmstead of Phoenix, for example, said, “The Administration has cast aside the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States, denying to Catholics our first and most fundamental freedom, that of religious liberty.” He said that the rule as it now stands will force us [Catholic institutions] to either “violate our consciences, or drop health coverage for our employees.”

“We cannot – we will not – comply with this unjust law,” Bishop Olmstead pledged.

These sentiments, or ones very similar, were echoed by many in the American episcopate at large, some bishops even had (or plan to have) their letters read aloud at Mass to encourage the faithful to join them in combatting what all seem to agree is an egregious assault on religious liberty.

A number of “conservative” Catholic commentators with whom I have spoken praised the bishops for “answering the wake-up call” and for “taking the gloves off” at long last to lock horns with the Obama Administration in so direct and so public a fashion.

For my part, even though I’m all-in with the call to fight the good fight, I see far more to lament than to applaud in this situation, beginning with the fundamental question of Catholic identity that it naturally begs.   

If current events indicate anything at all it’s that we really need to take a step back and ask ourselves who we are. Are we Catholics first and Americans second, or vice versa?  

Anyone paying attention to the bishop’s rhetoric over the last several weeks would have little choice but to conclude that they consider us to be Americans first and only Catholic secondarily. While this may indeed be the case by neither design nor intent, it’s difficult to deny that this is precisely the message our shepherds have been sending to all concerned.  

Needless to say, this crisis of identity didn’t just appear on the scene out of nowhere like a community organizer fresh from a Saul Alinski seminar; rather, it has been brewing over the course of many decades, most notably those following the Second Vatican Council. Recent events, however, do bring the problem and its ill effects into sharper focus.

Just a brief look at the way in which the bishops framed their argument against the HHS mandate from day one makes it is clear that the crisis of which I speak is a major factor in bringing our shepherds to this point where they now finding themselves embroiled in a messy political battle rather than devoting the fullness of their energies more directly toward winning the battle for souls; i.e., teaching, sanctifying and governing the people of God.

For example:

  • Instead of claiming recourse to the Gospel of Jesus Christ as one might reasonably expect of the Successors to the Apostles, many of our bishops have approached the matter almost exclusively from a civil liberties angle; busily citing the First Amendment of the Constitution.
  • Rather than decrying the objective immorality of such acts as contraception and abortion (regardless of who practices them) and rejecting them as offenses against God and His Divine Law, most bishops are expressing outrage, not on the Lord’s behalf, but on man’s behalf as a violation of personal conscience.
  • Rather than chastising our leaders for exceeding the limits of their power by commanding that which is contrary to the laws of nature and the will of God, they are criticizing the government for infringing upon “America’s first freedom.”

I could go on, but presumably you get the point. So now where do we find ourselves? I guess you could say “in a pickle” to put it politely.

For example:                                                                                  

  • The bishops are now calling upon the faithful to join them in fighting this assault on our collective Catholic conscience. This sounds great until one considers the fact that the majority of Catholics today see no problem with contraception after decades of having been misled to believe that it’s OK to simply “follow one’s conscience” by wayward bishops, priests and theologians, many of whom spoke and wrote on the matter publicly yet suffered no consequence other than to become overnight liberal icons.
  • The bishops are calling on the laity to join them in demanding that the government grant Catholic institutions a broad-based exemption in deference to our civil right to religious freedom. This sounds fine at first blush too until one considers that any claims that are founded on Constitutional law are going to elicit a response that is based upon a political calculation. President Obama and company are no dummies. They know darn well that most Catholics (regardless of employer), as well as those people working in Catholic institutions (Catholic and otherwise), who use contraception or who want to undergo a sterilization procedure (i.e., the majority), will be tickled to death to see this mandate go into effect. These are, after all, hard economic times.  

So now what? As I said, this crisis has been decades in the making. No one, therefore, should expect the correction to be either quick or easy, or even painless for that matter.

Getting to the core of the matter of identity, the inimitable Fr. Z is wont to say as often as anyone is willing to listen, “There can be no renewal of any aspect of our Catholic lives and identity without first a revitalization of our liturgical worship.” Needless to say, we have a very long way to go in this regard.

That said, one thing that every faithful Catholic can do right away – from the simplest of laymen to the most eminent of Cardinals – is to make it a point to think, and to act, and to speak on all matters in Catholic terms, as though we are proud to let it be known that we are Catholic first and Americans second.

I know… it sounds way too simple to be of any real value given the gravity of the battle at hand, but doing so, however subtly, underscores the fundamental truth that the Evil One is Hell bent on tempting human beings in our age to deny and with no small amount of success; namely, objective truth exists, His name is Jesus Christ, and He alone is King.


About Author

Catholic News Agency columnist, author and speaker w/ particular focus on applying the hermeneutic of continuity to Vatican Council II.

  • Thaumatology

    I have to say I very strongly disagree with this position. On its face comparing American and Catholic is like comparing Apples and Oranges, and therefore not a sensible choice to suggest making. I also believe you are unduly criticizing the Bishops here. Not that there isn’t plenty to criticize them on usually, but to suggest they are mishandling a political matter by engaging in politics is unfair.

    Government rulemaking policies will not be moved by theological appeals. By acting within the political language and culture the Bishops are exercising their duty as leaders, both spiritual /and/ civic!

    In the Gospels, it is made very clear that Jesus Christ had no intention of creating a religious government on Earth, contrary to what many of the Israelites were expecting from the Messiah. That message was made clear when Jesus stated that we should render unto God what is God’s and Caesar what is Caesar’s.

    Our relationship with God is personal, and individual, through Jesus Christ. While we are also all connected spatially and temporally through the Body of Christ, our Faith is not a nation. The Kingdom of God is in Heaven, not on Earth.

    To wag our fingers at the rest of the Country for not sharing our Faith and refusing to engage them in the secular arena would be a terrible mistake and would create problems, not solve them.

    Yes, lead by example. But to lead also requires participation. And there are far too many Catholics to simply go the Amish route and excuse ourselves from society.

  • Yvonne Bontkowski

    Very well written.. and very much in line with Immortali Dei…


  • goral

    The Author would not get an endorsement from the late Great JP2 for misspelling Alinsky’s name with the Polish “ski” ending. Saul is a Russian Jew, hence the typical spelling of his name.

    Now, to the smaller point. I’m glad that the bishops have a battle on their hands worthy of their commission.
    A couple of winters ago, I was listening to a letter from our bishop that we need to take Communion in hand because of swine flu. That skirmish was won because the swine flu went away by itself.

    This strain of “swine flu”, originating in the White House, will not go away. This time, taking the battle in our hand is the proper response.
    The people in our gov’t, who own the same description as that of the flu need to be confronted toe to toe.
    They tell us that there is a wall in place but it has all sorts of doors and openings that are only accessible from the gov’t side of the wall.

    Our Founders messed up. They were only human. How could they have seen into our millennium?
    If we are Americans first, then we will only continue the folly and put our very Redemption in jeopardy. If we are Catholics first than we identify with the One whose name we bear and whose mark we received at Baptism.
    This is a no brainer. The United States is quickly headed for the ash-heap of history along with the other former great empires. That message is already being printed on the Chinese fortune cookies.

    We have many “Jonah’s” telling us that. We still have time to repent and be great Catholics and great Americans.

    • CCR

      Our Founders did the best they could with what they had but the core of the Constitution is good, it is almost perfect. I have strong reasons to believe that the Republic will survive once we pass the current perils. I am a firm believer that there are clear signs of divine intervention (not inspiration but intervention) in the early days of the American Revolution. At the same time there were very negative elements that have grown to be a serious danger but those dangers are no inherent to the Constitution but a result of the general and extended disobedience to the Constitution. The Founders prepared a Constitution for a morally whole and obedient people and trusted the rest to God. The people have failed but then we have the “In God we Trust” clause and God is true and loyal. I bet dollars to donuts that God will rescue the Republic from these perilous waters. No one who put his trust in God is ever disappointed: our Founding Fathers ultimately trusted the Republic to God and God will not disappoint them. You can bank on that.

      • Divine intervention does not necessarily imply Divine approval – God has His own purposes that will be made clear only at the end of time. I believe that the least that could be said about our founding documents is that they are deeply flawed and destined eventually to fail.

        “We the people do ordain and establish”? No, people may establish (as St. Benedict established his holy Rule for monasteries, which is still with us 1,500 years later); but human beings do not ordain, which implies an eternal change. Any such claim is bound to fail.

        I think we are left with the outward form of a Republic that has already failed, and now it is only a matter of time until the economy fails to put food on the shelves at the grocery store. It is up to God to preserve any part of our way of life that He wishes, if He wishes. Pray to Our Lady, Patroness of the Americas.

        • CCR

          Divine intervention does not necessarily imply Divine approval

          Who said they were fully approved by God? Why the straw man PH? God could not approve of slavery and who knows how many other flaws! But there are –FOR US WHO READ HISTORY– several instances of nearly miraculous events that turned the tide of battle, or protected the incipient Republic in one way or another.

          Washington himself is said to have seen a vision during Christmas 1777 that strangely resembles Fatima, at the time still 140 years in the future! His coat was in one occasion riddled by no less than eight bullets and two horses were shot from under him in one single afternoon. I would say that could almost qualify for an evident case of divine protection considering who he turned out to be.

          Read the Bible and you will see that GOD INTERVENES IN HISTORY, ask Pharaoh or the Gabaonites, Goliath, etc. God so intervenes in History THAT HE ENTERED HISTORY in what we call now the first century in Galilee.

          “Ordain” is 1700’s parlance for promulgate, order, pass, establish as law. The word has more than one sense and it is NOT reserved only for Holy Orders and such. Read a 200-year document with today’s English and you are guilty of something called “linguistic anachronism”.

          I believe that the least that could be said about our founding documents is that they are deeply flawed and destined eventually to fail.

          Really? So they were not infallible dogmatic documents written by angels? Whoa! What a revelation!

          One has to educate oneself before one can disqualify. Forgive my eloquence. I admire the Founding Fathers and being a “foreigner” let me inform you that one of the few American things that are admired abroad are (1) the genius of the US Constitution and (2) the nearly miraculous confluence of so many wise, noble, and valiant men in one generation, in one place, in one historical circumstance so rare.

          Any such claim is bound to fail.

          Well, as Catholics we believe with the New Testament that “God has bound all things to futility,” and that includes the US Constitution, my life, yours, and my mom’s apple pie. That is why they left the pyramid of the GREAT SEAL OF THE US unfinished but crowned with a symbol of the Holy Trinity. That is an unequaled sign of humility. They are basically saying, “We can get only this far!” now we trust God will improve, protect, and finish the work we started.
          “Annuit Coeptis” comes from Virgil “Juppiter omnipotes, audacibus annue coeptis” May Jupiter omnipotent favor my daring enterprise. Our Founding Fathers were for the most part well read. Other phrase form the same author in the Georgics says: “Da facilem cursam, atque audacibus annue coeptis” make my road even and bless my daring enterprise.”

          I think we are left with the outward form of a Republic that has already failed, and now it is only a matter of time until the economy fails to put food on the shelves at the grocery store.

          Of course we are left with the appearance of a Republic because we only appear to be responsible guardians of our inheritance. If we were doing our job, no usurpers would be passing laws in our Congress and we could be perfecting the Constitution in the light of the Divine Wisdom and not according to the dictates of Marx, Nietzche, and Engels. That is not a failure of the US Constitution, it is the failure of us the citizenry!

          “A Republic, if you can keep it” said Ben Franklin. In truth, educating one self in the art of thinking is the best way to keep what is worth keeping of our way of life: “keeping what is good and discarding what is bad” as St. Paul most accurately advises.

          Learning to think is the obligation of a good Catholic. Walking around dismissing what is good and clear with a half-baked “bah! bah!” is not.

  • apcordov

    I strongly disagree with your article. We are Catholics first, but if we use our Catholic beliefs ALONE to try to influence an anti-Catholic government we will not have success. You can’t use reasoning that they don’t believe in to persuade them. All of the anti-Catholic people in congress know that the reason we (Catholics) don’t want these laws in place is because of our Catholic beliefs… it’s no mystery to anyone (as you seem to suggest). By using the First Amendment, etc. we are using something that they (as secular society)understand and have to adhere to. The only reason we are using civil law is because it helps us to secure our Catholic beliefs and practices.

    Additionally, I strongly disagree with your statement that the Bishops are sending a message that we are Americans first and Catholics second. By their actions alone in standing up against American law they are showing that they don’t care that they are Americans as much as they care about their Catholic faith, which comes first. We’re Catholics that happen to live in America and because we live here we must stand and fight using the tools we have as Americans. The government has already said they don’t give a crap about our beliefs, so what good is it going to do to keep telling them our beliefs? That won’t get the law reversed anytime soon. Instead, we use their beliefs (civil laws) to overthrow the injustice they have done. There’s nothing wrong with that and it’s our best shot in the civil realm. We are called to live IN the nations but not be OF the nations. By the Bishops actions they are showing this very clearly, and I’m very proud of their actions against this mandate.

    • CCR

      What part of “my Kingdom is not of this world” is so hard to understand? We are good Americans because we are Catholics. In fact our faith should perfect our good earthly citizenship.

      One unfortunate element of the present state of things is that many have been mislead into a sort of indifferent-ism because of bad catechesis. That is part of the strategy of the enemies of the heavenly kingdom: attempting to destroy the souls of the elect while they are in the Church militant here on earth.