In 1931, James Truslow Adams coined the now familiar term “the American Dream.” All too often, we tend to reduce that image to its material and consumerist components. In its fullest sense, however, Adams’ American Dream was “not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”
This was the “American Dream” that called – and continues to call – generations of immigrants (my grandparents among them) to this country, whose founding as a nation we commemorate today - the anniversary of the day when we as a nation assumed that “separate and equal station, among the powers of the earth,” of which Thomas Jefferson famously wrote.
In this election year, we are all increasingly aware of the many challenging and difficult issues facing our country, along with the contentious and acrimonious arguments that have characterized this campaign and that dominate the national news. Disagreement and debate among citizens and between political parties are natural and inevitable in a free and open society. Wisely and properly conducted, they make it possible for us to choose intelligently among competing candidates and their policies, and so provide for the peaceful and legitimate transfer of political power to those we designate to govern our country according to our political, cultural, and moral values. Those are the values, which we will express in our votes.
As committed Catholic Christians, we also share with our fellow citizens in the benefits and the responsibilities of citizenship in our 21st-century American society. What resources does our faith offer us to participate in civic life? What lessons from centuries of Catholic spiritual and intellectual tradition and the experience of Catholic history in the United States can we share with our fellow citizens? What can we do together to promote the common good and care for our common home? The evident seriousness of the issues facing present and future policy makers and the intensity of the current political campaign make it all the more essential for us to take part in these important debates and to bring to them the particular perspectives of our rich Catholic faith and experience.
Over the centuries, the Church has adopted as her own - and adapted to ever changing political and social situations - the ancient philosophical understanding that human beings are social and political by nature, that human beings are naturally intended to live and thrive in close cooperation with others, and that the most developed and fulfilling form of that is our political association as fellow citizens. This political association as citizens with one another provides us with many benefits, which we would not otherwise enjoy. At the same time it also challenges us with serious responsibilities and obligations to one another and to the wider community.
In this traditional understanding, political choices are ultimately moral choices that express what we value. As Catholic citizens, we need to be particularly attentive to this dimension of political decision-making. As Catholics and citizens, we need to respond to the challenges of voting and other political choices in a morally serious way that transcends simplistic sloganeering and emotional appeals to narrowly defined secular identities and group interests. As our own American bishops have recently reminded us: “Catholics may choose different ways to respond to compelling social problems, but we cannot differ on our moral obligation to help build a more just and peaceful world through morally acceptable means, so that the weak and vulnerable are protected and human rights and dignity are defended.” [USCCB, Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship (1915), 20].
Homily for Independence Day, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, July 4, 2016