This month we celebrated 242 years since the founding of our nation through the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Amidst the fun of fireworks, parades, and festivity, it’s easy to gloss over what it is we’re celebrating, the anniversary of a historic launching of a great experiment in self-government. The Declaration, to date, has proven itself to have significant staying-power in fueling our common sense of identity as Americans. The unanswered question is, can it last?
The America of 2018 is vastly different than that of 1776. In 1776, America had 2.5 million people, and Philadelphia was the largest city with 40,000; now, more than 325 million live in our country, and New York City alone has 8.5 million. In 1776, America’s land mass was 430,000 square miles; now, it’s 3.8 million. On the world stage, we were little more than a backwater annoyance to King George III. Now, every nation on earth reads our leader’s tweets. A lot has changed.
Yet after all these years and changes, our Declaration still has the ability to mold our national identify insofar is it depends on things that never change over the years. Its reliance on “Nature’s Law and of Nature’s God” as the lodestar for the course our country should ring familiar to our Catholic ears.
The Natural Law expresses the fact that nature itself conveys a moral message. We discern it first of all by observing reality – that which is – and then by using our reason to draw conclusions about how we should or should not act. It posits that there is a knowable difference between right and wrong, that these distinctions are discoverable in the very order of creation, and that such discovery is possible for every human being because, the Church teaches, this law is written on every heart. It enables us to see, in the words of the Declaration, that certain truths are “self-evident.”
I’d venture a guess that Natural Law truths are self-evident to most South Dakotans because, in many ways, we still have an everyday, lived experience similar to the 1776 colonies: an agricultural economy, relatively strong churches, love for regular families, an appreciation for basic values of decency and common sense. This is a fertile seedbed for the Natural Law and political groundedness.
However, South Dakota isn’t immune from harmful influences and Lord knows we have our share of brokenness. The Declaration’s understanding of moral meaning as inscribed into reality itself is in deep conflict with the secular materialism that we see portrayed in much social and traditional media, and which too-often creeps into our own choices. Even the Natural Law’s first general principle, “to do good and to avoid evil,” flies in the face of secularized society, which either denies that good and evil even exist — “that may be true for you, but it’s not for me” — or, doesn’t care. “Meh.”
So as Catholics, until next year brings more the bottle-rockets and sparklers, we can fully express our love of country by helping her renew those first commitments to “Nature’s Law” and “Nature’s God” so eloquently articulated in the Declaration. God bless America.
– published in the West River Catholic, July 2018