The Rosary Light & Life - Vol 54, No 6, Nov-Dec 2001

Theology for the Laity


By Father Paul K. Raftery, O.P.

In light of recent tragic events in our nation, it seems an opportune time to review the responsibilities we have to our country. As Catholics, and as citizens of the United States we are bound to support our country’s efforts to defend itself. As we shall see below, there is an indebtedness all people have to the land of their birth. We Christians of the United States would hardly be living the Scriptures if we were to neglect such an obligation. There is a patriotism demanded of us by our faith.

Questions arise, however, about exercising this patriotism at this period of our nation’s history, especially given the widespread disregard for human life that has entered into the very law of our land. This is particularly at issue in the current terrorist crisis. How can we join our nation in a war against terrorism, in opposing those who destroy human life through horrific acts of violence, when about one and a half million lives are taken per year by our own country through legalized abortion? Simply joining an upsurge of patriotic feeling at this time that is not at all self-critical, does not seem an appropriate response. Should we not find ourselves in something of a dilemma? What does patriotism mean for us as Catholics given our nation’s own senseless destruction of human life in the womb? The best place to begin to approach such questions is by exploring what we, in fact, mean by patriotism.


Love of our country is the most obvious response to this question. The people of this land have a history, a culture, a way of life that we participate in and admire. There is a healthy pride we take in the institutions of our land, its natural beauty, its technological advances, and so on. All this is an appeal to the emotions, and is certainly part of what we mean by patriotism. But this is not by any means all that can be said.

On a much deeper level, patriotism is not only a matter of the emotions but, even more importantly, a condition of the will. Our understanding of its true greatness depends on this. Patriotism is an admirable trait to find in someone precisely because it has struck root beyond the level of feelings, down to the very depths of the mind and heart. There it is anchored in the solid rock of steady commitment. This is where it stirred in the founding fathers of our country. They embarked on a daring separation from the motherland of England, precisely because there was something deeper at work in them than a sentimental attraction for life in the colonies. They were convinced, with clear mind and determined will, that the good of our people required independence. Through this conviction, so much stronger than the inconstancy of emotion, they endured years of hardship that led to the freedom of our country.

But to look even more carefully at patriotism, we can discern something else. It has the nature of response required of us, in justice, by the land where we are citizens. St. Thomas does much to clarify this aspect of justice with regards to patriotism by comparing it to similar responses required of us to God, as our creator, and to our parents. To each we owe, in their own respective ways, our very existence and unique personal attributes. The contribution each has made to us as persons, with all the various gifts with which we have been endowed, is something we will never be able to repay.

With God this is obvious. Without His act of creation we would have no beginning to be; without His constant willing of our existence, we would cease to be. But St. Thomas points out there are others through whom God has worked to provide us with our well-being, our culture, our language, and so on. The full survey of those to whom we are most indebted in life must include the parents who brought us into this world and took care of us when we could not take care of ourselves. And along with them, there is also our country from whom we have received a language with which to communicate, a culture with which to interact socially with others, a society through which our material well-being and happiness are provided for. Thus, in looking at the innate gifts each person has, St. Thomas asks, Who is responsible? Who has been the source of such gifts? Who is owed some kind of recompense? Where is our indebtedness? Our country is one of those in whom he finds an answer to these questions. In his own succinct words:

What becomes clear, then, through St. Thomas’ careful unfolding of human indebtedness, is that our country emerges as one to whom we, by nature of what we are as humans, have an obligation to honor and serve. St. Thomas labels the virtue of rendering this honor and service as pietas, a word that in Latin means “dutiful conduct.” Much broader than our word “piety,” which refers in popular parlance to conduct toward God, pietas was used for dealings with parents, relatives, benefactors, patrons, and the like. In English we speak of this same virtue toward our country as “patriotism,” a word derived ultimately from the Greek patris, meaning “fatherland.”


Identifying our obligation in the abstract is one thing, but determining how it needs to be lived in our post-Christian society is another. To better understand our obligations today, it helps to look back to a period when the Church was equally at odds with its society, as we find in the pre-Christian period of the Roman Empire. St. Paul dealt with issues similar to ours in writing to the Christians at Rome around A.D. 58. The first thing we notice about his instructions to these Christians is that there must be no escaping the obligation to render due service to those in authority:

It is worth recalling here the historical context of St. Paul’s statement. The empire in which he was encouraging Christians to live as upright citizens, paying taxes, honoring leadership, being subject to authority, that is to say, providing typical patriotic service of their nation, was the same empire profoundly at odds with Christian teaching in a number of respects. There was the empire’s officially recognized pagan cult, including, from the early first century, worship of the emperor as a divine being. Beginning in A.D. 64, there were periodic persecutions of the Church. Christians were put on trial for failing to give due worship to the Roman gods, and executed when they refused. And then, pertinent to today, there were the widespread and legally approved practices of abortion and infanticide. A child in Roman law had no status as a human person until it was "lifted from the floor" by the father after birth. Unwanted children were either put to death in the womb, or, before "lifting," placed in a public location to await either death or, perhaps, rescue by a merciful stranger. Despite all this St. Paul is urging Christians on to become model citizens, to pay their taxes, and to honor those in authority! Obviously, he has something else in mind than supporting the pagan immorality of the empire.

What St. Paul was, in fact, recognizing was the activity of divine providence in the Roman authorities and social structure that were providing for the well-being of so many people. Such authority and social structure comes about through God’s willing it into place. “For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.” A vice-plagued regime such as the Roman Empire is still a regime God guides for the common good of all its people. St. Paul has no doubts about this. What is more, we can be sure that same truth that applied to the Roman Empire of the first century will apply to our nation in the twenty-first. Despite problems of rampant vice and slaying the innocent through abortion, our public authorities have risen to their positions through the action of God; the benefits we have from our country have been brought about through divine guidance.


From what has been said thus far, we can discern that in any nation, even those undergoing a moral crisis as severe as our own, there is a governing authority and social institutions that are God's instrument. We can also say that these instruments in society will be evident in whatever supports the overall well-being, or common good, of its citizens. And here we have the “object,” if you will, of our patriotism. This where we can be sure, even in a society where moral corruption abounds, that our patriotic service will be in accord with the Divine Will. We direct our patriotism to leadership and institutions that support the common good of the people, and that derive ultimately from the hand of God.

Nations, however, can make demands upon us that have not come about through providential guidance, and in some way directly oppose the practice of our faith. In such cases we have no choice but to refuse to comply. The Catechism instructs us:

In such cases of civil authority counteracting the moral order, we are in fact being patriotic to refuse obedience. Ultimately such misguided authority will harm the common good of our nation, as we can see has happened with the attack on the rights of the person through legalized abortion.

What this means is that we should have no hesitation in loving and serving our country, and indeed, we must see this as our obligation. Sometimes the form that patriotic service takes will be in supporting it in time of war, as we are doing now with our war against terrorism. At other times it will involve opposing our nation’s own abuse of authority, as we do in seeking the reversal of its practice of abortion. In both ways, what is being exercised is the virtue of patriotism, having as its goal the good and noble life that will truly prosper the people of our great land.


At the heart of our practice of the faith is an insistence that the life of eternity receives the highest priority in our decision making. We follow St. Paul’s admonition to the Colossians: “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God” (3:1-3). Our loyalties are above all else to God, and our true homeland is in heaven. Life in this world is merely an introduction to the true life that is to be found in eternity. In fact, through the supernatural gifts we have received in baptism, we already partly share in that eternal homeland. “Our life is hid with Christ in God.” St. Paul put that sentence in the present tense to signify that we are already partly infused by eternity. A heavenly destination is somehow already mysteriously present in our hearts.

Nevertheless, God has not put us in this world simply to mark time while we wait for eternity. Our waiting here is to be productive waiting. Our Blessed Lord is clear about this in the Gospels. In one of the parables He praises those servants who are busy at work up to the moment their master returns (Lk 12:35-46). At His Last Supper discourse Jesus teaches, “By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit, and so prove to be my disciples” (Jn. 15:8). So it is not true to say that what defines us as disciples is setting our hearts on heaven, and no more. We also prove to be disciples by making ourselves useful during our time in this world, by “bearing fruit.”

As Catholics we are in a particularly key position to further the good and noble life of our nation, because of our contact with divine truth through faith. Our faith is a treasure, not only for ourselves but for our entire nation. The value of this treasure comes to light when we consider what happens when faith is rejected in favor of materialistic and atheistic ideologies. Civil liberties that we have come to expect as a normal part of life, freedom of religion, speech, and assembly, have no place in countries where atheistic communism has held sway. As Pope Pius XI pointedly observed in his encyclical Divini redemptoris, “There is no recognition of any right of the individual in his relations to the collectivity, no natural right is accorded to human personality, which is a mere cog-wheel in the communist system.” Decades of communist oppression in various parts of the world, where communism now has fortunately been overturned, bear testimony to the rampant abuse of human rights and human dignity that can take place once the belief in God and the social virtues proclaimed by Christianity are abandoned.

In stark contrast to this are the benefits to society that result from a citizenship formed and elevated by faith. By obedience to God and divine teaching they are committed to virtues that require respect for individuals and their rights. The moral life of a Catholic by its very nature is directed to the kind of cooperation and service that overcomes divisions and brings out the best in citizens. Individual Catholics can, of course, fail to live out that moral life and become causes of breakdown in society. But for those truly embracing the moral standards proclaimed in Gospel, their lives become a leaven of goodness, unity, and peace for society.


Pope St. Pius X

"The Rosary is the most beautiful and the most rich of all prayers to Mary, the Mediatrix of all graces; it is a prayer that touches most profoundly the heart of the mother of God and of men. It should be recited daily."

Pope Benedict XV

"This prayer is perfect because of the praise it offers, the lessons it teaches, the graces it obtains, and the glorious victories it achieves. The child of God and of Mary will say it every day."

Pope Pius XI

"The Rosary is a powerful weapon to put the demons to flight, and to keep us from falling into sin. Secondly, not only does it help us to overcome the many enemies of God and of religion, but it is also a mighty incentive and encouragement to the practice of the Christian virtues. Above all, it preserves and nourishes and strengthens our Catholic faith."

Pope John XXIII

"The Rosary is the glory of the Roman Catholic Church. As an exercise of Christian piety, it takes its place among the faithful of Jesus Christ after the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass and the Sacraments."

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