It is a happy coincidence of the calendar that on this day in which we celebrate the Feast of the Archangels among whom Gabriel was sent to announce the arrival of the reign of Divine Governance over the universe by means of the eternal kingship of Christ (Luke 1:33), we should also find ourselves marking the anniversary of a great speech in favor of that form of human governance so greatly admired in our day: constitutional democracy.
It was on this day, September 29, in 1787, that one of the great Catholic forefathers of this nation, Thomas Fitzsimons of Pennsylvania, urged in favor of a swift ratification of the Constitution and helped make Pennsylvania the second state to do so. His arguments derive precisely from the will of the people to whom “competence to ordain a form of government belonged,” and who alone “would be adequate to carry it into effect.” He reported that day, “The sentiments of the people, so far as they have been collected, have been unanimously favorable to its [i.e. the constitution’s] adoption, and its early adoption, if their representatives think it a good one.”1
Roughly two weeks later representing Maryland, Daniel Carroll—the other Catholic delegate to the convention and brother of John Carroll, first bishop of Baltimore—urged similarly:
I will confess, indeed, that I am not a blind admirer of this plan of government, and that there are some parts of it, which if my wish had prevailed, would certainly have been altered. But, when I reflect how widely men differ in their opinions, and that every man (and the observation applies likewise to every state) has an equal pretension to assert his own, I am satisfied anything nearer to perfection could not have been accomplished. If there are errors, it should be remembered, that the seeds of reformation are sown in the work itself, and the concurrence of two thirds of the Congress may, at any time, introduce alterations and amendments. Regarding it then, in every point of view, with a candid and disinterested mind, I am bold to assert, that it is the best form of government which has ever been offered to the world.2
If, in fact, we acknowledge constitutional democracy as the greatest form of government, we ought not be surprised that its principles resonate more soundly with Christian faith than with any other creed, philosophy, or social bond.
Alexis de Tocqueville testified to this when he remarked half a century later: “Catholics are faithful to the observances of their religion; they are fervent and zealous in the belief of their doctrines. Yet they constitute the most republican and the most democratic class in the United States…. [I]t is found that no class of men is more naturally disposed than the Catholics to transfer the doctrine of equality of condition into the political world.”3
This is only true however inasmuch as the principles by which we Catholics abide find their source in the transcendent wellspring of God’s revelation. In our modern pluralistic milieu in which the freedom to practice our religion publicly and to apply its principles in conscience is more and more dismissed as foolishness subordinate to the dictates of the State, we frequently run aground in making appeal to faith-less principles of enlightened political science. We must make appeal rather to a higher science in order to secure our defense in a court of relativism. St. Thomas Aquinas explains why:
[NB: ‘sacred doctrine’ can here be understood as the contents of God’s revelation and ‘science’ is a systematic field of knowledge]:
Sacred doctrine is a science. We must bear in mind that there are two kinds of sciences. There are some which proceed from a principle known by the natural light of intelligence, such as arithmetic and geometry and the like. There are some which proceed from principles known by the light of a higher science: thus the science of perspective proceeds from principles established by geometry, and music from principles established by arithmetic. So it is that sacred doctrine is a science because it proceeds from principles established by the light of a higher science, namely, the science of God and the blessed. Hence, just as the musician accepts on authority the principles taught him by the mathematician, so sacred science is established on principles revealed by God. (ST Ia Q1.A2)
Our appeal however cannot be solely in words, for our compatriots are wont to recognize such an authority. Rather, if we are to do proudly for this great nation, then we must in fact show our lives to be living gospels so as to add further credibility to our espoused beliefs and values. There is no better description of what this looks like than in the ancient Letter to Diognetus where we find the following description of Christians with respect to the State:
Christians are indistinguishable from other men either by nationality, language or customs. They do not inhabit separate cities of their own, or speak a strange dialect, or follow some outlandish way of life. Their teaching is not based upon reveries inspired by the curiosity of men. Unlike some other people, they champion no purely human doctrine. With regard to dress, food and manner of life in general, they follow the customs of whatever city they happen to be living in, whether it is Greek or foreign.
And yet there is something extraordinary about their lives. They live in their own countries as though they were only passing through. They play their full role as citizens, but labor under all the disabilities of aliens. Any country can be their homeland, but for them their homeland, wherever it may be, is a foreign country. Like others, they marry and have children, but they do not expose them. They share their meals, but not their wives.
They live in the flesh, but they are not governed by the desires of the flesh. They pass their days upon earth, but they are citizens of heaven. Obedient to the laws, they yet live on a level that transcends the law.
Let our patriotism be first and foremost a product of our heavenly citizenship and then we shall be truthful in adopting the sentiment of that faithful scholar of law St. Thomas More—to be this nation’s good servant, “but God’s first.”