There is a trend among American Catholics that worries me. I periodically hear the argument that the traditional American emphasis on individuals promotes a sense of self-importance, greed, or pride that distances us from our God, our faith, and the development of true virtue and humility. I hear many Catholics, understandably, fearing that a system focused on the individual develops a sense of hubris. They desire, instead, a system that focuses on the collective whole, one that cares about the common good of man as a member of a larger community.
So, given the recent ruling by the Supreme Court on religious liberty which made me proud to call America “home”, and that it is the eve of Independence Day, I decided that it is the proper time to address this attack on the country I hold so dear.
Rather than view the American emphasis on individuals as a prideful perspective that promotes hubris, I believe the American emphasis on the individual is not only compatible with our faith, but is incredibly Catholic. If anything, I may go so far as to say “the most Catholic” perspective. I argue that it lends itself to the Catholic understanding of God and fully allows us to express and live our faith.
Why? Because, when we stop and look at it, we must agree that God is all about the individual.
We know that God “calls us by name,” suggesting that He knows us as individuals with individual abilities, likes, interests, dislikes, and personalities.
We know that each one of us is “uniquely made,” and that God gives us each our own talents and gifts, which He calls us to use. These unique gifts God gives us is why Catholics emphasize the importance of discerning vocation. Only in discerning your unique calling can you add to the kingdom of God on earth by using the talents bestowed upon you to better your life and the lives of those around you.
We say over and over again that God has a plan for your life. If so, that plan must be unique and individually based – no two people live the same life or have the same experiences.
We know that God interacts with and changes the world through individuals. He individually called Moses, Jonah, Noah, and Abraham to lead His people in different times and ways. He didn’t ask for volunteers, and He never spoke to a whole nation of people. He went directly to the individual and used the person to speak to the people.
We know that God focuses aid on individual people as well. He heals one person at a time. In scripture, we never hear of mass healings. Rather, Christ always individually attends the ill and heals the individual person of their ailment.
We know that God tells us to go out and visit the imprisoned, counsel the doubtful, heal the sick, clothe the naked, and feed the hungry. He also never says anything about a collective whole doing so. He never suggests that charity come in the shape of a government program. Instead, every time Christ approaches the subject of helping mankind, He says, “you go visit the poor, you feed the hungry.”
Most of all, we know that God desires a unique relationship with His people. He doesn’t want a vast relationship with His people the way a king or politician relates to the masses. God longs to know each and every one of us as a Father and friend, to know us for who we are as ourselves, not who we are as a nation or a group.
Indeed, everything, from the way God chooses to reveal Himself to us, to Biblical roots and teaching, points to the individual as the greatest good. God even created us in a singular way. When we return to Genesis, we see that God created everything in groupings until Adam:
“And God said, ‘let the waters bring forth swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth … let the earth bring forth living creatures…’ “ et cetera.
Only when God created Adam did he do so singularly. We don’t hear tell of the multitude of people God placed in the Garden. We only hear of man in terms of Adam and Eve. They aren’t just one of the many men that God created the way that robins are a type of the many birds God made. No, Adam was the man that God created, set aside from the moment of creation by the fact that he was the only one of his kind.
Indeed, God is all about the individual.
Therefore, it seems that the greatest good will come to man when man follows suit and allows the individual to flourish as God desires. In exploring history, the greatest wealth and human health and flourishing has come from the American experiment, and I don’t think that’s a coincidence.
There is a reason that America holds fast to its religious traditions. There is a reason that the Christian faith has not disappeared from the American landscape the way it has in Europe. It is because, try as they might, progressives cannot deny that America’s founding and the foundation of our faith are intimately related. They are not distant cousins, they are close siblings, born of the same ideology: that man is a good, and that there is a higher good that we, as men, can participate in, are called to participate in.
That the Christian faith still finds expression in America, that people still consider Sunday a “church day” is a reflection that America still values the things that God values.
America values freedom: the freedom of man to pursue fulfillment through the gifts bestowed on him by God, without asking permission of another man. Put another way: the freedom to serve God as only God and man see fit.
America values the common good by promoting the individual: the idea that when the individual flourishes, so too does society.
America sees people as God sees them: that the individual must never be subservient to the collective because the individual is a unique person who has never existed before and will never exist again.
America’s emphasis, not only on Religious Freedom, as recently upheld by the Supreme Court, but on the importance of the individual is what allows Catholics to truly live their faith in America in a way we cannot elsewhere. Our country gives us the great ability to be both fully American and fully Catholic, something that not many other countries can claim. We do not have to have politics and faith butting heads, because when we truly embrace the founding ideology of America, we can have a meshing of philosophical ideals that allows us to grow in holiness, not just spiritually, but in the practical and physical way intended for us by God as individuals.
So, this 4th of July I will proudly sing America, The Beautiful, and wave my American flag. I’ll don my red, white and blue regalia and thank God for a nation that allows the individual the opportunity to become as holy as he should.