America: Individually Set Apart for Holiness

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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.

Emma King

Emma King

Emma graduated cum laude from Hillsdale College in May, 2013 with a BA in Philosophy. She is happily married to a wonderful man and lives in Michigan.

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3 thoughts on “America: Individually Set Apart for Holiness”

  1. Avatar

    When I teach catechism, we begin the first class of the year with an exercise. We stand in a circle. The 1st student stands in the middle of the circle, introduces himself & states something about himself that he thinks everyone else in the class also shares (I’m a Catholic or I belong to name of our parish). Everyone on the circle steps into the middle if he or she also can say the same about themselves. Then the middle person states something unique about himself – something he thinks no one else in the room can say (I’ve traveled to 12 different countries, I’m a member of Mensa). Everyone who can not say the same has to move back to the edge of the circle. The turn passes to the next student who repeats the process without duplicating the statements. This is my way of illustrating to the children that we are both simultaneously unique individuals and also members of the same group(s).

    So, yes, I must agree with you when you say that it is very Catholic to respect the individual. I must also say that it is very Catholic to remember that we are part of the same group, most especially that we are all separate parts of the one Body of Christ. It does seem that the pendulum has swung far away from respecting the common good. The least of our brothers are floundering while we pursue our own happiness.

    I must confess that I am one of those people who makes snarky comments about how wonderful we Americans are because of our great “Protestant work ethic”. I think that has led us to become overworked, over-driven pursuers of the Almighty Dollar to the exclusion of everything else. This is evidenced by the vast gap between the mega wealthy billionaires and their hedge fund millionaire minions who tanked our economy with their greedy mortgage derivative schemes and the working class families who lost their homes, their jobs and their dignity in the process. The truly disenfranchised are simply labeled “homeless” and shuttled to shelters where they may be kept of of sight so they don’t disturb the rest of us in the hard working middle. Those at the top of the food chain mustn’t think about the destitute and impoverished as they never so much as visit a grocery store to feed themselves much less rub shoulders with a common man. Heaven forbid they lay eyes on a street person.

    While I am certainly happier that I live in a country where I may attend mass without fear of persecution as so many Christians in Africa, Asia and the Middle East are, that happiness is not a full embrace of the “religious freedom” we have as a constitutional right. I describe this as a constitutional, or man given right, rather than a God given right purposely. I don’t believe that God intends us to accept every half baked idea originating in the mind of man as a religion as dignified and respectable as every other philosophy also called religion.

    Our original colonists populated these shores not to built a land and a society dedicated to the worship of God as he revealed Himself to us in the manner prescribed by the apostles to whom he granted authority and their successors. No, our first colonists arrived on these shores in search of a place where they could mock the Holy Church, ignore the teachings of the magisterium. Papal authority was replaced with personal interpretations of a poorly translated, abridged, individually owned copy of Scripture. They arrived as parts of a fractured Church and gave themselves the freedom to define religion anyway they wanted to as long as that courtesy was extended to every other human. As a result Christianity has fractured further and further until today we have something like 40,000 different denominations. Also as a result of theis freedom, everything is a religion – from Catholicism to Rastafari to neopaganism to mormonism to Branch Davidianism, to moomie-ism to any other “ism” you might care to think up. I could worship my pet rock and apply for nonprofit status as a religion. All you need to found a church is an idea and a sales pitch to gather a following. Today, we are faced not only with CEO’s forced out of corporate office for daring to state that the sacrament of marriage is between a single man and a single woman

    but we are also faced with Satanists who insist that their freedom of religion should allow them to publically blaspheme and desecrate the Holy Eucharist.

    Promotion of such events is not considered too offensive for publication and is an expression of freedom of the speech.

    Please excuse me if I’m not as tickled pick as you about the results of our “freedom of religion”.

    1. Avatar

      Thank you, ‘Opinionated’, for responding so well to that naive, blinkered post. As I read it, my jaw dropped lower and lower. I’m European, and recently a Catholic, and I had hoped American Catholics, being presumably better aware of the wider world and longer history through being in the worldwide Church than their Protestant or secular compatriots, would not be caught up in the myth of American exceptionalism.

      Frankly, if many Catholics are so indistinguishable from their Protestant compatriots, I’m depressed for the Holy Catholic Church’s future in the USA. It will be suffering, not this kind of triumphalism, which will bring the truly Holy, Crucified Church into being. And it will be a persecuted Church because she will speak truth to those in power, who promote these kinds of self-praising myths about an America as God’s gift to the world.

      “In exploring history the greatest wealth and human health and flourishing has come from the American experiment.” Really? Ask yourself this, Emma: why has the USA produced so few Saints compared to elsewhere in the Catholic Church over the same period?

      Jesus’ strictures in Revelation against the wealthy Corinthian church seems to apply aptly to the American one.

  2. Avatar

    You draw a false distinction. You assume individualism or collectivism, and hence poison the well from the get go.

    The Catholic doctrine of the primacy of the common good, which is the sole ground upon which civil authority derives its legitimacy (cf. Diuturnum, Immortale Dei from Leo XIII, Pacem et terris by John XXIII) is not the good of a collective, but of a community. You assume an alien good is the common good and thereby reject that notion of the common good that forms Catholic political thought, because you treat it as a collective good.

    I highly recommend tackling De Konincks “De la primauté du bien commun”. Cardinal Villeneuve has this summation in his preface, which I quote:

    “There is the thesis of this work: the primacy of the common good, in society, in the family, for the soul itself, provided that the notion of a common good is well understood, as the greatest good of the singular, not by being a collection of singular goods, but best for each of the particular individuals who participate in it precisely on account of its being common. Those who defend the primacy of the singular good of the singular person suppose a false notion of the common good as if it were alien to the good of the singular; whereas it is natural and proper that the singular seek more the good of the species than his singular good. Since the person, an intellectual substance, is a part of the universe in whom the perfection of the whole universe can exist according to knowledge, his most proper good as intellectual substance will be the good of the universe, which is an essentially common good. Rational creatures, persons, are distinguished from irrational, by being more ordered to the common good and by being able to act expressly for its sake. It is true also that a person can perversely prefer his own singular good to the common good, attaching himself to the singularity of his person, or as we say today to his personality, set up as a common measure of all good. Furthermore, if the reasonable creature cannot entirely limit himself to a subordinate common good, such as the family or political society, this is not because his particular good as such is greater; it is because of his proper ordination to a superior common good to which he is principally ordered. In this case, the common good is not sacrificed to the good of the individual as individual, but to the good of the individual insofar as the latter is ordered to a more universal common good, indeed to God. A society consisting of persons who love their private good above the common good, or who identify the common good with a private good, is not a society of free men, but of tyrants, who menace each other by force, and in which the final head is merely the most astute and the strongest among the tyrants, the subjects being nothing but frustrated tyrants.”

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