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On being an American Catholic

| Thursday, March 5, 2020

My early teenage years were a time when I began to take a stronger interest in my faith. It was also the time when I became more aware of the injustices in America. Interestingly, this led to my Catholic identity becoming a way to escape from my duties as an American. 

Having grown up saying the Pledge of Allegiance every day at school and finding heroes in watching World War II movies with my grandfather, I felt a great disturbance when confronted with realties of my country: a history of slavery and racism, morally questionable wars and a disrespect for human life shown through mass incarceration, abortion and capital punishment, to name a few. My response, however, was not to accept these realities as my own but rather to consider them elements of an American history of which I was not a part.

My response was to deny my identity as an American and instead to think of myself solely as a Catholic who happened to live in America. Instead of lingering on the problems in American history and a country that seemed focused on material gains, I turned with pride to the history of saints and to a church that preached love for all. I saw less of myself in politicians and other public figures. “Liberty and justice for all” seemed like a cruel joke rather than an ideal for which to strive. This thinking was wrong for many reasons, not the least of which being the role Catholics played in American injustices as well as the countless injustices carried out by members of Catholic Church outside of America.

Denying my American identity was problematic because it ignored both the privileges I received from these American injustices and my responsibility to work to improve my country. Though my earliest family members didn’t come to America until 1841, they still benefited immensely by being white in Cincinnati, which remains one of the most racially segregated cities in the country. The benefits of the opportunities for affordable housing, access to work and a good education which were unfairly given to my ancestors have been passed down through time to me. 

Additionally, I failed to recognize the duty I have to my own community. A responsibility to one’s country is evident in the Catholic faith. A Christian father is not called to abandon his family in hopes of spending more time helping the greater world, nor is he called to forget the people outside his home while he incessantly tends to his children. Rather, a Christian father is called to show love to all, with an understanding that he has been given a specific duty to pay special care to his family — to ensure not only their protection but also their development into good sisters, brothers, mothers and fathers. So, too, is the American Catholic called to be a member of the worldwide Church but also given a specific duty to care for and see to the development of his or her country.

Notre Dame helped me to see a way I could live out both my American and Catholic identities. The most concise way to put it is written on the World War I memorial on the side of the Basilica of the Sacred Heart — “God, Country, Notre Dame.” Notre Dame has a rich tradition of performing its duties as an American institute through embracing its Catholic mission. Many Holy Cross priests, nuns and brothers have served in the United States military as chaplains, counselors and nurses, the most well-known being Fr. William Corby at the Battle of Gettysburg. Notre Dame is quite fond of publicizing Fr. Hesburgh’s role on the Civil Rights Commission, which aided in the creation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But the greatest sign of Notre Dame’s commitment to the United States is the graduates: the politicians, community leaders, doctors, lawyers, business leaders, engineers and all the others who after walking down the steps of the Main Building went on to work to improve our country.

There is a Notre Dame football tradition that helps me to understand my identity. As the Irish guards raise the American flag and the crowd sings “America the Beautiful,” excerpts from the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence are read over the PA system, followed by the singing of the national anthem. All while this is going on, the marching band stands in the formation of the cross and anchors — the symbol of the Order of Holy Cross. Altogether, this scene is a commitment to the ideals professed both by the Catholic faith and the founding of America. I am very thankful for this short opportunity to remind myself of how proud I am to be an American and a Catholic and to remember what those identities call me to do.

Matthew is the 3-Talley RA in Alumni Hall, from Cincinnati. He majors in civil engineering with an itty bitty minor in theology. Writing this column is the last in his long list of shortly lived passions. He can be reached at [email protected] and @coltonjorge on Twitter.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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