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Quote of the Week

April 13, 2007

We thus come to a question that is crucial to understanding our lives as Catholics in America. The priority of grace over nature tells us that we must be Catholics first and then, to the extent that it is possible, Americans. Our faith requires us to take a critical view of our culture, and to take part in it only to the degree that its values are compatible with our beliefs, and with our life in the Trinity. Political and social life and other voluntary actions can be ways of living the life of grace, but they are not necessarily so.

The question must be to what extent these are ways of living the life of a communal nature elevated by Trinitarian, thus communal, grace, for our God is not a single Person, living in isolated splendor. Our God is three-personed, a unity in which three persons have their very identities as three distinct persons only in relation to, in communion with, one another.

Establishing the priority of Catholic liberty over American liberty means that our relations with one another must be intrinsically and genuninely communal. We must have ontological relations among us that are prior to the choices by which we associate with one another. And our choices, our voluntary associations with one another, must conform to that ontological communality.

All human associations, then, must be judged by this norm, including family, Church, and culture, social and political institutions, and those voluntary associations distinctive of our American practical genius. Community becomes a moral norm because it is the measure of our existential fullness, and existence and goodness coincide. Moral goodness is nothing more, and nothing less, than the fully flourishing existence of human persons in the love that constitutes community.

Mr. (Michael) Novak has said that “the primal American experience is community.” It is at least arguable that the primal American experience has been either anti-communal or pseudo-communal. I am thinking, for example, of the violent seizure of land from its native inhibitants, of the enslavement of black Africans, and of the current slaughter of millions of unborn babies for trivial reasons of convenience. All of these horrors have been perpetrated by voluntary associations, and all of them have been sanctioned, in one way or another, by our institutions.

The abuse of the native Americans continues to this day. My own state of Wisconsin recently made national news because white sports fishermen are calling for abrogation of treaties which allow Indians to spear a certain number of walleyed pike, a staple of Indian diet. Slaves were defined in our Constitution as fractional persons, and black Americans continue to experience higher than average levels of poverty and unemployment, of disease and infant mortality, of discrimination in housing, education, and the workplace. And abortion on demand has now been the law of our land for more than a decade. It is impossible to see any of these practices as motivated by amor amicitiae, or as informed by chairty.

My question to our two presenters (Michael Novak and Kenneth Schmitz), then, asks for a critique of American culture, and especially of voluntary associations, in terms of whether or not these are genuine communites.

Mary F. Rousseau, “Response to Michael Novak and Kenneth L. Schmitz” in Catholicism and Secularization in Ameria: Essays on Nature, Grace, and Culture

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