Tuesday, August 09, 2005

The American Dream

I asked a dear, dear friend of mine (who is much smarter than I will ever claim to be) to give me his judgment and thoughts on the conversation that I was having with others regarding the following posts:

Good Work Over at Cahiers Peguy

Ceasefire? -- Hardly, but it's a start.

His remarks are as follows:

The American Dream is a competitor to Catholicism in that like the Church it offers a universal vision for peaceably securing the unity of mankind, at least within the horizon of history. Its vision of freedom is also explicitly incompatible with the now defunct monarchical, aristocratic, and clerical order of medieval Christendom. The Church has had difficulty distinguishing itself from that order, but Vatican II (especially in Gaudium et spes and Dignitatis humanae) has finally given us a solid base from which to make the attempt.

Despite the 20th-century rapprochement on the question of religious liberty, Catholicism and Americanism remain in tension because they operate within different horizons of the true and the good. For the Catholic the last, best hope of mankind is Jesus Christ; his life, death and resurrection establish an historical and trans-historical horizon accessible only to a faith freely exercised. For the Americanist the horizon is set by those truths and goods that can be defined and secured by his system of abstract rights, powers and limits.

The crucial thing for an American Catholic to recognize is that neither the horizons nor their centers coincide. While there is a great deal of overlap--more than between Marxist Communism and Christianity, for example--the circles are not concentric. He must learn to live creatively the drama generated by the divergence and resist the temptation to reduce one horizon to the other.

I do not believe the Gospel can ever be comfortably integrated with any social/political order that depends on coercive force. If it could, Jesus' dialogue with Pilate would have been quite different and he would have founded an empire instead of the Church.

That said, I am happy to embrace the American version of the discomfort precisely for the scope given to freedom, a freedom within which I have lived and moved and made a life. Will this freedom be abused? Of course. We must condemn the abuse but defend the principle: abusus non tollit usum (abuse does not take away the use). But then, I would urge the same attitude toward ecclesiastical authority and freedoms.

I think the Church's policy in political and social matters and advice to non-believers must be, "Test everything; hold fast to what is good." What criterion do we use in the test? The greatest good we have so far met or imagined.

We moderns and post-moderns cannot return to medieval Christendom. With Dostoyevsky we are children of our age, subject to contradiction and uncertainty. "And yet," writes Dostoyevsky, "God gives me moments of perfect peace; in such moments I love and believe that I am loved; in such moments I have formulated my creed, wherein all is clear and holy to me. This creed is extremely simple: here it is. I believe that there is nothing lovelier, deeper, more sympathetic, more rational, more manly and more perfect than the Saviour: I say to myself with jealous love that not only is there no one else like Him, but that there could be no one."

American Catholics have, above all, the duty to hold fast the right to publicly bear this witness in word and deed, that we cannot imagine a greater good than the One we have met through and in His Church.

Joel I. Barstad, Ph.D.
St. John Vianney Seminary, Denver, CO
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