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Canada Day, Patriotism, and Religion

In more recent years, the whole notion of celebrating Canada Day has become a more confusing one. Certainly, our country is not perfect, and its troubled history is reason for greater contemplation. And yet, there must also be a space for the celebration of what ought to be celebrated in it: the true, good, and beautiful.

St. Thomas Aquinas links the love of land similarly to the love of parents. Dealing with the virtue of "pietas," piety or dutifulness, he writes: "The principles (or origins) of our being and governing are our parents and our country, which have given us birth and nourishment. Consequently man is debtor chiefly to his parents and his country, after God. Wherefore, just as it belongs to religion to give worship to God, so does it belong to "pietas," in the second place, to give worship to one's parents and one's country. (Summa Theologica, 2a, 2ae, Q. 101)

The word “patriotism” comes from the Latin pater (father) and patria (homeland, native soil). As with any human father, the nation-state is not a little godling. It can never require our worship. It can never demand that we violate our religious identity and beliefs. But properly understood, patriotism is a virtue and a form of filial love. We’re sons and daughters of the land of our birth. It’s natural and deeply human to love our home and be faithful to the best qualities in our native land.

During the turbulent time leading to the First World War, Pope Leo XIII wrote his encyclical Sapientiae Christianae (On Christians as Citizens), issued in January 1890. He stated, “If the natural law enjoins us to love devotedly and to love the country in which we had birth, and in which we were brought up, so that every citizen hesitates not to face death for his native land, very much more is the urgent duty of Christians to be ever quickened by like feelings toward the Church.” Leo XIII is speaking of “natural love of our own country” and “supernatural love for the Church.”

Today, we can read in the Catechism of the Catholic Church the discussion of patriotism in its treatment of the fourth commandment “Honor your father and mother” (2197-2257) and “Participation in Social Life” (1897-1927). Patriotism is part of living in the human community, from one’s family to one’s country. It is a form of familial love.

The Catechism states that authority comes from God, not from itself (CCC 1902). Furthermore, the Catechism states (CCC 2239), “The love and service of one’s country follow from the duty of gratitude and belong to the order of charity.” Patriotism is living the virtue of charity as well as its relation to the virtue of piety. This charity takes the form of being a good citizen, from ordinary actions like voting, volunteering in the community, or cleaning up city parks, to greater acts like serving in the military.

Patriotism does not mean a blind, unquestioning love of one’s country as faultless. It should neither mean canonizing significant figures in the country’s history as sinless saints, but neither does it mean demonizing them or encouraging a sort of self-loathing or a cynical hatred of one’s history and past. Related, though distinct, is the notion of nationalism. Nationalism and patriotism are sometimes used interchangeably, though nationalism tends to have a more negative connotation today. I think this quote can help us see where the distinction lies: “The difference between patriotism and nationalism is that the patriot is proud of his country for what it does, and the nationalist is proud of his country no matter what it does.”- Sydney J. Harris

The virtue of patriotism is opposed to an idealistic utopianism intent on destroying the past or of sugarcoating it. Utopianism attempts to see the Kingdom of God in this world. When Our Lord stood before Pilate, he said (John 18:36), “My kingship is not of this world; if my kingship were of this world, my servants would fight.” Instead Our Lord humbly went to the Cross. It was his plan to lay down his life freely for the forgiveness of sins.

Love of one’s country means desiring its good. In Sapientiae, Leo XIII states unequivocally, “To love both countries, that of earth below and that of heaven above, yet in such a mode that the love of our heavenly surpass the love of our earthly home, and that human laws be never set above the divine law, is the essential duty of Christians.” Putting natural and divine law first puts secular citizenship in perspective.

St. Augustine taught that Christian political engagement and public service can be morally worthy, so long as our expectations of remaking reality are modest. All human structures are flawed by sin. The City of Man can never be the City of God.

And that’s a wisdom we need to remember. Christianity is not finally about our place in this world. It’s about our place in the next. We have a duty to make the material world, and especially the people around us, better for our passing. We can’t and shouldn’t try to escape from the challenges and responsibilities of the place where God plants us. We need to be a leaven for goodness, here and now. But our real citizenship, our real goal, is heaven. We belong to heaven first.

Many people wonder what are appropriate ways of commemorating Canada Day. Certainly, whatever takes place, I think the most important aspect is the celebration of Holy Mass for Canada Day, in thanksgiving and petition for this land and for all of the people who live on it.

May God be praised, and the inhabitants of this land be blessed this Canada Day weekend.

Fr. Brian Trueman


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