Catholics: Wave the Stars and Stripes This Flag Day

Catholics don’t need to worry about celebrating the symbol of America on Flag Day, June 14 or on Independence Day, July 4. Patriotism is a good thing, especially in America.

A mini-debate raged on the Internet a few years ago regarding American flags in Catholic churches.

“American flags don’t belong in church sanctuaries,” read the headline in the National Catholic Reporter, explaining “‘America can do no wrong’ patriotism is not consistent with the Gospel.” That’s true. The article that followed suggested that the main problem with flags in church was America’s recent wars.

The Catholic News Agency weighed in on the subject earlier, and came to a similar conclusion as the National Catholic Reporter, but for different reasons:

“There was a time when we could proudly and clearly pledge our allegiance to that flag which represented ‘one nation, under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.’ That statement is no longer true since the fateful Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion. Now it is ‘with liberty and justice for some.’ Once we restore the full and original meaning to that flag by assuring ‘justice for all,’ we can proudly present those colors in all the sanctuaries across the land.”

In fact, though, there probably never was a time when the flag perfectly represented “one nation, under God, indivisible with liberty and justice for all.” It certainly didn’t for pre-civil rights era blacks.

The U.S. bishops weighed in on the debate. While recommending against flags in the church sanctuary itself, the bishops said, “Surprisingly to many, there are no regulations of any kind governing the display of flags in Roman Catholic Churches. Neither the Code of Canon law, nor the liturgical books of the Roman rite comment on this practice.”

Displaying flags in Catholic churches became popular in America when churches wanted to honor those who were serving during World War II. “At that time, many bishops and pastors provided a book of remembrance near the American flag, requesting prayers for loved ones,” said the bishops.

That gets at the real reason we love and honor the flag.

We know that America is imperfect, and always has been. We love the flag because it represents not the imperfect lived reality of the nation but the high ideals of a country built on natural law — and the people who lived and died to perfect it the way it is lived.

And despite shortcomings, we have another reason to celebrate in America. “One must pay tribute to those nations whose systems permit the largest possible number of the citizens to take part in public life in a climate of genuine freedom,” says the Catechism. Isn’t that a description of America?

Favorite church hymns express the right kind of patriotism, “Faith of Our Fathers” was written to celebrate the British martyrs who died at the hand of their own government, but it is as stirringly patriotic as St. Thomas More, who was “The King’s good servant, but God’s first.”

“God of Our Fathers” is an American hymn with an oblique reference to the flag (“the starry band”) that the U.S. bishops have used during the fortnight for Freedom.

Last, the hymn “Immaculate Mary” prays “Bless, dearest Lady, the land of our birth.”

Think of that prayer when you see an American flag. Both mean the same thing.

Image: Blessing of the flag at Convocation Mass, Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas.

Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes, author of The Rosary of Saint John Paul II and The Fatima Family Handbook, is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Kansas and hosts The Extraordinary Story podcast about the life of Christ. A former reporter in the Washington, D.C., area, he served as press secretary of the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee Chairman and spent 10 years as executive editor of the National Catholic Register newspaper and Faith & Family magazine. His work frequently appears in Catholic publications such as Aleteia.org and the Register. He and his wife, April, have nine children and live in Atchison, Kansas.