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When America’s founders declared their independence in 1776 at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, two blocks away, another beautiful building housed Americans who had already announced their independence.
Old St. Joseph’s Church (before the “Old” was added to its name) had declared its independence in 1734 from the British law forbidding public Masses for Catholics. The court had to agree, because England had already approved William Penn’s Charter of Privileges allowing religious freedom in his “City of Brotherly Love.”
These two symbols — Independence Hall and Old St. Joseph’s — are a great summing up of what America is and what it can become: The land of religious freedom, which means America is both religious, with strong institutions that make people moral; and free, embracing the great experiment in self-government America’s founders. The last three popes have made a point to spell out this vision when they visited America.
Pope Francis visited Independence Hall. Calling it “the birthplace of America” he said:
“One of the highlights of my visit is to stand here, before Independence Hall … It was here that the freedoms which define this country were first proclaimed. The Declaration of Independence stated that all men and women are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, and that governments exist to protect and defend those rights.”
Independence Hall is a beacon of hope to the world, Pope Francis said:
“Those ringing words continue to inspire us today, even as they have inspired peoples throughout the world to fight for the freedom to live in accordance with their dignity.”
St. John Paul II put it even more starkly in Baltimore. He said it is the vocation of the United States to preserve and promote this symbol, side by side with religion:
“I say this, too, to the United States of America: today, in our world as it is, many other nations and peoples look to you as the principal model and pattern for their own advancement in democracy. But democracy needs wisdom. Democracy needs virtue, if it is not to turn against everything that it is meant to defend and encourage.”
John Paul said that the founding documents express the natural law written by God and are crucial to the future of America.
“The United States possesses a safeguard, a great bulwark. … I speak of your founding documents: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights. These documents are grounded in and embody unchanging principles of the natural law whose permanent truth and validity can be known by reason, for it is the law written by God in human hearts (cf. Rom. 2:15).”
But he always spoke about the need for faith in God, prior to faith in the founding. He told the U.S. ambassador to the Vatican:
“Respect for religious conviction played no small part in the birth and early development of the United States. Thus John Dickinson, Chairman of the Committee for the Declaration of Independence, said in 1776: ‘Our liberties do not come from charters; for these are only the declaration of pre-existing rights. They do not depend on parchments or seals; but come from the King of Kings and the Lord of all the earth’. Indeed, it may be asked whether the American democratic experiment would have been possible, or how well it will succeed in the future, without a deeply rooted vision of divine providence over the individual and over the fate of nations.”
In other words, John Paul II sees what George Washington saw as the “two pillars” of support for the American project. Poe Benedict XVI pointed out this feature of John Paul’s thought
The preservation of freedom calls for the cultivation of virtue, self-discipline, sacrifice for the common good and a sense of responsibility towards the less fortunate. … In reflecting on the spiritual victory of freedom over totalitarianism in his native Poland and in eastern Europe, [John Paul II] reminded us that history shows, time and again, that ‘in a world without truth, freedom loses its foundation’, and a democracy without values can lose its very soul. Those prophetic words in some sense echo the conviction of President Washington, expressed in his Farewell Address, that religion and morality represent ‘indispensable supports’ of political prosperity.
The Popes see what the Founding Fathers saw: That we need both our civic principles and a strong religious foundation to support a great nation. Old St. Joseph’s in Philadelphia is a representation of one of those pillars, and Independence Hall is a representation of the other. Together, they sum up the need for a strong Church and authentic political principles to make America what it is called to be.