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The Fourth of July evokes so many images: Fireworks, fife and drum corps, the Liberty Bell and … old men in miters dressed in white.
Yes, the popes belong on that list.
On his 2015 visit to America, Pope Francis sounded like a Fourth of July speaker.
Pope Francis stood proudly outside Independence Hall, where the Declaration of Independence was signed, and said: “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.”
He praised the “ringing words” that “have inspired peoples throughout the world to fight for freedom” and added that they “must constantly be reaffirmed, re-appropriated and defended.”
St. John Paul II often told Americans to rediscover and reapply our founding principles. Before leaving Baltimore in 1995 he warned that if democracy loses its moral foundation it would be “shaken to its foundations.”
But “The United States possesses a safeguard, a great bulwark, against this happening,” he said. “I speak of your founding documents: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights.”
What do the popes see in the Declaration? Three things in particular …
The popes always praised the fundamental triad of the Declaration of Independence: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
St. John Paul loved to cite America’s founding principles in the defense of life: “I say to you again, America, in the light of your own tradition: love life, cherish life, defend life, from conception to natural death,” he said at Baltimore.
It’s a message Mother Teresa echoed. At the National Catholic Prayer Breakfast in 1994 she said America must protect life. “Then,” she said, “you will really be true to what the founders of this country stood for.”
But the popes love liberty, too.
Pope Benedict also praised America’s founding documents, always stressing that “Freedom is not only a gift, but also a summons to personal responsibility.”
That was the essence of his message: If we can’t govern ourselves, we can’t be trusted with democratic self-government.
In a visit to the White House, Benedict cited his predecessor, saying “in a world without truth, freedom loses its foundation, and a democracy without values can lose its very soul.” He also quoted George Washington saying that “religion and morality represent ‘indispensable supports’ of political prosperity.”
The right to liberty was a major focus of Pope Francis’ visit to America, which came in the wake of major religious freedom challenges in America.
At Independence Hall, he warned against reducing the religious liberty to the right to worship. “Because religion itself, the religious dimension, is not a subculture; it is part of the culture of every people and every nation.”
Popes even support the pursuit of happiness.
To the founders, “the pursuit of happiness” never meant “do whatever you like.” Pope John Paul II described what it really means when he received U.S. Ambassador Lindy Boggs’ credentials in 1997.
“The Founding Fathers of the United States asserted their claim to freedom and independence on the basis of certain ‘self-evident’ truths about the human person: truths which could be discerned in human nature, built into it by ‘nature’s God,’” he said.
He called America “a great experiment in what George Washington called ‘ordered liberty’: an experiment in which men and women would enjoy equality of rights and opportunities in the pursuit of happiness.”
He added that the founders “clearly understood that there could be no true freedom without moral responsibility and accountability, and no happiness without respect” for the human person.
But those aren’t the most Fourth of July things the popes have said.
“Let us preserve freedom. Let us cherish freedom. Freedom of conscience, religious freedom, the freedom of each person, each family, each people,” Pope Francis said, at the Liberty Bell. “[I]t has been given to you by God himself.”
And here’s how John Paul left the United States in 1995: “America: may your trust always be in God and in none other, and then, ‘The star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.’”
This appeared at Aleteia.