When Benedict XVI visited the United States in 2008, he repeatedly expressed his admiration for America’s pluralistic society and respect for religious liberty. Benedict XVI and John Paul II shared a vision of the United States as the opponent of totalitarianism that had been shaped profoundly by their own experience of Nazi Germany and Communist Poland.
The death of Benedict XVI is a marker of the death of the “Greatest Generation,” a generational shift we have been culturally experiencing for the 20 years that have opened this century. The generation who lived through the Great Depression in the 1930s, World War II in the 1940s, and the beginnings of the Cold War in the 1950s developed a world view which is increasingly sidelined and undermined, but which still resonates powerfully with many.
Winston Churchill described World War II as the struggle of “Christian Civilization” against a “monstrous tyranny never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime.” The idea that Christian society and liberal democracy stood hand-in-hand against statism—against totalizing ideologies that replaced the law of God and the freedom of the human person with a political will to recreate human society and even human nature itself—was powerfully forged by a whole generation of thinkers and writers: Christopher Dawson, Eric Voegelin, Hannah Arendt, C. S. Lewis, and Jacques Maritain, to name a mere handful.
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This is the generation to which Benedict XVI and John Paul II belonged. The experience of totalitarian regimes shaped their formative years. Benedict XVI’s father relocated his family in order to avoid the Nazi police, and young Joseph Ratzinger himself was forced to serve two years in the army towards the end of the war. John Paul II went to an underground seminary during Nazi occupation of Poland and served his priestly ministry amid the Communist regime.
For both, the United States was first and foremost the liberator. While they had sharp words for the cultural decadence and the materialistic cosmopolitanism that washed over both American and European society, the U.S.A. appeared to their young eyes as a land of promise.
American patriotism is a complex phenomenon. For some, patriotism conjures up the American Founders. Marble busts and neo-classical temples enshrining the words of the Declaration of Independence embody the character of the country. Perhaps for many more—the Civil War history buffs that keep publishers going with endless biographies of Lincoln and Lee—American patriotism rings out most clearly in the words of the Gettysburg Address and the vibrant strains of the Battle Hymn of the Republic.
But for the “ethnics”—for the vast wave of immigrants who flooded American cities and plains between 1870 and 1920—American patriotism really coalesced around the “band of brothers” who took the beaches of Normandy. “Americans” always meant an eclectic group of Irish-Americans, German-Americans, Polish-Americans, Italian-Americans, Jewish-Americans, Southern Baptists, and educated WASPs. “Americans” always meant the Allies—the British, the Americans, and the French.
Just stopping in a small town in the Texas panhandle last week, I saw that their World War II Veterans Memorial is centered around the words of…not Roosevelt, but Churchill: “Not in vain may be the pride of those who survived and the epitaph of those who fell.” Fighting for free society against totalitarianism, fighting for Christian Civilization against totalitarian ideologies, American patriotism was neither racial nor provincial.
This “America” was very real for both Benedict XVI and John Paul II. John Paul II had visited Chicago before his pontificate—the largest Polish city after Warsaw. Benedict XVI, who also visited the U.S. before becoming pope, was a reader and admirer of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. In 1992 he said that Tocqueville’s account of how American democracy had managed to avoid the degradation into Statism that was evident in the progress of French democracy “made a strong impression on me.” Tocqueville studied constitutions, institutions, and social mores of the Americans for the keys to resisting the vortex of centralization of power.
In his encyclical Deus Caritas Est, Benedict XVI clearly echoed Tocqueville’s concern that democracies could degrade into a kind of total-welfare soft despotism. “The State,” Benedict XVI wrote, “The State that would provide everything, absorbing everything into itself.”
We do not need a State which regulates and controls everything, but a State which, in accordance with the principles of subsidiarity, generously acknowledges and supports initiatives arising from the different social forces and combines spontaneity with closeness to those in need. (DCE, 28).
In his neat little summary of the history of Western Civilization, “The Spiritual Roots of Europe,” published with Marcello Pera in Without Roots, Benedict XVI indicated that it was the institutional independence of the Church from the state that gradually formed in Europe a culture of freedom. He points to Pope Gelasius’s famous cry of independence from the Byzantine Emperor—“There are two by which this world is ruled!”—as a source of Europe’s distinctiveness. He suggests that America’s “free church” regime is an unlooked-for heir of the Gelasian principle in the modern world.
A nation “under God,” as America professed to be, was limited in territory (a nation among nations, not an empire) and limited in jurisdiction (recognizing the legitimate jurisdiction of the family and the Church).
The passing of Benedict XVI is one more step in the passing of the Greatest Generation, the passing of the 20th century. It can be, for all Americans, and not just Catholics, a moment to evaluate whether the America he and his contemporaries admired still exists and is worthy of our patriotic affection.