Monday, February 15, 2010

The Popes on "the Great Washington"

Given that today is George Washington's birthday--Happy Presidents Day!--I thought I'd say something about the man.

In fact, since turning in my doctoral thesis (please pray for me!) I've been resisting the urge to read much biblical theology out of fear that I might discover something that might make me regret something I said in the dissertation. . . or for that matter, failed to include (too late to change it now!). Thus, in my free time I've turned my attention to a different topic: the American revolution.

In particular, I've become fascinated with George Washington, whom we Americans celebrate today. Even apart from the myths, the man was truly remarkable.

First and foremost, there was his enormous size. Washington stood at a looming 6 feet, 3 inches--much taller than the average height of an 18th century American (5' 7").

This of course made him an easy target on the battle field. Military commanders of the period were typically shorter--men of smaller stature were far more likely to survive battles and advance in rank (e.g., think of Napolean!). However, despite the fact that he frequently rode to the front of the lines during combat, he was astonishingly never wounded in battle. In fact, reports of his heroics on the battlefield--and his seeming invincibility--read more like an account in a comic book of a superhero able to dodge bullets than historical records. And yet, so it was. Of course, Washington attributed it all to Providence.

Notably, Washington was very open to Catholicism and urged his compatriots to resist the deep anti-Catholic bigotry that was common in America at the time. Above all, he was grateful to Catholic France for the aid they gave to America in their struggle with the British. In addition, he was apparently rather close to the first American Catholic prelate, Archbishop John Carrol of Baltimore.

In his "Letter to Roman Catholics" (March 15th, 1790), President Washington wrote the following:

While I now receive with much satisfaction your congratulations on my being called, by an unanimous vote, to the first station in my country; I cannot but duly notice your politeness in offering an apology for the unavoidable delay. As that delay has given you an opportunity of realizing, instead of anticipating, the benefits of the general government, you will do me the justice to believe, that your testimony of the increase of the public prosperity, enhances the pleasure which I should otherwise have experienced from your affectionate address.

I feel that my conduct, in war and in peace, has met with more general approbation than could reasonably have been expected and I find myself disposed to consider that fortunate circumstance, in a great degree, resulting from the able support and extraordinary candor of my fellow-citizens of all denominations.

The prospect of national prosperity now before us is truly animating, and ought to excite the exertions of all good men to establish and secure the happiness of their country, in the permanent duration of its freedom and independence. America, under the smiles of a Divine Providence, the protection of a good government, and the cultivation of manners, morals, and piety, cannot fail of attaining an uncommon degree of eminence, in literature, commerce, agriculture, improvements at home and respectability abroad.

As mankind become more liberal they will be more apt to allow that all those who conduct themselves as worthy members of the community are equally entitled to the protection of civil government. I hope ever to see America among the foremost nations in examples of justice and liberality. And I presume that your fellow-citizens will not forget the patriotic part which you took in the accomplishment of their Revolution, and the establishment of their government; or the important assistance which they received from a nation in which the Roman Catholic faith is professed.

I thank you, gentlemen, for your kind concern for me. While my life and my health shall continue, in whatever situation I may be, it shall be my constant endeavor to justify the favorable sentiments which you are pleased to express of my conduct. And may the members of your society in America, animated alone by the pure spirit of Christianity, and still conducting themselves as the faithful subjects of our free government, enjoy every temporal and spiritual felicity"
I could write much more, but I will leave that for historian bloggers.

Here I thought I'd honor Washington's memory today by quoting two papal documents which speak glowingly of the man. Suffice it to say, such high papal praise for a political figure is rarely found in the writings of the modern day popes:

Pope Leo XIII, Longinqua (Encyclical Letter, January 6, 1895):
"Precisely at the epoch when the American colonies, having, with Catholic aid, achieved liberty and independence, coalesced into a constitutional Republic the ecclesiastical hierarchy was happily established amongst you; and at the very time when the popular suffrage placed the great Washington at the helm of the Republic, the first bishop was set by apostolic authority over the American Church. The well-known friendship and familiar intercourse which subsisted between these two men seems to be an evidence that the United States ought to be conjoined in concord and amity with the Catholic Church. And not without cause; for without morality the State cannot endure-a truth which that illustrious citizen of yours, whom We have just mentioned, with a keenness of insight worthy of his genius and statesmanship perceived and proclaimed. But the best and strongest support of morality is religion. She, by her very nature, guards and defends all the principles on which duties are founded, and setting before us the motives most powerful to influence us, commands us to live virtuously and forbids us to transgress."

Pope Pius XII, Sertum Laetitiae, 3 (Encyclical Letter, November 1, 1939):
"When Pope Pius VI gave you your first Bishop in the person of the American John Carroll and set him over the See of Baltimore, small and of slight importance was the Catholic population of your land. At that time, too, the condition of the United States was so perilous that its structure and its very political unity were threatened by grave crisis. Because of the long and exhausting war the public treasury was burdened with debt, industry languished and the citizenry wearied by misfortunes was split into contending parties. This ruinous and critical state of affairs was put aright by the celebrated George Washington, famed for his courage and keen intelligence. He was a close friend of the Bishop of Baltimore. Thus the Father of His Country and the pioneer pastor of the Church in that land so dear to Us, bound together by the ties of friendship and clasping, so to speak, each the other's hand, form a picture for their descendants, a lesson to all future generations, and a proof that reverence for the Faith of Christ is a holy and established principle of the American people, seeing that it is the foundation of morality and decency, consequently the source of prosperity and progress."

Happy President's Day!


Anonymous said...

Happy Presidents' Day!

Carlos Echevarria said...

What an amazing post, I cross posted sections with attribution, of course.

My two top photos on my blog are President Washington and the Bishop of Rome!

Sister Mary Agnes said...

I attended a talk on George Washington a few years ago which made the case that he was a man of intense, profound prayer.

Unknown said...

President Washington was given Extreme Unction and a Catholic funeral at the time of his death...

Florentius said...

How interesting. Thanks for posting this. I am reminded of the fact that St. Katharine Drexel had a special attachment to George Washington as a child and used to pray for him regularly. Here's a snippet from the Ignatius Press book, St. Katharine Drexel: Friend of the Oppressed:

"Let perpetual light shine upon George Washington. May his soul rest in peace."