E Pluribus Unum

Being Catholic and Being American

In a cultural climate such as the United States— where the sense of polarization along social, economic, political and religious lines seems to be the default posture — maintaining unity amidst great diversity has become a profound challenge.  As this division grows it can become increasingly difficult to hold onto one’s identity while being open to the values, beliefs, and cultures of others.

How can I be a free person while living in community?  This question is a practical application of the age-old philosophical problem of maintaining unity amidst diversity.  How can I retain my uniqueness while belonging to others is a question faced by every family, every neighborhood, every village, and every nation, but it is by no means a new challenge.

Great Seal
As we celebrate our nation’s independence it is important to remember how this same issue was faced by our forefathers who, during the Continental Congress of 1776, appointed Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and John Adams to create a seal and motto for the newly declared United States of America.  The thirteen colonies, with a highly diverse population, were to be one nation, one free people. The motto Franklin, Jefferson and Adams arrived at was e pluribus unum, the Latin phrase meaning "out of many, one" which can still be found today on the reverse side of the one dollar bill, within the Great Seal of the United States, on the ribbon carried by the bald eagle. 

The opening of the “Pauline Year” on June 29, 2008 by Pope Benedict— celebrating the 2000 years since St. Paul’s birth—also reminds us that this same concept of unity out of diversity was taken up by Saint Paul 1700 years earlier. His model of the Church as the Body of Christ is ingenious: "For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one Body, whether Jews or Greeks, slaves or free, and have all been made to drink of the one Spirit." (1 Corinthians 12: 13)

More recently, those seemingly diverse strains of thought—America’s and the Catholic Church’s—found their convergence in the thinking of the "Yankee Paul," Father Isaac Thomas Hecker (1819-1888) the founder of the Paulist Fathers (who established Busted Halo®). Hecker’s insight— radical for his day—was that Catholicism and the American experience weren’t mutually exclusive, in fact they complemented each other quite well. “The discerning mind will not fail to see” he wrote in his book The Church and the Age “that the American republic and the Catholic Church are working together under the same divine guidance, forming the various races of men and nationalities into a homogenous people, and by their united action giving a bright promise of a broader and higher development of man than has been heretofore accomplished."  Written on his tombstone in Saint Paul the Apostle Church on Manhattan’s West Side is his more succinct phrase: "In the union of Catholic Faith and American civilization…a future for the Church brighter than any past."

Transcendentalist Seeker

Hecker would see in his newly embraced Catholicism a spirituality of e pluribus unum when, on July 14, 1844, he wrote in his diary:  “The Catholic Church has preserved unity without encroachment on individual liberty, and has preserved individual liberty without the loss of perfect unity.”

Isaac Hecker, whose cause for sainthood was recently opened, had grappled with this e pluribus unum issue as a twenty-something New Yorker fresh out of the utopian Transcendentalist communes of Brook Farm and Fruitlands.  America had long possessed the utopian image of a more human life for all, ever since Saint Thomas More placed his Utopia (1516) in then recently explored Continent of Amerigo Vespucci.  Hecker, in his idealism, would see in his newly embraced Catholicism a spirituality of e pluribus unum when, on July 14, 1844, he wrote in his diary:  "The Catholic Church has preserved unity without encroachment on individual liberty, and has preserved individual liberty without the loss of perfect unity."

On the eve of the American Civil War, in the same year that Abraham Lincoln would declare that "this government can no longer exist half-slave and half-free," Isaac Hecker would go even further by stating that "the Catholic religion alone is able to give unity to a people occupying so vast an extent of territory, embracing such a diversified population, and of such a variety and even conflicting interests."  The year was 1858, the year of the founding of the Paulist Fathers.

Father Hecker had the awesome vision of the United States of America as a natural, providential seedbed for the e pluribus unum spirituality of Catholicism.  As I wrote in my article on Hecker for America magazine (April 24-May 1, 2006): "Perhaps in our ecumenical and interreligious age our church could serve as a bridge of reconciliation among all the great churches, religions, and spiritualities that continue to bless America.  Might it even, on a broader scale, in the manner of Saint Francis of Assisi and pursuing the hopes of Thomas Merton, serve as a bridge of reconciliation, as "mystical body," between the mysticism of the East and the humanitarianism of the West?"

Living Water
In my participation in the recovery of bodies at Ground Zero in the aftermath of the tragic events of September 11, 2001, I was aware of two very powerful symbols: the steel beams in the form of a cross retrieved from the rubble and planted at the site, and perhaps the earliest painting of the Great Seal, with e pluribus unum on the ribbon in Saint Paul’s Chapel—at the base of Ground Zero—above George Washington’s pew.

If Father Hecker were around he would most likely have connected the two symbols—the cross and the seal.  It is from the cross of Christ that the living water of the Holy Spirit flows, turning a desert of hatred and despair into an oasis of love and hope.  And if we Catholic Americans drink of this living water and channel it all over this land as vibrant members of the Body of Christ, can we not help create a future for the rest of the world "brighter than any past," truly e pluribus unum.  In this year of Saint Paul, inspired by the vision of a great American, Isaac Thomas Hecker, let us begin.

Fr. Bruce Nieli, CSP was the founding Director of the Center for Spiritual Development of the Archdiocese of New York, former Director of Evangelization for the Texas Catholic Conference, and former Director for Evangelization of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops. He is currently a Paulist national evangelist and missionary based in Memphis, Tennessee.