The custom of displaying a national flag in church is uncommon outside the United States and has its origins here about 150 years ago in an effort to counter the rampant and often violent anti-Catholicism that raged throughout our country.
In the mid-19th century, Catholic immigrants were often accused of being loyal to a foreign ruler – the pope. (Until 1870, the pope also ruled the Papal States, a sovereign nation that included much of present-day Italy.) Catholics often had to go out of their way to demonstrate their loyalty to the United States.
In the 20th century, Catholics became more integrated into the mainstream American culture, but as residual anti-Catholicism and suspicions persisted even up to the election of John F. Kennedy, so did the need to demonstrate our patriotism by displaying the American flag in the sanctuary.
However, if we examine both the nature of our worship and the requirements of due respect for the American flag, the reasons why it is not appropriate today as a permanent fixture in our worship space will become evident.
Church documents carefully regulate the furnishings of the church because everything must focus on the transcendent mystery that is celebrated there. Anything that creates a secular focus, even a noble and worthwhile one, detracts rather than adds to the nature and meaning of what we are doing in church. Our worship must raise our minds and hearts beyond earthly things.
Isaac Hecker, Servant of God, the Paulist founder, had a dream of evangelizing America. He thought that American principles and Catholicism were a good marriage and it is from that vision that I take my position. We are Americans and Catholics. Both have influence over our own schools of thought. So I don’t have a problem with the flag being displayed in church or even America the Beautiful being sung. I might draw the line at The Battle Hymn of the Republic since it’s so obviously about war, but I’m not even vitriolic on that point.
Moreover, I think we should be able to mix our experiences as Americans into our prayer–after all the things we pray for at the prayer of the faithful come from the experiences of our lives, our community, don’t they? We remind ourselves that we transcend our American culture by bringing those experiences, inherently American, into prayer.
So this weekend let us be thankful for freedom and mindful of those who go without. But it may be our moment of grace realized this weekend that we are free. That we are Americans and that the limited view we may have of the world in our own American culture is indeed limited. We pray also for Immigrants who long to salute our flag and for their freedom.
The fact that we are free as Catholics to choose or not to choose God should be highlighted as well. Freedom is ours and that freedom comes from not merely our American influences but also from knowing that we live in freedom thanks be to God.
My last thought is that I don’t hear anyone complaining when we see all of those flags waving at World Youth Day.