Saturday, 21 June 2008

God and Country - a homily from a few years ago

Tomorrow we celebrate the feast of Sts John Fisher and Thomas More. I suppose that their biographies must be so familiar that it is scarcely worth going over them again. But I’d like to look at one aspect of their martyrdom.

Among the many jobs I have done, I was once Catholic chaplain to a large public school called Charterhouse. I had the joy, on one occasion, of arranging the first (and the following year, the second) public Catholic Confirmation ceremony ever to have taken place there. On discussing the ceremony with the eighteen boys to be confirmed, we spoke about hymns, and the boys enthusiastically requested ‘I Vow to thee my Country’.

Well, I interposed my veto, and though you might think that an odd thing to do, I think that my reasons were most important. Now don’t get me wrong; I actually think that it is a good thing that the boys have been encouraged to develop a healthy patriotism in the school. Running down one’s country has become rather the fashion these days, and it is good to find English boys proud to be English­—I am Irish, and proud to be Irish. My concern lay rather with the content of what is loosely called a hymn, but which might better be called a patriotic song or anthem. My reason is that the words raise one or two very worrying things which can too easily slip past if one is not careful.

My first objections are in the first lines. I vow to thee my country, all earthly things above, entire and whole and perfect, the service of my love. Now, as we know from our catechism, vows are things that ought never to be rashly taken, and, second, to elevate one’s country to a supernatural status is very nearly blasphemous, quite apart from the matter of considering one’s own country to have this semi-divine nature, and, presumably, superior to other peoples’ countries. But my most severe objection was in lines which follow; the love that asks no question, the love that stands the test, that lays upon the altar the dearest and the best, and goes on to add the love that makes undaunted the final sacrifice.

Now, I was not at all happy that my boys should be publicly vowing to unquestioningly obey their country in whatever that country should require. The twentieth century has presented us with all too vivid an illustration of just where that plea that ‘I was only obeying orders’ and ‘My fatherland required it of me’ has got us. It took the trials at Nuremberg to establish firmly in the mind of governments and people that there is a natural law which is written on men's hearts, and which takes precedence over any earthly authority. If they did not know, then they should have known that what they did was evil.

Men were executed for murder at Nuremberg for carrying out orders, because they should have known that such atrocities as were demanded by the Nazis went contrary to Natural Law, which has to take precedence over any earthly command.

A most interesting principle, when you come to think about it, recognised by a civil law, that no government, however powerful, has the right to compel somebody’s conscience to do what it wishes. The mere wishes of an earthly government do not make an act right when it is wrong. This is just what the Catholic Church has been saying all along. We may commit a sin under duress, or pressure of various kinds, whether it be threat of torture or execution, and this may lessen the degree of our culpability, but this pressure can never make a bad act become good.

Perhaps, then, you can understand why I have such an objection to that song I vow to thee my country: despite the poetry of the words, and the very splendid tune, I had no wish to witness my boys vowing to do whatever their country should command them without thinking whether it was right to do so.

For English Catholics, this important principle ought to be particularly clear. The glorious martyrs of the Reformation period were faced with precisely this dilemma. Saints John Fisher and Thomas More were not simply foot soldiers, but very senior officials in the government. Their country demanded something that they knew was wrong, and despite the fact that almost all their neighbours and friends gave way, they held firm, believing that no matter who was commanding this thing, mere pressure or earthly authority could not make wrong right.

And, of course, true patriotism is not about doing whatever the fallible human authorities at the top of the heap order, but about doing whatever is best for one’s country, as far as one can assess. It is about obeying one’s conscience in order to make this country, and indeed the world, a better place. I forget who said those famous words: it is better to light one small candle than sit cursing the darkness—but the words are apposite and true.

All this misinterpretation of patriotism has had a curious spin-off, at least in this country, and probably in others too. It makes people believe that what is legal is what is right. In 1967, I think it is true to say that the majority of people thought that abortion was wrong. But not wrong because it is wrong per se, but because it was against the law. Once the law said it was all right, then public opinion has swung around also. This is the way that history has led us; now the state holds not just our civil obedience, but our consciences as slaves also.

Now, of course, peoples’ consciences do sometimes assert themselves—often after the act has been committed,—and the perpetrators realize that they have done something wrong and seek forgiveness, but the very fact that this does happen should alert us to this real principle of right and wrong that is buried within us, which we call the natural law.

The government is trying desperately at the moment to re-impose some sense of morality. [These were the early Blair days] But they will not succeed. They cannot, because they seek to legislate in this area where legislation is not competent to decree. They are themselves repeatedly morally compromised, and they seek to achieve an internal allegiance of the British peoples to the legal system which they, flawed people themselves, have set up.

This was the mistake of Henry VIII. He sought internal consent to what he decreed, because he decreed that what he decreed was right, just because he decreed it. People may obey out of fear, but internal conscience must not be manipulated in this fashion. Earthly government is incapable of rising above all earthly things—the contrary to the song, which decrees that the country is ‘all earthly things above’. Time and time again we see that it is all too earthly, just like the rest of us.

To make a god of ones country is in the end to commit idolatry, and More and Fisher realized this. There are more important principles than patriotism, however genuinely good and important patriotism is.

Three quotations come into my mind at this moment. The first is from that film of the early 1980s, called Chariots of Fire. You may remember that the film is all about a Presbyterian runner refusing to compete in the Olympics for Britain on a Sunday. One official grumpily remarks to his friend ‘in my day it was country first, God second’. The second quotation is from the [then] Anglican Chaplain at Charterhouse, when I nervously told him of my veto of ‘I vow to thee my country’. He surprised me by agreeing with me—this I had not expected in Charterhouse, that most patriotic of schools—and saying that he had banned it himself, simply saying that there was not a line in the song that could not have been written by a convinced Nazi. The third quotation, and perhaps the most apposite, is from one of today’s saints, Thomas More. His last words, in fact: ‘I die the king’s good servant, but God’s first!’


Anonymous said...

Thank you for this Father - I quite agree and think you have put it very well. If you take the first verse and substitute the word God, or Jesus, or even [Catholic] Church, for 'country', then the words are entirely appropriate [though the thing mostly wouldn't scan]. I remember making a similar point somewhere about popular love songs, some of the words of which are, if not always blasphemous, then often inappropriate - unless we direct them towards God. Disordered rather than sinful, perhaps. I seem to remember I had in mind a certain song from the film of Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves, called Everything I Do.

the hound said...

Father, I agree with you 100%. But how did the boys react and did you have any " feedback" from the parents?

We recently sang Blake's Jerusalem at Mass and though Parry's tune makes the hairs on my arms stand on end, I felt uncomfortable with the words. They are very powerful as mystical poetry, but they are not a Hymn to Almighty God.

And, btw, that was a courageous sermon. Well done!

Pastor in Monte said...

Thanks: the boys looked a little crestfallen, but chose something else happily enough. And there was no comment from the parents — I think that they were simply happy to have their sons confirmed. Having the then bishop of the forces, the splendid Francis Walmsley do the job scotched any notion that we were unpatriotic!
As for Jerusalem; well, that hymn is simply odd. A former boss of mine, Fr Tony Churchill, made the observation that it's a hymn whose first verse poses a series of questions, the answer to every one of which is 'no'.

And did those feet in ancient time walk upon England's mountains green?
Answer: NO!
And was the holy Lamb of God on England's pleasant pastures seen?
Answer: NO!
And did the countenance divine shine upon these clouded hills?
Answer: NO!
And was Jerusalem builded here among these dark satanic mills?
Answer: NO!

Anonymous said...

Father: when I was one of the chaplains at that large school on the hill overlooking Shoreham, we used to sing that hymn with the words 'I vow to thee, Lord Jesus ...'
Thanks for your kind words about my blog 'Father Hunwicke's Liturgical Notes'. On reflection, I do agree with the point you made about my piece on the Westminster mass.
What a shame we didn't overlap in Sussex. I would have loved to make your acquaintance.
John Hunwicke

Anonymous said...

"It took the trials at Nuremberg to establish firmly in the mind of governments and people that there is a natural law which is written on men's hearts, and which takes precedence over any earthly authority. If they did not know, then they should have known that what they did was evil."

Thinking people have had enough of this sick fraud. The accounts of the alleged "eyewitnesses" such as Elie Wiesel deserve to be categorised as insane fairytales.

If you want a reliable eyewitness, look at Paul Rassinier, a Jew, a socialist, and an enemy of Nazism, but who didn't invent lies to benefit his ethnic tribe and justify the crimes that underlay the birth of Israel.

gemoftheocean said...

The tune Jerusalem is ethereally beautiful. But instead of the original Blake words at Ronald Reagan's funeral they used the following words:

"O love of God, how strong and true,
Eternal and yet ever new; Uncomprehended and unbought,
Beyond all knowledge and all thought!

O love of God, how deep and great, Far deeper than man’s deepest hate; Self-fed, self-kindled like the light, Changeless, eternal, infinite.

O heavenly love, how precious still,
In days of weariness and ill,
In nights of pain and helplessness, To heal, to comfort, and to bless!

O wide-embracing, wondrous love!
We read you in the sky above,
We read you in the earth below,
In seas that swell and streams that flow.

We read you best in Him who came
To bear for us the cross of shame; Sent by the Father from on high, Our life to live, our death to die.

We read your power to bless and save,
E’en in the darkness of the grave; Still more in resurrection light
We read the fullness of your might.

O love of God, our shield and stay Through all the perils of our way! Eternal love, in you we rest Forever safe, forever blest.

We will exalt you, God and King, and we will ever praise your name; We will extol you every day, and evermore your praise proclaim.
I'd not heard that song before but I found it especially moving and apt. You can see the video clip here.

gemoftheocean said...

oops, sorry that should have been.

Anonymous said...


Can I draw your attention to the new website of the publishers, The Catholic Truth Society (CTS).

It’s got some downloadable publications on it, plus it’s got a great range of Catholic books, including biographies of saints and prominent Catholics.

We’d appreciate if you could review it in your blog, Valle Adurni.

Thanks, Sophie (CTS)

Anonymous said...

But surely at a fundamental level one must have an ultimate loyalty to one's country such as in time of war or, perhaps more pertinently, times of terrorist attack?

The Islamic terrorists no doubt felt they were obeying God first when they carried out the London Tube bombings. Did the IRA in the 1970s believe they were following Catholic teaching by killing innocent subjects of the Queen?

I believe one can follow God first and still have loyalty to one's country.

What I find distasteful is that only a handful of Catholic churches in England have prayers for HM the Queen on Sundays namely the Oratories, Farm Street and St. Etheldreda. In contrast the Orthodox churches name our Sovereign Lady in either the litanies or at the Great Entrance or both.

Anonymous said...

"But surely at a fundamental level one must have an ultimate loyalty to one's country such as in time of war or, perhaps more pertinently, times of terrorist attack?"


It's idolatry.

Anonymous said...

It can be done by capitalising the 'T' of 'thee' to deify the word and by keeping the comma after 'Thee'. Thus we now get 'I vow to Thee, my country, all earthly things above'.

This way you can use the same words and have a hymn addressing God.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous (24 June 09:53)said...
" 'But surely at a fundamental level one must have an ultimate loyalty to one's country such as in time of war or, perhaps more pertinently, times of terrorist attack?'


It's idolatry."

So it would be idolatry to fight for one's country or fight for another's for a rightful cause? I wonder about all the slain Irish Catholic soldiers who volunteered to fight alongside (mainly) Protestant British troops in the World Wars would make of this sort of thinking?

Lack of loyalty, or perceived lack of loyalty has tainted the Catholic cause in this land for centuries.

How refreshing that the recent High Mass in Winchester Cathedral (see the 'Fr Z' blog for details' ended with the antiphon and prayer for our Gracious Sovereign.

Anonymous said...

I am surprised, in a blog that is noted for its conservatism, to find this sudden outbreak of liberal nonsense!

Father, when you write: "And, of course, true patriotism is not about doing whatever the fallible human authorities at the top of the heap order, but about doing whatever is best for one’s country, as far as one can assess.", you are 100% correct. Why, then, have you assumed that this hymn (I vow to thee...) is about vowing some sort of unthinking service to the government or other rulers? It is not! It is about vowing love and service to the country itself (which might, quite legitimately at times, mean opposing the government, rather like the brave Germans who opposed the rise of the Third Reich in the early and mid 1930s, for example).

Not only is the first verse a beautiful expression of love expressed towards the nation which God has so graciously created, formed, and guided for us, but the second verse is (as the author intended) an even more beautiful reminder of the far greater glories of the kingdom of heaven. We are supposed to be caught up in the patriotism (properly speaking) of the first verse, rather as a child winds the motor of a toy car by pulling it backwards on the carpet a few times, before being released into the second verse which carries us forward into an expression of the surmounting and insurmountable joys of the Christian hope in life eternal with God in heaven.

Do please reconsider your opposition to this wonderful hymn - I fear you are misunderstanding it, and consequently missing out! (Incidentally, we sang it as the entrance hymn at my first mass many years ago, and I propose singing it again at my silver jubilee, which is now uncomfortably close).

Anonymous said...

"So it would be idolatry to fight for one's country or fight for another's for a rightful cause?"

Old believer, please note that teh expression used was ULTIMATE loyalty.

Such a loyalty cannot even be given to the pope, let alone one's country.

One's ultimate loyalty is given to God, and, as His mystical body, the church.