It’s a mysterious thing to feel indebted to someone. I don’t mean the kind of debt one piles up on a credit card or bank loan. I mean the kind of feeling you have when you think back on those drives you took with dad, or the memories you have learning to make pies with your grandmother. You don’t feel the debt immediately, but possibly decades later, in some quiet moment, you might realize the depths of the debt. Another human being gave you something — your life, a sense of rootedness and worth, or a certain way of seeing the world — and all of the sudden you know that you owe them something. What do you owe?
St. Thomas Aquinas says we can be debtors to other people in various ways according to the benefits we receive from them. In fact, it is in the nature of justice that we should render what is due to each — render to God what belongs to God and to Man what belongs to Man.
We owe God everything since He is “supremely excellent” as the author of our being, and governs our very existence — and so we owe God the highest and most perfect worship (true religio).
We don’t owe this kind of worship to our parents — that would be idolatry — but we do owe them a kind of reverence, a filial piety. We do this in myriad ways, often without realizing it. For example we show filial piety in our custom of including the names of our parents or grandparents in our own children’s names. It’s an almost imperceptible piety, or rather a kind of reverence hidden in plain sight.
If we show deference and respect to Uncle Tommy, even though he is often intemperate or impious, we are rendering what is due to him by virtue of his connection to our parents. Aquinas thinks that we have a debt to our parents because they gave us life and nourishment, and this debt radiates out, not only to other family members like Uncle Tommy, but also to the very country of our parents.
A patria — or the land of one’s father — thus also requires a certain kind of reverence which is personal but extends beyond the family. The reverence we give to our country “includes homage to all our fellow-citizens and to all the friends of our country,” St Thomas writes. This is not the same kind of excellence as God, obviously, nor does it bring us the kind of personal and existential benefits our parents gave to us. Yet one’s own country is something between the common good of the family, and the highest good of friendship with God. Our country is thus, or should be, an object of love situated in the middle of things, an excellent good which brings us benefits, and that we share in common with other human beings.
Each of these debts — to God, to family, and to country — are very good debts indeed, and the good can never be in competition with each other. St Thomas concludes:
“Man is a debtor chiefly to his parents and his country, after God. Wherefore just as it belongs to religion to give worship to God, so it belongs to piety, in the second place, to show reverence to one’s parents and one’s country.” (ST.II-II.101)
Yet much of America seems confused about each of these debts, which is to say that America is confused about the nature of justice — rendering what is due to each. Thus it remains strangely ironic that the term “social justice warrior” gets applied to the Colin Kaepernicks of this world, who unjustly withhold the reverence due to one’s country in order to achieve justice in some other arena. This is the equivalent of trying to bring about justice through some grave injustice. It is a recipe for compounding the very problems you are hoping to solve. Holding the love of country hostage to partisan objectives is a bit like blackmailing your parents for a new car.
Just as the best guarantee of rendering what is due to God is not to turn away from Him, but to love His sacred heart in Jesus Christ, so the best guarantee of rendering what is due to your neighbor is not by withholding your love of country, but by showing a kind of reverence for it.
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