In catching up on some old e-newsletters, I came across an argument that I feel uniquely credible about discussing. Vanessa Gonzalez Kraft, wife of a former UCC student and employee, blogs for BustedHalo, which is run by the Paulist Fathers, for whom I now work. Confused? You’re not alone; I’m still surprised at how close to (web) celebrity I became. Last week, Vanessa posted a further reflection on a previous post about separation of Church and state in the actual church building itself. She strongly feels that displaying the American flag along with the Vatican flag in the sanctuary is inappropriate: it brings the secular state into what ought to remain distinctly sacred space. She concludes that this could be off-putting to non-U.S. Catholics in a way that contrasts sharply with the universality–the catholicity–of the Church.
I absolutely understand her reasoning, and I think it makes a lot of sense. I also disagree.
First, let me make it clear that I neither desire that the UCC and its sister church, St. Austin (the two Paulist parishes she mentions in the more recent article) display the flags in the sanctuary nor purposely keep them out. Second, I reiterate that the opinions I express here are my own and do not reflect my workplace, the diocese, or the Paulists.
To my knowledge, there is neither a requirement for nor prohibition against displaying national flags in or near the sanctuary. I could be wrong, but I’ve seen it done in places that are otherwise liturgically conservative. Take my home, for example. The Catholic Student Center at my college displayed the U.S. and Vatican flags just outside the sanctuary “platform,” so to speak, as does the parish I attend when I’m back in Maryland. There are rules for which flag is displayed to the right or left of the home country’s flag, so they have designated sides, but I can’t remember which goes where. To me, it seems like a sign of shared, but different loyalties.
Being so close to the nation’s capital means that many members of the congregation work for the state or federal government, my own parents included. Patriotism is what we do. It’s a natural part of our worship because it’s part of who we are. My home county has unusually high black and Filipino populations. Many Filipinos are Catholic, and a great majority of the nation’s few black Catholics live in Maryland (the Catholic colony) or D.C. Neither of these ethnic groups are traditionally Catholic for pleasant reasons. That history is full of white slave owners and Spanish conquistadors. Yet we have this faith now, and we claim it along with the country in which we live.
I see no problem with displaying the flags of our faith and our freedom. If I ever get the opportunity to attend a local Mass in another country, I will not be at all surprised to see that national flag along with the Vatican’s displayed at the heart of a church. It is this country, symbolized by its flag, that gives us the right to even have our church here (other legal woes notwithstanding). Neither the church nor the country is perfect, but only the church is guided by the Spirit of God.
When I was on the Notre Dame campus for my two ACE summers, I made a point to spend some downtime near the Sacred Heart Basilica. The outer door on the side opposite the Grotto bears a famous inscription: God. Country. Notre Dame. In that order. All are important, and all deserve recognition, but God comes first.