Preface: As the U.S. Supreme Court hears arguments in favor of and in opposition to Obamacare, the wisdom of the US Constitution, with its checks and balances, seems to be paying off thus far. "Building Better Than They Knew" is a phrase in reference to the Framers of the Constitution by the Catholic bishops gathered at the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore in 1884.
The Fathers of the Catholic Church in America- both from the 19th and early 20th centuries -saw the Hand of God in the framing of this Constitution. They were furthermore gifted with a keen insight into just how exceptional and yet fragile liberty can be in the life of any nation- including America. Indeed, human rights and free enterprise are both stern disciplines that rest on certain theological principles. Chief among these principles are the rights of God. If in fact the American people lose sight of the revealed truth that every individual is created by God, for God and in the likeness of God, then freedom and limited government will eventually be intelligible. Like with ancient paganism, arbitrary power- not justice or the impartiality of law -will be the principle of governance for the foreseeable future.
1884 Council of Baltimore:
The Third Plenary Council at Baltimore in 1884 was a gathering of fourteen archbishops, sixty-one bishops, and a number of priests and religious. It was presided over by Archbishop James Gibbons who, in my opinion, was another Fulton Sheen in his day. He was a man of eloquence and spiritual insight. Under his patronage the Catholic Church in America grew in number and in strength.
From this Council came the following words about America’s founding as being the “special work of Providence.” It further adds that if our freedom should ever be imperiled, it will be found that Catholics, acting as “one,” will pledge their lives to secure it.
"We consider the establishment of our country's independence, the shaping of its liberties and laws, as a work of special Providence, its framers 'building better than they knew,' the Almighty's hand guiding them.... We believe that our country's heroes were the instruments of the God of nations in establishing this home of freedom; to both the Almighty and to His instruments in the work we look with grateful reverence; and to maintain the inheritance of freedom which they have left us, should it ever—which God forbid—be imperiled, our Catholic citizens will be found to stand forward as one man, ready to pledge anew 'their lives, their fortunes and their sacred honor."'
Pastoral Letter of 1919:
In 1919, thirty five years after the 1884 Pastoral Letter and Third Plenary Council of Baltimore, the same Archbishop, Cardinal James Gibbons, issues another pastoral letter to the Catholic Church in America. These words were penned after World War I. They speak to the liberty and God-given rights of every citizen. The following passages are excerpts from the Pastoral Letter of 1919:
"With great wisdom our American Constitution provides that every citizen shall be free to follow the dictates of his conscience in the matter of religious belief and observance. While the State gives no preference or advantage to any form of religion, its own best interests require that religion as well as education should flourish and exert its wholesome influence upon the lives of the people.
[W]e can understand and appreciate the principle on which our American liberties are founded—'that all men are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.' These are conferred by God with equal bounty upon every human being, and, therefore, in respect of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, the same rights belong to all men and for the same reason. Not by mutual concession or covenant, not by warrant or grant from the State, are these rights established; they are the gift and bestowal of God. In consequence of this endowment, and therefore in obedience to the Creator's will, each of us is bound to respect the rights of his fellow men. This is the essential meaning of justice [bold font, italics added], the great law antecedent to all human enactment and contrivance, the only foundation on which may rest securely the fabric of society and the structure of our political, legal, and economic systems...
In our country, government thus far has wisely refrained from placing any other than absolutely necessary restrictions upon private initiative. The result is seen in the development of our resources, the products of inventive genius, and the magnitude of our enterprises. But our most valuable resources are the minds of our children, and for their development at least the same scope should be allowed to individual effort as is secured to our undertakings in the material order.
As we look upon the record which the past unfolds, we cannot but note that it is filled with the struggles of mankind, with their building up and tearing down, with searchings for truth which often end in illusion, with strivings after good which lead to disappointment. The very monuments which were reared to celebrate human triumph remain simply to tell of subsequent downfall. Not rarely the greatness of human achievement is learned from the vast extent of its ruins.
But above it all, standing out clearly through the mists of error and the grosser darkness of evil, is One, in raiment white and glistening, who has solved the problem of life, has given to sorrow and pain a new meaning, and, by dying, has overcome death: 'Jesus Christ yesterday, and today; and the same forever' (Heb. 13:8).
There are numberless paths, but the Way is one. There are many degrees of knowledge, but only one Truth. There are plans and ideals of living, but in real fulfillment there is only one Life. For none other than He could say: 'I am the way and the truth and the life' (John 14:6).
Pray, therefore, dearly beloved, that the spirit of Jesus Christ may abide with us always, that we may walk on His footsteps in justice and charity, and that the blessing of God may descend abundantly upon the Church, our country, and the whole American people."