Are We Catholics First or Americans First?

The law of the land and the Higher Law.

Are We Catholics First or Americans First?

Jeffrey Bruno

Lately I’ve been thinking about my days in the early ’90s as a Beverly Hills lawyer. That was when I first started asking the deep questions: What was I born for? Who do I want to serve? I sincerely wanted to help alleviate the suffering of the world but working as a lawyer, making money for the first time in my life (I was close to 40 at the time), I started to realize I didn’t want to align myself with the rich and the powerful. I didn’t want to lord it over the rest of society.

I come from a blue collar family and some of my feelings arose from a congenital sympathy for the underdog. But when I began to read the Gospels, I found that this was the stance of Christ as well. Blessed are the poor in spirit. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness. What I really started to ponder was “Say yes when you mean yes and no when you mean no.” Nothing could have been further from that creed than the “law” of civil litigation.

That was when I began to see that there’s a law of the land and there’s a Higher Law.  

That was when I began to see that the Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court had no more idea of how the world really works than a Skid Row drunk.

That was when I quit my job as a lawyer, converted to Catholicism and began to write about everything I was experiencing and learning.

My conversion arose from the conflict we all face: between the (apparent) security of this world and the (apparently) precarious realm of the kingdom of God. You cannot serve both God and mammon, and who doesn’t struggle with that every day? Still, from the beginning I understood “Render unto God what is God’s and unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” to mean, among other things, that I don’t love and serve Christ through my country. I love and serve my country—and everything else—through Christ.

Recently I saw a Catholic TV show in which people talked about their conversion to Christ across a jaunty cluster of American flags. This struck me as emblematic of an egregious theological error, one that underlies and derails much of our contemporary Catholic discourse. I’m not claiming to be statesman or a politician or a military tactician here. Far from it. My point is that as a follower of Christ my highest concern is never, say, how to respond to ISIS. My highest concern is the day-to-day orientation of my heart. My concern is that I continue to ask those deep questions I started asking as a lawyer every moment of my life.

I’ve often pondered the passage in the Gospels where Christ tells Peter to go hook a fish, open its mouth, and he’ll find a coin to pay the temple tax [Matthew 17:24-27]. One of the things that says to me is that Christ didn’t agonize much about man-made rules and regulations. Not because those things aren’t important, but because when you’re propelled by love, your allegiance to all that is for and from love, to all that truly goes toward the common good, is settled. “The sons are exempt.” If you’re already giving your whole heart, your whole strength, your whole mind, taxes of any kind are a subsidiary, not a primary demonstration, of our love for Christ.

So as a follower of Christ, I will automatically be the best possible citizen. Out of love, I will obey all the laws that go toward the common good. I won’t lie, cheat, or steal. I won’t bear false witness. I won’t litter, I’ll return my library books on time. I’ll obey the traffic laws (as long as there are no cops around, full disclosure).

As a follower of Christ, I’ll also do many things that are not strictly required by law and refrain from many things that are not forbidden by the law: things that stem from kindness and courtesy and that many of my own neighbors don’t observe at all. I won’t commit adultery. I’ll work hard not to covet my neighbors’ goods. I’ll respect my neighbors by refraining from playing loud music, owning a dog whose barking would disturb my neighbors’ peace, or parking my car so that the back half obstructs the sidewalk. I’ll keep my yard free of junk to comply with municipal laws; but out of love I’ll make my yard beautiful—because out of love we want to make the world beautiful for everyone, even our loud neighbors.