Do you know the Washington backstory involving the French Jesuits?
Presidents Day. What used to be a day to honor George Washington and Abraham Lincoln is now a day to honor all presidents — including some who are not that honorable.
Starting with Pope Leo XIII, however, there has been a long Catholic embrace of some of the fundamental principles that the presidency represents. So here are Catholic reasons to celebrate the office of the president and its most impressive holders, Washington and Lincoln.
1: Celebrate the fact that in America, our rulers are not better than anybody else.
When it comes to ruling the earth, we are all equal. “There is here no difference between rich and poor, master and servant, ruler and ruled, ‘for the same is Lord over all.’” So says Pope Leo XIII in Rerum Novarum, his landmark social teaching encyclical (see paragraph 40).
2: Celebrate that we are the boss of the president, not the other way around.
God himself gave us the right to fire our rulers. “If authority belongs to the order established by God, ‘the choice of the political regime and the appointment of rulers are left to the free decision of the citizens,’” says the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
3: Our president is just one of a triad of power, and that’s huge.
St. John Paul praises “the organization of society according to the three powers — legislative, executive and judicial,” saying that this “reflects a realistic vision of man’s social nature,” and “it is preferable that each power be balanced by other powers.”
In this way, he says (in paragraph 44 here), our system keeps totalitarianism at bay.
4: A good president is like a good father.
“Both philosophy and the Gospel concur” that a ruler should work not for his own benefit, but for his people, says Leo XIII. Earthly power “should be exercised as the power of God is exercised — with a fatherly solicitude which not only guides the whole, but reaches also individuals,” he says (in paragraph 35).
5: The father of our country is a perfect example of this — and there’s a Catholic reason why.
The people of America loved George Washington so much that they lined the bridges and streets to see him, celebrated his birthday with public events while he was alive, and deeply mourned his death.
He was respected above all for his good character. He spent his life trying to be a model of the virtue he wanted Americans to imitate. It all started with the Rules of Civility, which young George copied by hand, memorized, and put into practice.
What he didn’t realize was that the Rules he followed were first published by French Jesuits to train Catholic children. They ended up forming America’s character.
6: Benedict XVI celebrated where these rules took George Washington
Like St. John Paul before him, Pope Benedict understood that “democracy without values can lose its very soul.” Self-government begins with my ability to govern myself, after all — the worse my behavior is, the less freedom society is willing to give me, and the better my behavior is, the more freedom I can have.
That’s why, when he visited the United States, Benedict praised “the conviction of President Washington, expressed in his Farewell Address, that religion and morality represent ‘indispensable supports’ of political prosperity.”
7: John Paul celebrated another Mount Rushmore president: Abraham Lincoln.
When he visited Baltimore in 1995, Pope John Paul II said, “150 years ago, President Abraham Lincoln asked whether a nation ‘conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal’ could ‘long endure.’”
It’s still an open question. “President Lincoln’s question is no less a question for the present generation of Americans,” he said. “Every generation of Americans needs to know that freedom consists not in doing what we like, but in having the right to do what we ought.”
8: Lincoln, for his part, helped fundraise for a black Church in Washington, D.C.
The black Catholic Gabriel Coakley got something rare in 1864: A “Yes” answer to his request to meet with the president. He asked Lincoln if he would allow a new black Catholic parish that wanted to build a church to hold a fundraiser on the White House lawn.
He got another “Yes.”
And though it isn’t clear that Lincoln attended the event, the church was built and the parish exists to this day, thanks to his support.
9: A great way to celebrate Presidents Day is to do what Pope Francis suggested: Imitate Lincoln.
Pope Francis visited America 150 years after the assassination of Lincoln, who he called “the guardian of liberty, who labored tirelessly that ‘this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.’”
His advice: “A nation can be considered great when it defends liberty as Lincoln did.”
10: But the best way to celebrate Presidents Day is to pray for the president.
This is a practice my own family began after 9/11, and have continued at each family Rosary since, whether we liked the president or not.
“We pray that God may direct the mind and heart of the president according to his will, that peace, prosperity, civic virtue, the right to life and the freedom of religion may increase throughout the land.”