Reclaiming America’s cathedral

George Weigel

St. Patrick’s is, arguably, the most famous Catholic cathedral in the United States. The Cathedral Basilica of St. Louis is, arguably, the most beautiful. But Baltimore’s Old Cathedral, now the Basilica of the Assumption, is indisputably the most historic.

It was conceived by Archbishop John Carroll, the founder of the American hierarchy, whose diocese originally encompassed the entire United States. Archbishop Carroll wanted the first Catholic cathedral in the new republic to embody the nation’s commitment to religious freedom and turned to Benjamin Henry Latrobe, architect of the U.S. Capitol (and son of a Moravian minister), the leading architectural practitioner of the day. Latrobe designed the building to be bathed in light; Thomas Jefferson may have helped inspire Latrobe’s design of the Old Cathedral’s unique double-dome and skylights. Like similar projects down through the ages, the Baltimore Cathedral was originally financed by a lottery; and as luck would have it, Archbishop Carroll, reaching into hundreds, perhaps thousands, of lottery tickets to choose the winner, picked his own ticket — and promptly gave his winnings back to the building fund. (Nary an eyebrow was raised.)

In the most extensive Catholic exercise in conciliar decision-making between Trent and Vatican I, the bishops of the United States met in seven provincial and three plenary councils during the 19th

century; every one of those councils began and ended in the Baltimore Cathedral. Thus the Old Cathedral saw the bishops legislate to met the needs of immigrants, erect the parish system, mandate parochial schools, launch the Catholic University of America, and commission the famous Baltimore Catechism, which taught generations of Catholics the basics of their faith. No other Catholic edifice in America can claim to have seen so much history made within its walls.

My own experience of the Old Cathedral began early: when I was 6, to be precise, and began attending the Cathedral School, just across Mulberry Street from the great building. Under Latrobe’s magnificent dome I made my first Communion; under that same dome I graduated from college; my son was baptized in the Old Cathedral in 1987. But the building I first knew as a boy was not the building Carroll and Latrobe had planned. Years of leaks in the dome — caused, it now seems, by imprudent fiddling with the innovative drainage system Latrobe had devised — led to the skylights being removed after World War II. Two redecorations, however well intended, made the Old Cathedral a dark, shadowy place, rather than the living symbol of the light of religious freedom Carroll wanted and Latrobe provided. There was no access from the interior of the building to what should have been one of the great Catholic shrines in America: the crypt, where such giants as Carroll, Archbishop Martin John Spaulding, and James Cardinal Gibbons are buried.

All of that is now changing, as Baltimore’s Old Cathedral is undergoing a massive restoration, the completion of which will be marked with appropriate ceremony in November. The dome’s skylights are back, and their restoration, combined with a brave decision to restore the original plain glass to the basilica’s windows, will let 21st-century Americans experience the luminosity that Carroll and Latrobe intended. The rear of the apse will now open into the crypt, so that 21st-century Catholics can pay their respects to the men who laid the foundations of Catholicism in America. The Old Cathedral’s decorations and furnishings will follow Latrobe’s original plans, so that for the first time in a very long time, pilgrims, parishioners, and visitors will experience this religious and architectural gem as it was intended to be.

A restoration project of this magnitude — which includes modernizing all the Old Cathedral’s operating systems — is enormously expensive. And as the Basilica of the Assumption belongs, in a sense, to every Catholic in America, the thought occurs that many Catholics today might want to participate in its restoration to glory. If, as we begin Lent 2006, you would like to help reclaim the most historic Catholic building in America, go to www.baltimorebasilica.org, or mail your tax-deductible contribution to the Basilica Historic Trust, 408 N. Charles St., Baltimore, MD 21201.

COMING UP: For Love of Country: A Catholic Patriotism

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Our country has been through a lot this last year, as we all know. As many people have reacted against the founding and history of the United States, I have found myself drawn towards greater patriotism. By this, I simply mean a deeper appreciation of what I’ve been given by my country and also a growing realization of the duty I have to work for the common good, here and now. The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks of this duty under the fourth commandment that enjoins honor not only to parents but also to anyone in authority.   

It is the duty of citizens to contribute along with the civil authorities to the good of society in a spirit of truth, justice, solidarity, and freedom. The love and service of one’s country follow from the duty of gratitude and belong to the order of charity. Submission to legitimate authorities and service of the common good require citizens to fulfill their roles in the life of the political community (2239). 

Catholics, and all people of good will, are called to a love and service of country in order to work for the common good.  

Eric Metaxas argues that the future of our country depends precisely upon the active role of Christians in his book, If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty (Penguin, 2017). He describes something called the Golden Triangle, an idea he borrowed from Os Guinness, but which ultimately comes from the Founding Fathers. “The Golden Triangle of Freedom is, when reduced to its most basic form, that freedom requires virtue; virtue requires faith; and faith requires freedom. The three go round and round, supporting one another ad infinitum. If any one of the three legs of the triangle is removed, the whole structure ceases to exist” (54). John Adams, for example, related very clearly, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other” (quoted on 61). Metaxas comments, looking to specific examples around the world, “if you take God and faith and morality out of the equation, everything inevitably falls apart. It cannot be otherwise” (48). It cannot be otherwise. That may sound extreme, but we have many examples from Communist and Fascist countries and now even from movements within our country that aggressive secularism parallels a collapse of real freedom.  

The Constitution established an ordered liberty that requires responsibility and a determined effort of preservation. Hence the title of the book, taken from Benjamin Franklin, a republic “if you can keep it.” We are called to actively preserve our country: entering into a deeper understanding of the “idea” of America that undergirds the Republic as well as showing a loving determination to overcome challenges and threats to its continuance. This is not to whitewash the past, as we all know the injustices of our history. Metaxas argues that we can be grateful for the good and unique blessings of our heritage while also working to overcome failures. “To truly love America, one must somehow see both sides simultaneously” (226). Furthermore, by loving our country we are willing her good, drawing our own selves into the work for her good and helping her to be true to herself. “So that in loving America we are embodying her original intentions — we are indeed being America at her best — and in doing so we are calling her to her best, to be focused on doing all she can to fulfill the great promise which God has called her in bringing her into existence and shepherding her through trials and tribulations all these and centuries — and now” (235).  

As Catholics, we have a lot to offer our country by drawing from our rich intellectual and spiritual heritage. Michael Krom, a philosopher at St. Vincent College, provides us with a great resource in his new book, Justice and Charity: An Introduction to Aquinas’s Moral, Economic, and Political Thought (Baker, 2020). In an age of confusion, Catholics can bring greater clarity in our national discourse on the nature of human life, virtue, and politics. “We live in a time of ideological conflicts, in which the citizens of the nations of the modern world seem incapable of agreeing upon even the most basic of moral, economic, or political principles. Civil discourse has been replaced with violent protest, and reasoned dialogue with character assassination” (2). As Catholics, we should be able to look above all of this, literally: “While the Church does not force us to reject political citizenship, she demands that we direct it to the heavenly, and we can do that by heeding her call to engage the world rather than conform to it. I wrote this book out of the conviction that those who want to heed the Church’s call to engage our culture need to look to the past” (ibid.).  

Dr. Krom shows us that St. Thomas Aquinas has much to teach us about living the good life, in pursuit of a genuine freedom and happiness, and that this should inform a Catholic approach to economics and politics. It is hard to work for virtue if you don’t know what virtue really is, and difficult to act justly toward others if you don’t understand the nature of duty. Aquinas can help us to judge the direction of our country, as “a government cannot be called ‘good’ unless it promotes just moral and economic relationships between its citizens” (121). This is precisely the purpose of government — to promote right order and peace. We can’t just dispense with politics because, “the fact that humans find their fulfillment in political community means that situating their own good with the good of the community as a whole is central to happiness” (125). We are not isolated individuals and can’t attain a good and complete life on our own.  

Our ultimate good, however, is God, not the political life. Everything — all of our choices, including economic and political ones — must be directed to our ultimate goal. There are not “two ends to human existence, the earthly and the heavenly … [T]here is only one end, the beatific vision” (162). In this way the Church informs our citizenship. Krom explains “how inadequate this human law is as a teacher in the virtues, for it is limited in scope to the prevention of those vices from which even the wicked can refrain, and thus leaves those who seek after perfect virtue to their own devices … [H]uman law is in need of a higher law to truly bring about a just community” (155). Unfortunately, we’re seeing that our society is no longer even trying to prevent serious vice. Catholics and all believers have an important role to play, because “the lack of religion in the citizenry leads it down the path of totalitarianism. It Is absolutely critical that a people maintain a strong commitment to a transcendent measure of the common good in order to protect the true flourishing of its members” (171). Krom’s important work on justice and charity can teach us how a Catholic can exercise a proper patriotism, a true love of country.