Faith, hope—and how much change?

More than anything, Francis has demonstrated an extraordinary ability to communicate his ideas, and those of his faith, purely by gesture. Every recent pope has spoken of the need to treasure human life, even in its most tragic and painful manifestations. But Francis achieved more than any of them when he embraced a sufferer of neurofibromatosis, a disfiguring genetic disease. Though all popes pay lip service to the need for humility and simplicity, Benedict departed from the Apostolic Palace after his unexpected resignation in February 2013 in a Mercedes limousine. Francis drives a 1984 Renault of the sort owned by many French farm labourers.

Dusting Off the Declaration

Pauline Maier opens her history of the making of the Declaration of Independence, the most sacred of these documents, with this vivid description of the rotunda of the National Archives. In Maier’s eyes the shrine where the documents are displayed resembles nothing so much as the awesome, gilded, pre-Vatican II altars of her Catholic girlhood, raised three steps above where the worshippers assembled. The whole shrine seems to belong in a Baroque church somewhere in Rome. On the altar’s surface are spread out the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, but at the center of the shrine, held above the altar in what looks like a tabernacle or monstrance, is the most holy document of all—the Declaration of Independence. Every day hundreds of believers file by the altar looking up reverentially at this document, “as if it were handed down by God or were the work of superhuman men whose talents far exceeded those of any who followed them.”

In her research she uncovered at least ninety different declarations of Independence that Americans in the colonies (later states) and localities adopted between April and July of 1776, most of which have been forgotten under the influence of our national obsession with the Continental Congress’s Declaration of Independence.

In persuasive detail Maier demonstrates that these many addresses and declarations had numerous precedents in English history, the most important being, of course, the English Declaration of Rights of 1688-1689. The seventeenth-century English Declaration had a particular significance for Americans in 1776 because it not only formally ended the reign of James II but justified that outcome by making a series of accusations against the King. Many Americans, including Jefferson in his preamble for the Virginia constitution, used the English Declaration as a model and sought to bring the same kinds of charges against George III as had been brought against James II.