Why can’t we have flags in the church?

Question

“Why don’t we have the flag in our churches? We used to have them. Doesn’t pride in our country matter anymore?” (Appleton)

Answer

It certainly does. The Stars and Stripes are a powerful national symbol, bringing to mind such things as liberty, justice, and “the free and the brave.” This is something to consider as we give thanks for the freedoms and the gifts that our nation provides.

However, as much as we revere our flag, we have to ask ourselves what our purpose is while we are in church. On what symbols and ideals do we focus? Does the flag — any flag — have a place in that?

While at church celebrating the Eucharist, we are dealing with something universal and timeless: the Paschal Mystery. By Christ’s passion, death, Resurrection and Ascension,  we are redeemed. We understand that the Paschal Mystery, made present at the sacrifice of each Mass, i transcends time and place and moves us into the realm of the eternal kingdom. We may be American citizens, but — at Mass — we are first and foremost, members of Christ’s mystical body and citizens of his eternal kingdom.

The U.S. Bishops do not have a formal stand about the display of the flag. “The question of whether and how to display the American flag in a Catholic church is left up to the judgment of the diocesan bishop,” the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB, 2001) notes, “who in turn often delegates this to the discretion of the pastor.”

The bishops also note that “the Bishops’ Committee on the Liturgy has in the past encouraged pastors not to place the flag within the sanctuary itself, in order to reserve that space for the altar, the ambo, the presidential chair and the tabernacle. Instead, the suggestion has been made that the American flag be placed outside the sanctuary, or in the vestibule of the church together with a book of prayer requests.”

Looking back in our history, we find that placing the national flag within the church setting was a largely American phenomenon. It became popular during the years of, and following, World War II.

Many churches displayed the flag as a memorial to those who were serving their country or who had died in that service. Also, sadly, many parishes founded by German immigrants — including many here in the Green Bay Diocese — felt required to display a U.S. flag. They did this to assure their neighbors of their loyalties. Some churches still display the flag — perhaps along with the papal flag (the yellow and white one bearing the papal tiara) — in the sanctuary. This also dates back to the 1940’s. (The Vatican City state was formed in 1929.)

However, even the pope’s own flag is still a banner reflecting a temporal authority. Its history dates to times when popes were heads of the Papal States. They ruled these lands much like territorial governors do. The Papal States covered much of Italy for centuries until the Italian unification took place in 1870. This turbulent time in history involved the Vatican in many temporal matters. The papal flag, with the pope’s keys and tiara, remind us of those times, even today.

We must remember that, when speaking of Christ, we are not speaking of any temporal power, but of eternal authority. That authority is symbolized by the cross. While we remain U.S. citizens, we also — especially at the Mass — first and foremost, members of Christ’s mystical body and citizens of his kingdom that is not of this world (Jn 18:36).

 

Kasten is associate editor of The Compass. She has a master’s degree in theological studies from St. Norbert College in De Pere, Wis.