Towards a Catholic Nationalism

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From the beginning of Donald J. Trump’s quixotic presidential campaign, political and media elites have attempted to browbeat the “dangerous” new nationalist movement like an unruly child. First, it was National Review’s “Conservatives against Trump” symposium, which excommunicated its Trump-voting readers for their infidelity to the dogmata of movement conservatism.

Now a similar proclamation has been handed down by the editors of the left-wing Catholic magazine Commonweal. Their open letter “Against the New Nationalism” similarly condemns Trumpists and like-minded patriots as “anathema to our shared Christian faith.” Thus, from an alleged anti-conservative heresy to a hysterical reductio ad Hitlerum, nationalism serves as a convenient boogeyman on both Right and Left.

Commonweal’s demonized view of nationalism distorts its understanding of the concept. What is nationalism, then? The following is not an endorsement of “new nationalism,” whatever it is. Instead, it’s a reflection on continuity—a restatement of the essence of nationalism for a conservative Catholic.

 

Jesus Christ is the first and supreme point of reference for any Christian. Everything else in our lives must follow from this principle, including nationalism.

For a Catholic, God comes first. In turn, patria—our country—comes from the Lord. Within this context, a Catholic should understand his nation as an extended family based upon shared culture. Culture comes from the word cultus—a root it shares with cult, or religion. In our case, it’s Catholic Christianity.

The Catholic Left is always eager to remind us of Our Lord’s command to love our enemy and welcome the stranger. They’re right, of course. But they seem to forget that He commands us to love our neighbor, too. We owe it to them to translate our love into ideas, principles, attitudes, and institutions to promote a system reflecting our values.

This is the essence of Christian nationalism. Free will gives us a choice either to accept or reject participation in national communion. Many Catholics choose to accept, ad majorem Dei gloriam.

Christian nationalism is thus God-centered. It’s here we see Christianity’s role in tempering the excesses of secular forms of nationalism. We worship the Lord, and not the nation; to deify the nation is a sin. We join as free individuals to confess our Catholic faith in ways both universal and peculiar to our national community. The latter serves as a crucial organizing principle for families, neighborhood, and regions.

The nation is thus predicated on the doctrine of subsidiarity, which delegates most social and political functions to the lowest level, stressing decentralization and abhorring the worship of the state. We kneel before God, and not the bureaucracy.

We derive our inspiration for Catholic nationalism from the Bible and the magisterium of the Church. The most pertinent guiding lights for our purpose are Our Lord’s constant call to humility and His chastisement of pride. In modern politics, nationalists so often set themselves against the pride—the arrogance—of elites who would reshape the geopolitical order in their own image.

This is best illustrated by the Old Testament story of the Tower of Babel, a clear sign of God’s displeasure at mankind’s first try for multiculturalism. Its authors aimed to reach Heaven itself; God confused their tongues, and the project came crashing down. On the other hand, we are thankful to Him for creating clans, tribes, and ultimately nations. He blessed them, so long as they followed His commandments.

In the New Testament, we draw lessons for nationalism from St. Paul’s admonition that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Of course, not even the most progressive-minded Christian interprets that passage literally. Greeks don’t cease to be Greeks when they become Christians, any more than men and women become physiologically indistinguishable upon baptism.

It means, rather, that Our Lord regards each of us, first and foremost, as individuals. Second, as individuals, we are personally responsible not only for our transgressions and virtues, but also for the welfare of our fellows. Hence, our faith calls us to organize our affairs according to God’s design, not our own ideological schema. He created us, not as deracinated and atomized individuals—and not as a collectivized and globalized mass, either—but as men enrolled freely in a nation.

Catholic nationalists follow the admonition of Pope St. John Paul II who, in his 1995 address to the United Nations, first praised nationalism:

By virtue of sharing in the same human nature, people automatically feel that they are members of one great family, as is in fact the case. But as a result of the concrete historical conditioning of this same nature, they are necessarily bound in a more intense way to particular human groups, beginning with the family and going on to the various groups to which they belong and up to the whole of their ethnic and cultural group, which is called, not by accident, a “nation,” from the Latin word nasci: “to be born.” This term, enriched with another one, patria (fatherland/motherland) evokes the reality of the family. The human condition thus finds itself between these two poles—universality and particularity—with a vital tension between them; an inevitable tension, but singularly fruitful if they are lived in a calm and balanced way.

Then, the Saint famously invoked a late medieval notion of state sovereignty: “A presupposition of a nation’s rights is certainly its right to exist: therefore no one—neither a state nor another nation, nor an international organization—is ever justified in asserting that an individual nation is not worthy of existence.” Hence,

Its right to exist naturally implies that every nation also enjoys the right to its own language and culture, through which a people expresses and promotes that which I would call its fundamental spiritual “sovereignty”. History shows that in extreme circumstances (such as those which occurred in the land where I was born) it is precisely its culture that enables a nation to survive the loss of political and economic independence. Every nation therefore has also the right to shape its life according to its own traditions, excluding, of course, every abuse of basic human rights and in particular the oppression of minorities. Every nation has the right to build its future by providing an appropriate education for the younger generation.

Karol Wojtyła further lectured about the parallels between the rights of an individual (“human rights”) and the “rights of nations,” which are simply human rights writ large. He also juxtaposed his own vision against “an unhealthy form of nationalism, which teaches contempt for other nations or cultures, and patriotism, which is a proper love of one’s country.” Therefore, it’s imperative to maintain the crucial element of universalism in one’s national particularity to avoid conflict:

But while the “rights of the nation” express the vital requirements of “particularity,” it’s no less important to emphasize the requirements of universality, expressed through a clear awareness of the duties which nations have vis-à-vis other nations and humanity as a whole. Foremost among these duties is certainly that of living in a spirit of peace, respect and solidarity with other nations. Thus, the exercise of the rights of nations, balanced by the acknowledgment and the practice of duties, promotes a fruitful “exchange of gifts,” which strengthens the unity of all mankind.

Without God, and without Christianity, nationalistic particularisms can overwhelm universalism within nationalism and turn it into a totalitarian, mass-murdering beast. Likewise, it’s the fate of multiculturalism and globalism to crush national particularisms in the name of their utopia of Babel. The wholesome balance between particularism and universalism can best be preserved in Catholic nationalism.

Photo credit: Getty Images

Marek Jan Chodakiewicz

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Marek Jan Chodakiewicz is Professor of History and holds the Kościuszko Chair in Polish Studies at the Institute of World Politics in Washington, DC.

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