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date: 19 September 2019

National Identity, Nationalism, and the Catholic Church

Abstract and Keywords

This essay examines the relation of the religious universalism of the Catholic Church to nationality, patriotism, and the ideology of nationalism. In the abstract, one expects there to be a tension between monotheism and the existence of nations. However, the teachings of the Church are, in fact, remarkably nuanced, recognizing a natural, legitimate attachment to one’s fatherland or motherland. During the examination, problems of the point of departure and scope of the analysis are taken up, as well as historical examples such as the Kulturkampf and the Church’s principle of subsidiarity, including the bearing on the latter on corporate personality and the development of the individual’s image of the self.

Keywords: Catholic Church, nation, nationality, nationalism, patriotism, religion, universalism, Kulturkampf, monotheism, subsidiarity

… the natural law enjoins us to love devotedly and to defend the country in which we were born, and in which we were brought up, so that every good citizen hesitates not to face death for his native land…. We are bound, then, to love dearly the country whence we have received the means of engagement this mortal life affords, but we have a much more urgent obligation to love, with ardent love, the Church to which we owe the life of the soul, a life that will endure forever.

Sapientiae Christianae

Encyclical of Pope Leo XIII (1890)

Love of our motherland unites us and must unite us above all the differences. It has nothing in common with narrow nationalism or chauvinism. It is the right of the human heart. It is the measure of human nobility, a measure tested frequently in the course of our not-so-easy history.

Message to “My Beloved Countrymen”

John Paul II (October 23, 1978)

If, as is clearly the case for Pope Leo XIII’s Encyclical Sapientiae Christianae and John Paul II’s message to the Poles, the love of one’s nation—patriotism—is, for the Catholic Church, a legitimate, natural attachment, how is that love to be related to what is also clearly viewed by the Church to be the love necessary for eternal happiness which, as such, must be more urgent? The Church has often recognized what Pope Pius XI in the Encyclical Mit Brennender Sorge (1937) described as “the joyful and proud confidence in the future of one’s people, instinct in every heart”; and yet that joyful and proud confidence and instinct was understood to be “quite a different thing from faith in a religious sense.” But again, what, for the Church, is the relation between that proud confidence in the future of one’s people and the religious faith in one God for all of humanity? Herein lies one among a number of important expressions of the problem to be investigated, the relation between the Catholic Church and nationality.1

Departure and Scope

Both the point of departure and the scope of an investigation into the relation between the Catholic Church and nationality are not obvious. The Catholic Church claims to be the legitimate, this-worldly and continual embodiment of the grace of God and the teachings of the Gospels, hence, bearing the sacramental authority of Jesus and the Apostles. Because of this claim, there is no compelling reason to restrict the investigation into the relation between the doctrinal universalism of Christianity and the particularism of nationality to what otherwise might be the expected point of departure: to after the Protestant Reformation (specifically, after the treaties of Passau and Augsburg of 1555 that established the principle of cuius regio, eius religio) when European national states became relatively consolidated. Thus, we face the problem of where historically to begin the analysis. Moreover, the questions of the point of departure and scope of the investigation are also unavoidable if one insists, as one should, on drawing a distinction between, on the one hand, a nation as a territorial community of nativity and, on the other, the ideology of narrow nationalism or chauvinism, as did John Paul II in his message, “My Beloved Countrymen”; for we must consider attachments to one’s native land before the historical appearance of the generally modern ideology of nationalism, where the latter “divinizes [the nation] to an idolatrous level,” as described in Pius XI’s Mit Brennender Sorge (1937). The questions are especially unavoidable if we draw a further distinction between the national state and those historically earlier nations that may have existed within empires or were in the process of developing.2

The investigation might, for example, begin at the point where the “Jesus movement” (“the followers of the way,” Acts 9:2, 22:4, 24:4) decisively distinguished itself from its origin in Judaism, evidently sometime during the last half of the first century c.e., that is, from the attachment to those symbols constitutive of nationality: the bounded territory of the land, promised by God to the Israelites, “from Dan to Beersheba” (see Numbers 34:2‒12); and kinship, specifically, the concept of the people chosen by God as the descendants of Abraham (as, e.g., referred to in John 8:33).3 This separation entailed a reinterpretation of the Jewish understanding of salvation—or the idea of “rest” in the TANAKH (Deuteronomy 12:9, 25:19; 1 Kings 8:56; Psalm 95:11)—as no longer consisting of the freedom of national deliverance from foreign bondage, but now that of the Christian understanding of the liberation of the individual of the “new Israel” from sin through universal love (agape).4 Concomitant with this reinterpretation, that land promised by God in Judaism was no longer a bounded, national territory, but the eternal paradise of the “New Jerusalem” of heaven (Revelation 3:12, 21:2).

The conceptual referents of this separation and reinterpretation would, depending upon the circumstances, be played out in different ways and combinations over the next two millennia. Nevertheless, the basic outline of our problem is found in the second-half of the first century c.e.: the relation between, on the one hand, the attachment to kinship and land constitutive of nationality, to the nation “in which we were born and in which we were brought up,” in the formulation of Leo XIII’s Sapientiae Christianiae (1890), and, on the other, the universalism of monotheism, the eternal life of the soul of the individual. The problem of this relation is especially pronounced for Christianity, as it dogmatically explicitly allows, however ambiguously so, for a conceptual space for earthly attachments as legitimate, that is, there are things in this world that are, in fact, Caesar’s (Matthew 22:21, Mark 12:17, Luke 20:25, Romans 13:7), even if those things are ultimately subordinated to God (as argued, e.g., in Book 19 of Augustine’s City of God). However ambiguous or complicated the relation between the earthly attachments to the nation and the attachments to heavenly paradise may be, that the Church considers the former to be legitimate could not be clearer from the two papal quotations with which this investigation began. Nevertheless, despite this legitimacy, there is an unavoidable tension in Christianity between “this world” and the “other world,” and particularly so for the universal church of Roman Catholicism; for the love of the eternal soul and its representative in this world is clearly viewed to be more urgent.5

We also face the problem of the scope of the analysis. Should the investigation encompass those manifestations, however implicit, of the encounter between the universalism of the Church which “founded by the Redeemer is one, the same for all races and nations” (so Pius XI’s Mit Brennender Sorge; see Galatians 3:28, Romans 10:12‒13, 1 Corinthians 12:12‒13) and the national particularism of territory and kinship; should it take up the relation between Christianity and the seemingly natural and, in any case, ubiquitous love for one’s home, that is, patriotism; or should it be confined to where Catholic doctrine has explicitly dealt with not nationality or patriotism, but the primarily modern, Manichaean-like, and bellicose ideology of nationalism as a challenge to its universalism?6 Specifically, should the investigation consider apparent, regional, or ethnic deflections from the universalism of Christianity found in the early doctrinal disputes represented by, for example, the Montanists, Donatists, and Copts? There is, after all, merit to W. H. C. Frend’s observation that “it will be no longer adequate to label [even the divisions within early Christianity such as] the African Donatists ‘schismatic’ and the Egyptian Monophysites ‘heretics’ without further ado. Conflicts over orthodoxy have rarely been simple conflicts over truth and error. Both now and then they have in part been the outcome of clashes of culture, themselves represented by deep-rooted territorial or social divisions.”7 The implications conveyed by the complications posed to the universalism of Christianity by cultural and, above all, territorial divisions justify these questions concerning the point of departure and the scope of this investigation. Nevertheless, however justified the analyst may be in pursuing early cultural and territorial divisions in the history of Christianity as having a bearing on the problem of this investigation, caution must be employed.

One cannot help being curious and even bemused over the fact that for the second-century c.e. Montanists the location of the “New Jerusalem” was now expected to be in their native Phrygia.8 How is one to judge the significance of the territorial parochialism of this new location? In this case, the doctrinal dispute with the Montanists over the claimed possession of the spirit of God that, as such, supplanted the authority of tradition, both dogmatic and organizational, was obviously primary. Similarly, although the Donatists were concentrated in northern Africa and surely their anti-Roman prejudice was at work, the significance of regional attachments was clearly overshadowed by the disputes over how membership in the universal church and the qualification of its priesthood were to be understood.9 In both of these instances, regional, territorial preoccupations are to be observed; nevertheless, they appear to be indirect. The question of territorial, ethnic, and perhaps even national attachment may be more complicated with the Coptic, that is, Egyptian, Church with its Sahidic Bible; but, even here, the dispute over the nature of Jesus Christ in the aftermath of the mid-fifth century c.e. Council of Chalcedon took center stage.10

In these three examples, while territorial, hence, cultural, factors were, in varying degrees, surely involved, likely for the Donatists and certainly, over time, for the Copts, they were not acknowledged by the participants in these doctrinal controversies as being of central importance, thereby allowing us to place them outside the scope of this investigation.11 By doing so, the point of departure and the scope of the investigation have been limited to where references to national attachments or territorial divisions within the Church’s doctrinal disputes and their consequences for the universalism of Christianity are explicit.

While there are thus reasons to exclude the early disputes over Montanism, Donatism, and Monophysitism from this investigation, the point of departure and scope of the analysis remains unclear. Cultural and apparently national or, if one insists, proto-national attachments were obvious factors in the formation of the Armenian Church, the medieval Polish Church, and French Gallicanism. Even though for much of its early history, manifestly so after 72 c.e., ancient Armenia was divided between a western “Lesser Armenia,” under the influence of Rome and later Constantinople, and an eastern “Greater Armenia,” under the influence of Persia, and even though it was internally heterogeneous with is relatively independent principalities or “satrapies” (the naXarar system), early Armenian Christian historiography consistently conveyed an image of Armenia, both before and after the conversion to Christianity in approximately 314 c.e., as a single, unified nation.12

We find, for example, in Moses Khorenats’i’s History of the Armenians (ca. 750 c.e.) an assertion of the common ancestry of all Armenians, descended from the biblical Japheth, thereby emphasizing the distinctiveness of a putative lineage in contrast to the common humanity of all descendants of Adam or Noah and certainly through Jesus Christ.13 Terms for the bounded territory of the land of Armenia are found throughout P’awstos’s Epic Histories (ca. 450 c.e.), including the same term, Hay/Hayk’ (singular/plural) to refer to both the Armenian territory and Armenian people—a conflation of designation characteristic of the territorial kinship of nationality (e.g., Canada/Canadians).14 Finally, there appears to have been awareness that language, too, was constitutive of the Armenian people and territory; for we find not only, after 400 c.e., the Armenian script, but also in P’awstos’s Histories the conception of the “land of Armenian speech.” In the Armenian example, it is difficult to avoid concluding that attachment to Armenian nationality was a factor in the emergence of an Armenian church, distinct from Rome, in the aftermath of Chalcedon.

This admittedly brief overview of territorial and perhaps national attachments in the history of early Christianity and late antiquity ought to cast doubt on the fashionable assertion that nations arose only in the aftermath of The Treaty of Westphalia (1648) and the Romanticism of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The merit of examining earlier examples of the relation between Catholicism and nationality becomes even more compelling by turning our attention to the previously mentioned examples of medieval Poland and France.

It is obvious enough that the Catholic Church in Poland has a long history of being understood as the Polish Catholic Church, hence, a vehicle for Polish national consciousness, existing between Russian Orthodoxy and German Lutheranism. However, this self-understanding of Polish Catholicism did not arise in conjunction with or in the aftermath of the dismemberment of Poland at the end of the eighteenth century. It is by no means limited to the writings of nineteenth-century writers like Juliusz Słowacki and Adam Mickiewicz, for example, the latter’s characterization of Frederick the Second of Prussia, Catherine the Second of Russia, and Maria Theresa of Austria as the “Satanic Trinity.”15 From Pope Benedict XII (1339 c.e.) on, numerous papal statements recognize Poland as a distinct, Catholic territory, the integrity of which was to be maintained against the claims of the Teutonic Knights. Moreover and of revealing significance for the relation between the Catholic Church and nationality, we find the canonization (1253 c.e.) of Stanisław, patron saint of Poland.16 The canonization of those who either at that time or subsequently were viewed as “national saints” is an obvious expression of the “coming together” of the monotheistic universalism of the Catholic Church with an elevation of significance accorded to a distinct territory and territorial kinship.17 And let us not forget as another example of this coming together the designation of the Virgin Mary as the “Queen and Protector of Poland” in the aftermath of the Polish victory over Swedish forces at the battle of Częstochowa (1655 c.e.). It is likely appropriate to understand this coming together or convergence more as representing an accommodation of this universalism to nationality within monotheism. In any event, the tension between these two orientations—the universalism of the Church and the particularism of national attachment—has been ameliorated by recognition of a patron saint of a nation, not only Stanisław for Poland but also, for example, Sava for Serbia and Louis for France.18

When one observes in the “Gallican Declaration of Liberties” (1682) the qualification of papal authority by the customs of the Church in France, there is good reason to conclude that the problem of this investigation has surfaced. True enough, complications must be sorted out, for example, the extent to which the Gallican Declaration was concerned with the relation between the French monarchy and the Papal See, and not French, national customs per se. Be that as it may, there are other and much earlier instances where the distinctiveness of the French and/or French monarchy within Christian universalism was asserted, indicating that the Gallican Declaration had a long period of gestation. In Rex Gloriae (1311) of Pope Clement V, written in the aftermath of the conflict between Pope Boniface VIII and the French King Philip the Fair, there appears the following recognition.

In the same way that the Israelites are known to have been granted the Lord’s inheritance by the choice of Heaven to carry out the hidden wishes of God, so the kingdom of France has been selected as the Lord’s special people, marked with the signs of honor, and chosen to carry out God’s commands.19

Here also there are complications to be sorted out over how to gauge the significance of this papal declaration about the special character of the French; for Pope Clement, French by birth, was under King Philip’s constant pressure. Nonetheless, recognition by the Pope, however compromised Pope Clement was, of the distinctiveness of the French people is unambiguous, thus, deserving of the attention of this investigation.

Of even greater interest is the recourse by Rex Gloriae to the image of the nation of Israel to describe the French as the Lord’s “special people”—a recourse that only adds emphasis to the earlier observation about how the outline of the problem of the relation between the universalism of the Catholic Church and the particularism of nationality was posed during the last half of the first century c.e. Of course, the accommodation of Christianity to nationality through reference to the image of a “new Israel,” thereby maintaining, but not without difficulties, monotheism was mostly a Protestant, specifically, Calvinist, affair; nonetheless, as can be seen here, it is to be found elsewhere.20

The intention of these previous observations about the point of departure and scope of the investigation is to emphasize the merit of considering the problems of the relation between Christianity, that is, the Church, and nationality before the Reformation. The value in doing so is that the analysis of the relation will not be overwhelmed by the primarily modern ideology of nationalism. The latter may obscure the tension of the relation between two, apparently persistent, albeit variable in their specific expression, orientations: one to the ideal, universal norms and relations of the other-worldly divine; the other to the affairs of this world, above all those that bear on nativity, including kinship in all its variations ranging from the family to the territorial kinship of the nation. Nonetheless, the bearing of territorial kinship on the Church from the second century c.e. to the Reformation appears to have often been implicit. Thus, the decision has been made to focus subsequent attention on where the problems of the relation between the Church and nationality have been explicit, both doctrinally and historically, in later periods, specifically during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The decision is, however, also an admission that the rich, complicated expansiveness of this problem can hardly be addressed in this brief analysis; thus, the previous remarks did not take up any number of other phenomena obviously relevant to the point of departure and scope of this examination, for example, the conciliarism of the fifteenth century, or the followers of the Bohemian Jan Hus, or Catholicism as a vehicle of Irish national consciousness.21 The reader will have to be content with the passing reference to these and other historical expressions of the problem. Be that as it may, we begin first by examining a few, formal Church statements on nationality, patriotism, and nationalism; and then proceed by considering briefly the German Kulturkampf of the latter part of the nineteenth century as only one among a number of historical examples, albeit an illuminating one, of the problem of the relation between the Catholic Church and nationality.

The Teachings of the Church

As we have already observed from references to a few of the papal Encyclicals from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries such as Leo XIII’s Sapientiae Christianae (1890) and Pius XI’s Mit Brennender Sorge (1937), the Church draws a distinction between attachments to the nation and the radical ideology of nationalism. Many other papal statements from this period recognize the same distinction, for example, Benedict XV’s letter Cum Polaniae rebus (1920), Pius XI’s Allocution to the College of Cardinals Benedetto il Natale (1930), and Pius XII’s Summi Pontificatus (1939). To be sure, many of these and similar papal statements were written either in the aftermath of war or in fearful anticipation of war; and, thus, they emphasize the universal brotherhood of humanity, children of one father and one redeemer. This emphasis is to be expected. Nevertheless, it is noteworthy that all of these statements contain references to attachments to the nation that are understood by the Church to be acceptable, or recognized by the Church to be expressions of that “true and genuine love of country,” as formulated by Pius XI’s Benedetto il Natale.

It would, however, be a mistake to conclude that the Church’s recognition of the legitimate attachments to one’s native land and people is limited to, or only primarily to be found among, the teachings from the so-called “Age of Nationalism,” that is, from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In the “Four Articles on Piety” of the Summa Theologica, second part of the second part, question 101 (ca. 1274 c.e.), Aquinas observed that human beings incur a debt to their parents and their country “that has given [them] birth and nourishment,” so much so that “it belongs to piety to pay homage to our parents and country.” This homage to one’s parents and country is what we today would describe as patriotism.

As was seen in the quotation from Leo XIII’s Sapientiae Christianae (1890), which introduced this brief analysis, patriotism is understood by the Church to be natural, and, as such, to be subject to the natural law that enjoins “every good citizen to face death for his native land.” This natural attachment, constitutive of patriotism, was described by Aquinas in the Summa as a “principle of being,” “Piety extends to our country in so far as the latter is for us a principle of being” (Third Article on Piety). By “principle of being,” Aquinas and the Church recognize that human beings live in society, and that it is an expression of human nature for humans to do so. Thus, patriotism, as the attachment to one’s own land and its people, is a manifestation of human nature, even though the organizational expressions of that natural manifestation vary historically, ranging from city-kingdom to region to nation.

These previous observations lead to the preliminary conclusion that both the nation and patriotism are viewed by the Church to be acceptable, that is, moral expressions of nature, hence of the natural law; or, as formulated in Pius XI’s Encyclical Caritate Christi Compulsi (1932), there is a “legitimate care for [one’s] country and … the feelings of piety to [one’s] own people.” However, the Encyclical continues by noting “that piety is not condemned but hallowed and strengthened by the right order of Christian charity.” Thus, the Church’s understanding of the patriotic attachment to the nation is by no means concluded with the recognition of it as a natural principle of being. The naturalness, if you will, of both a nation and patriotism is situated within the Church’s understanding of a moral order, the right order of Christian charity, which, in turn, is not and could not be limited to the legitimate homage due to one’s parents and country. As Pius XII in the Encyclical Summi Pontificatus (1939) observed, “nations, despite a difference of development due to diverse conditions of life and of culture, are not destined to break the unity of the human race, but rather [are destined] to enrich and embellish [that unity] by sharing of their own peculiar gifts and by their reciprocal interchange of goods which can be possible and efficacious only when a mutual love and a lively sense of charity unite all the sons of the same Father and all those redeemed by the same Divine Blood.” In other words, while the Church recognizes the love for one’s nation—patriotism—to be legitimate, it is so only within the context of a rightly ordered patriotism that, as such, always has as its point of reference the universal unity of humanity. For the Church, a properly understood patriotism finds its place within the right order of Christian charity, but does not exhaust it.22 It is for this reason that Aquinas distinguished the love of piety directed to one’s parents and country from the higher religious love directed toward God. Furthermore and importantly, the latter love of God must encompass, certainly qualify, the former love for one’s parents and country. And it is for the reason of this necessary qualification that while the Church recognizes “the joyful and proud confidence in the future of one’s nation as an instinct in every heart,” this confidence is “quite a different thing from faith in a religious sense” (Mit Brennender Sorge).

Given this universal context within which, for the Church, patriotism must exist for it to be rightly ordered as an expression of Christian morality, nations, as understood by the Church, do not represent so profound a division of humanity that the moral unity of humanity is undermined. Quite the contrary, for in their historical and cultural multiplicity, nations, according to the Church, both enrich the human experience and contribute to, are a continuum toward, a beneficial internationalism, at least as long as the patriotic attachment to the nation is rightly ordered. Since nations and the attachment to them—patriotism—are natural, their existence, given the Church’s understanding of nature, has the potential to be morally beneficial. This potential is grounded in the Church’s understanding of the relation of God to the world. All creation flowed from God; and the telos of the pinnacle of earthly creation, humanity, is to return to God: in Aquinas’s terms, this is the exitus and reditus of the divine order, where the natural law is in a subordinated hierarchy to the divine law.

Only when the natural relation, the principle of being, of one’s attachment to the nation is not properly directed by the natural law and the higher Divine law by rejecting that all of humanity is made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27, 9:6) is there the perverse ideology of nationalism. If that universal context is rejected, there is no longer a properly ordered patriotism; the right order of Christian charity has been undermined. In this case, one no longer finds the patriotic attachment, the grateful obligation, to the homeland in which one was born and raised to be morally beneficial. One finds instead the elevation of the nation as the sole object of one’s attention—a morally disastrous elevation that is described as a “narrow nationalism” or “chauvinism” (John Paul II’s Message to “My Beloved Countrymen”).

In contrast to patriotism, nationalism, according to the Church, is an exaltation of the nation above all other attachments into the sole object—idol—of attention; and, as such, it is an ideology. Thus, nationalism, in the formulation of Pius XI’s Mit Brennender Sorge (1937), represents “pantheist confusion,” as it “raises the world [that is, the nation] to the dimensions of God.” So, while Aquinas in the First Article on Piety in the Summa acknowledges that the principle of one’s being entails an obligation to one’s parents and one’s country, both of which have given the individual birth and nourishment, it is God who “holds first place.” The failure to recognize the latter opens the door to the perversion of the natural attachments of patriotism into the pernicious ideology of nationalism by disrupting the gradated hierarchy of human existence and goals. When the Church has been confronted with nationalism—the elevation of the nation over God—it has condemned that elevation, for example, Pius XI’s denunciation of Action Française (1926), or the idea of a national “German Church,” the assumed object of concern of Pius XI’s Mit Brennender Sorge (1937), which states, “none but superficial minds could stumble into concepts of a national God or a national religion.” However patriotic a Catholic may be, that patriotism should never be warped into the bellicose, chauvinistic ideology of nationalism; for the true homeland of the Catholic is that of heaven.

Wherefore, to love both countries, that of earth below and that of heaven above, yet in such mode that the love of our heavenly surpass the love of our earthly home, and that human laws be never set above the divine law, is the essential duty of Christians, and the fountainhead, so to say, from which all other duties spring.

(Leo XIII, Sapientiae Christianae)

The merit of the Church’s teaching on nations, patriotism, and nationalism consists in drawing a distinction between, on the one hand, that collectivity of territorial kinship that arises over time and which we designate by the term “nation” and, on the other, the ideology of nationalism. This is analytically a proper distinction. Every nation is constituted around myriad and, at times, even conflicting ideas, including ideas about what the nation is and should be. Often these different ideas are expressed in the platforms of competing political parties. Sometimes a particular idea or set of ideas may be bellicose and chauvinistic, asserting the supremacy of one nation over another. In the latter instance, one finds the ideology of nationalism. However, the ideology of nationalism ought not to be conflated with those other set of ideas expressive of the love of one’s country in which one was born and raised, with the attendant, accepted sense of obligation for that nourishment. We designate the latter by the term “patriotism.” As is obvious from the papal statements referred to previously, the Church rightly also draws a distinction between nationalism and patriotism. Recognizing the merit of this distinction between patriotism and nationalism is not to naively deny the threat that the patriotic attachment to one’s homeland is susceptible to being warped into nationalism. Clearly, it has been. It is, however, to recognize that while both the nation and patriotism are historical phenomena, and, in this sense, are formed and continually formed within the crucible of the contingency of human affairs, their existence, as Aquinas and the Church have realized, is not arbitrary. All well and good. Nevertheless, there may remain theoretical problems about the Church’s understanding of nationality.

Pius XI’s Mit Brennender Sorge (1937) warns against “divinizing the nation to an idolatrous level,” as the ideology of nationalism is wont to do. Anyone familiar with the horrors of war, and especially World War II, ought to understand the merit of this warning. But what deserves close attention is how the Encyclical describes raising the nation to an idol as a distortion and perversion of the “order of the world planned and created by God.” Of course, to worship the nation as if it were a deity represents a pagan repudiation of monotheism. Left unanswered, however, is what is precisely meant by “the order of the world planned and created by God.” One assumes it means more than each and every individual is made in the image of God.

It is clear enough that, according to the Church, a rightly ordered patriotism is a patriotism that is qualified by the recognition captured in the statement of Pius XI in the Encyclical Divini Redemptoris (1937), “All must remember that the peoples of the earth form one family in God.” This qualification to the existence of nations acts as a safeguard against the ideological perversion of patriotism into becoming nationalism. However, the Church does not, as we have seen, dissolve the nation into the universal brotherhood of humanity in God. On the contrary, the Church has recognized that “the natural law enjoins us to love devotedly and to defend the country in which we were born in which we brought up” (Sapientiae Christianiae)—a love that is “the right of the human heart” (John Paul II’s “My Beloved Countrymen”), a manifestation of our being (Aquinas, Summa). This is why the Church is correct to recognize that the existence of the nation, while historically contingent and variable, should not be viewed as merely an arbitrarily imagined community. We are, nevertheless, still left with the problem of how to understand what “the order of the world planned and created by God” means for earthly society, and specifically for the nation and when the nation has a state, the national state. The universal brotherhood of humanity is surely not to be cordoned off by understanding it to refer only to the supernatural fatherland for all those redeemed by and through Jesus Christ; for if it is cordoned off, rather than a gradated hierarchy of love, ranging from that of the family to friendship to the nation and finally to its highest expression as agape, as an expression of the order of the world planned and created by God, one faces a pronounced chasm between the natural attachments of this world and the redemptive love of heaven.

Let us approach this problem by looking more closely at what Pius XI’s Divini Redemptoris (1937) has to say about society.

In the plan of the Creator, society is a natural means which man can and must use to reach his destined end. Society is for man and not vice versa…. In a further sense, it is society which affords the opportunities for the development of all the individual and social gifts bestowed on human nature. These natural gifts have a value surpassing the immediate interests of the moment, for in society they reflect the divine perfection, which would not be true were man to live alone. But on final analysis, even in this latter function, society is made for man, that he may recognize this reflection of God’s perfection, and refer it in praise and adoration to the Creator. Only man, the human person, and not society in any form is endowed with reason and a morally free will…. A balance is struck between the due dependence and well-ordered love of a man for himself, his family and country, and his love of other families and other peoples, founded on the love of God, the Father of all, their first principle and last end.

To acknowledge, as Divini Redemptoris asserts, that the natural gifts of the Creator, which are realized in and through society, are a reflection of divine perfection is to reformulate the observation of Leo XIII’s Sapientiae Christianae (1890) that “the supernatural love for the Church and the natural love of our own country proceed from the same eternal principle, since God himself is their Author and originating Cause.”

This morally compelling perspective—based in the nature of the being of the individual, leading the individual to both earthly society and fulfillment in heavenly society (formulated in Aquinas’s understanding of the divine order of exitus and reditus)—assumes, as we have observed, an ordered hierarchy of charity and love. If one confines one’s consideration of this hierarchy to the category of society per se, the edifice of the argument is attractive and perhaps persuasive, as one encounters a refined deepening of charity and love moving from the conception of earthly society to that of heavenly society, from a lower form to a higher form, both forms originating in God. If, however, one’s attention is not directed to society per se, but to national society, one must ponder the possible ontological significance for being of the referents of those conceptions constitutive of nationality: homeland as the locus of nativity, and the attendant conception of kinship with those who are also born and raised within that territory. The significance is conveyed through the historically and culturally ubiquitous modifiers of the term “land”: native land, motherland, and fatherland. When one does so, the following question arises. Is there something particularly compelling for human beings about nativity and relations of nativity that is otherwise obscured by the reference to “society” instead of “national society”? (The same question is also to be posed for another ontologically compelling relation of nativity, the family.) This is a matter of the significance attributed to, on the one hand, life itself, above all, its origin and transmission (and, of course, ideas about that origin and transmission) and, on the other, the proper order of life. Do these expressions of life—its origin or generation, its transmission (kinship), and its order—exist in a gradated hierarchy?

If this question productively opens up a door for deliberation by introducing a complication for the Church’s teaching, a larger problem arises. For the scientific investigator, a distinction must now be acknowledged: on the one hand, the rationalism of the Church’s postulated order of the world, planned and created by God; and, on the other, a reality that may not correspond to that rationalism. For the Church, the gulf between the forceful significance of the particularistic attachment to nativity (and its attendant, conceptually expansive relations of kinship) and the universal order of the one God is overcome by the posited telos of humanity. (Deflections from that telos and the properly ordered humanity that it assumes are known as “sins.”) One must, however, consider the possibility of a tension-filled plurality of ends. If there is a tension-filled plurality of ends, those ends do not exist in a gradated hierarchy. Needless to say, the fact, if fact it be, of a plurality of ends in no way precludes recognizing the morally important qualification of the nation and patriotism by paying heed to the moral truth conveyed by Genesis 1:27. But it does lead to an appreciation of the depth of what is now recognized to be an ontological tension rooted in the nature of being. This is not the place to pursue this important, theoretical matter further, except to note briefly an apparent biblical ambiguity in the order of the world planned and created by God.

The biblical ambiguity consists in determining whether nations are a consequence of the fallen state of humanity, or are they a manifestation of God’s planned order of this world. The ambiguity is expressed in how one understands the relation between Genesis 11 and Genesis 10. The account of the “Tower of Babel” in Genesis 11 begins by observing that “everyone on earth had the same language and the same words.” Given at least this linguistic uniformity and likely political unity, human beings are described as being capable of building, and then proceed to build a “city, and a tower with its top in the sky, to make a name for ourselves.” Evidently the danger posed by a linguistically and likely politically unified humanity is the sin of misdirected ambition made possible by that unity. As a consequence, God, observing the building of the city with a tower reaching up to the heavens, states, “If, as one people with one language for all, this is how they have begun to act, then nothing that they may propose to do will be out of their reach.” In response to this apparent human overreaching of what God’s planned order allots to humanity, the LORD proceeds to “confound their speech so that they shall not understand one another’s speech and scatter them from there over the face of the earth.” The reader concludes that the existence of different nations with respectively different languages is indeed God’s plan; but it was a plan not grounded in creation but undertaken in response to the human wickedness and evil (see Genesis 6:5, 8:21) of a misdirected, hence sinful, ambition.

One may reach a different conclusion from Genesis 10, where humanity is repeatedly described as being divided according to kinship, language, and territory, that is, divided by nations (TANAKH, goyim; Septuagint, εθνη; Vulgate, nationes). While this description of the division of humanity into nations (Genesis 10:5, 20, 32) occurs after what the Christian tradition understands to have been the fall of humanity (Genesis 3), the existence of nations, as described in Genesis 10, appears as if it were natural, or at least not as a result of a safeguard against sin or as a punishment, as in the account of the “Tower of Babel.” If so, there would be a prejudice against the linguistically and politically unified empire.

Our concern in this matter is not one of biblical criticism regarding the compositional relation between Genesis 10 and 11; rather, it is how the Church understands nationality. Do the (natural) love for one’s country and the supernatural love for God proceed from the same principle, since God is the organizing cause of both, as may be biblically based on Genesis 10, but seemingly not Genesis 11? Is there a relation between the nation and the divine such that the source of the love for one’s country springs from the love of God; or is it that the love for one’s country ought to be founded on the love of God? Or is it the case that recognition of the true, universal community of humanity necessarily implies a Christian skepticism toward the nation? After all, for the Church, salvation is of the individual qua individual. That salvation of the individual is predicated upon the unity of mankind, anthropologically as a species and spiritually in and through Jesus Christ. It is not a salvation of the individual as a member of a nation. From this vantage point, while there is no doubt whatsoever about the universalism of the monotheistic prophecy of Isaiah 2:2‒4, it is not the same universalism of the Church! In other words, the Church speaks directly to the individual and all individuals, and not to the individual through the nation. Far greater attention to this difference is warranted. We will not pursue further these pressingly important matters here. It will suffice to have presented the outline of the problem.

What is clear is that the teachings of the Church are not overtly political, for the Church’s responsibility is that of the soul of the individual. To the extent that the Church’s teachings take up political matters, it does so for the sake of “the happy progress of society,” as determined by the “universal order of purposes” in accord with “the moral law” (so, Pius XI’s Quadragesimo Anno 1931). For the Church, the purpose of the state is to facilitate the temporal happiness of the individual and the community; and in this sense, all states are charged with pursuing the welfare of its citizens.23 However, the state, especially when abetted by the ideology of nationalism, can never be an end in and of itself; for to be viewed in such a matter would represent a totalitarian subordination of the individual, any and all subsidiary associations, the national community, and finally the Church to the state. It is contrary to the teachings of the Church to elevate the goals of a political party above religion, and certainly to have religion serves as a handmaiden to a political party. These and related matters broke out in the most explicit way during the Kulturkampf.

The Kulturkampf

The relevance of the Kulturkampf for this investigation into the relation between the Roman Catholic Church and nationality is as an example of the drive to unify the nation of Germany on the basis of religion.24 The religion, however, was not Catholicism, but Protestantism, largely Lutheran. As such, the Church’s stance toward the nation, in which it was a minority, was posed point blank, specifically its understanding of the distinction between patriotism and nationalism—a distinction that, given the German Kulturkampf, entailed Catholic opposition to the centralized state.

As is well known, the German empire was divided confessionally. While the 1850 Constitution of Prussia recognized the freedom of religious belief and the right of the Church to administer its own affairs (Article 12), shortly thereafter Catholic seminarians were prohibited from studying in Rome and the Church was no longer permitted to seek converts in predominately Protestant regions. What accounted for this and subsequent legislation against the Catholic Church in Germany? In the aftermath of the defeat of the revolutions of 1848, liberalism underwent a sea change as anticlericalism and anti-Catholicism became means to implement a vision of a renewed German nation.25 (It should also be remembered that the European liberal tradition, unlike the American, did not take as fundamental the separation of church and state.) This vision of a Protestant, German nation was only abetted following the victories over Austria (1866) and France (1870), as anticlericalism and anti-Catholicism were now aggravated in the West by the French-speaking Catholics in Alsace-Lorraine, and in the East by Polish-speaking Catholics. Needless to say, a vision of a unified German nation, irrespective of the basis for that unification and especially at the expense of previously held liberal principles, was welcomed and encouraged by the engineer of that unification, the Prussian Chancellor Bismarck.

The results of the legislation of the Kulturkampf from 1872 through 1875 were: Prussia no longer allowed Church supervision of Catholic schools; required state control over the appointment of priests; the expulsion of the Jesuits from Germany; and finally, in 1875, the banning of all the remaining monastic orders, except those that cared for the sick, with their property expropriated. Those bishops and priests who opposed these laws were either imprisoned or exiled. In the categories examined in this investigation, this pervasive intrusion of the state into the affairs of the Church in this cultural war against Catholicism represented the ascendancy of nationalism over patriotism. While by the end of the 1880s, many of these laws were no longer enforced, they would not be repealed until 1904; and it was not until 1919 when a law of religious toleration was passed as part of the Weimar Constitution. However, having once been instituted, when would a second Kulturkampf break out? The possibility for a renewed Kulturkampf must have been seen likely with Georg Schönerer’s Los vom Rom (“away from Rome”) movement’s campaign (ca. 1900 c.e.) for the conversion of Roman Catholics to Lutheranism. After all, as the German liberals had already been thoroughly compromised by their support of the first Kulturkampf, from where would opposition to another come? This was the background for Leo XIII’s Encyclicals, the already commented upon Sapientiae Christianae (1890) and Militantis Ecclesiae (1897).

Leo XIII’s Militantis Ecclesiae is ostensibly a celebration of Saint Peter Canisius, the sixteenth century Jesuit who had done so much to establish Catholic schools in Germany during the Reformation. However, in the aftermath of the Kulturkampf, the Encyclical was, by remembering Canisius’ contribution to Catholic education, a call for Catholic schools independent from the control of the German state. Moreover, in contrast to the nation as envisioned by the supporters of the Kulturkampf, the Encyclical goes on to assert that Catholic schools actually contribute to “defending the nation [which] requires that education at all levels must be in contact with religion.” However, for the Church and in contrast to the supporters of the Kulturkampf, the proper patriotic understanding of the nation entails freedom of religion.

It has already been noted that in the formation and continued existence of any nation there will usually be numerous and, at times, even conflicting views about what the nation is and should be. The Church’s response to the Kulturkampf was to insist that while religion is necessary for a nation, religious belief should not be coerced; and, further, that the religious organization should be separate from the state. One implication of the latter independence of the religious organization from the state is the Church’s opposition to a centralized national state. According to the Church, the various associations that individuals form, ranging from the family to neighborhood self-help groups to patriotic clubs and so forth, should be free from state control. This approval of associations free from state control represents the Church’s opposition to totalitarianism, and is known in Church teachings as the principle of subsidiarity. One could rightly conclude that this principle of subsidiarity recognizes a distinction between state and (national) society, that is, recognizes a sphere of civil society with its attendant pluralism of associations. It is, however, not clear the extent to which the principle of subsidiarity can tolerate that pluralism of associations where the orientation of one association exists in an uneasy tension with the orientation of another association within what would then be a limited state.

A second implication is the recognition that while a nation may seek a state so that it has the institutional means to act freely in the world, a nation is not the same as a state. While Catholic teaching understands the attachment to one’s homeland to be natural, there is no compelling need for that homeland to have its own state; for that attachment might just as well be cultivated in, for example, a federated state or empire, as appears to have been preferred by Lord Acton out of his fear of a nationalistic, hence despotic, national state.26 Of course, in the case of a multi-national state or empire, the freedom of the nation to act in the world through a state of its own would then be frustrated. In any event, the universal Church is indifferent to any precise political arrangement such as a national state. However, it insists that, whatever the political arrangement, it should have the freedom to carry out its universal mission.

Conclusion

The Church’s teaching on the relation between it and nationality is expressed well enough and succinctly in one further papal Encyclical, Pius XI’s Ubi Arcano Deil Consilio (1922).

Patriotism—the stimulus of so many virtues and of so many noble acts of heroism when kept within the bounds of the Law of Christ—becomes merely an occasion, an added incentive to grave injustice when true love of country is debased to the condition of an extreme nationalism, when we forget that all men are our brothers and members of the same human family … it is “justice which exalteth a nation, but sin maketh nations miserable” (Proverbs 14:34).

This quotation encapsulates what has been previously observed, namely, that the Church recognizes as legitimate a true love for one’s country or nation; but that love—patriotism—must be qualified by the greater love of the Church for God. It is a greater love that has, as its object, all of humanity and which has, as its end, the salvation of each and every individual. When that gradated hierarchy of love is rejected, a potentially horrific, bellicose and sinful nationalism appears. Thus, while the Church acknowledges that it is natural for there to arise historically and culturally specific nations to which the individual has an obligation, that acknowledgment must co-exist with, actually be subordinate to the anthropological fact of one human species and the spiritual revelation of one God for all of humanity. This is why in Ubi Arcano Dei Consilio it is also stated that the “true League of Nations is Christianity.”

The insistence on the necessity of situating the self-consciousness of the individual as a member of a nation within the Divine Law may be understood as the Church’s recognition that priority is to be accorded to the order of life over the origin and transmission of life. The importance of the latter is clearly not denied by Church tradition and teachings, as we have observed in Aquinas’ Summa and numerous papal Encyclicals and statements, despite evidence enough for a life-denying asceticism in the New Testament (for example, Matthew 8:22, 10:35‒39, 12:46; John 12:25; 1 Corinthians 7:1, 7‒8, 26). Whether or not these two orientations of human attachment—one, the origin or generation of life and its transmission through kinship; and two, the proper order of life—along with a third, the freedom of life to act in the world that is expressed in the demand for “national self-determination,” that is, that a nation have a state, exists in an ordered hierarchy is a different matter and problem. There is no doubt that the Church’s understanding of a gradated hierarchy of attachment and love is morally compelling; however, the historical evidence for it is not only sorely lacking but also appears to indicate a tragic tension between these orientations.

If there is an unavoidable tension arising from a plurality of orientations, the Church’s principle of subsidiarity faces profound complications; for various associations will not fit into that gradated hierarchy which the very term subsidiarity implies, without doing an injustice to the personalities of those associations. Here we come upon another difficulty for the Church’s teaching: its insistence that corporations have only a fictitious personality because only an individual can act, have rights, and can bear responsibility for his or her action. This is not the place to enter into a re-examination of what is known as the principle of methodological individualism and its bearing on corporate personality.27 Note, however, should be taken that sooner or later the problem can’t be avoided. The Church’s concern is the salvation of the individual; but the existence of nationality, as do many cultural forms, complicates our understanding of the individual. True enough, the moral majesty of Church teaching consists of its focus on the salvation of the individual. By raising this complication, I do not wish to suggest that the idea of “the individual” is illusory. Nevertheless, the complications posed by what may be the reality of corporate personality and the bearing of that reality on the development of the personality—the self-understanding—of the individual ought not to be avoided by overly facile recourse, however justified, to the misguided conception of a “group mind.” At stake here is the diverse, complicated components that go into the individual’s image of his or her own self, one of which is as a member of a nation.

To conclude, for some time now, certainly during World War I which was to have been the war to end all wars and continuing today with the putatively predictive theories of “modernity” and “globalization,” nations have been viewed as antiquated relics which, as such, would soon disappear. Refusing the cloak of the prophet, the impartial observer finds too much evidence to avoid what actually should be an obvious conclusion: nations continue to exist. As a result, the relation between two structures, nationality and religion—both of which order human cognition, the consciousness of the individual of the self, and action—richly deserves analysis. At times, religion and nationality have been at odds with one another. This is often the case for the world, monotheistic religions precisely because of their universalism. However, religion and nationality have also been intimately intertwined. Both tension and convergence are found in the long history of the Catholic Church. Although clearly historically but also dogmatically the relation between the Catholic Church and nationality has been varied and complicated, a coherent, nuanced Church teaching on the relation has, as we have been observed, emerged, but not without complications.

Bibliography

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Notes:

(1) For two Catholic writers on the relation, see John J. Wright, National Patriotism in Papal Teaching (Boston: Stratford Co., 1942); and Dorian Llywelyn, Toward a Catholic Theology of Nationality (Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2010) and Sacred Place, Chosen People: Land and National Identity in Welsh Spirituality (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1999).

(2) For the definition of the nation, Steven Grosby, Nationalism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005).

(3) On the separation between Judaism and Christianity during the last half of the first century c.e., see W. D. Davies, The Gospel and the Land: Early Christianity and Jewish Territorial Doctrine (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974); E. P. Sanders, Paul and Palestinian Judaism (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977). For the issues posed, Adolph von Harnack, History of Dogma, trans. Neil Buchanan (London: William & Norgate, 1894), vol. 1, still remains useful.

(4) Gerhard von Rad, “There Remains a Rest for the People,” in The Problem of the Hexateuch and Other Essays (London: SCM Press, 1984), 94–102.

(5) On the contrast of the axial age religions between this world and the other world, see Karl Jaspers, The Origin and Goal of History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1953) and S. N. Eisenstadt, The Origins and Diversity of the Axial Age Civilizations (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1986).

(6) For the classic analysis of ideology, E. A. Shils, “Ideology” and “Ideology and Civility,” both of which appear in The Intellectuals and the Powers and Other Essays (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972), 23–70.

(7) W. H. C. Frend, The Early Church (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1982), 1–2.

(8) See Ronald Heine, The Montantist Oracles and Testimonia, Patristic Monograph Series 14 (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 1989), 5.

(9) On Donatism, see W. H. C. Frend, The Donatist Church (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1952).

(10) W. H. C. Frend, “Nationalism as a Factor in Anti-Chalcedonian Feeling in Egypt,” in Religion and National Identity, Studies in Church History 18, ed. Stuart Mews (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1982), 21–38.

(11) So, A. H. M. Jones, “Were Ancient Heresies National or Social Movements in Disguise?” Journal of Theological Studies 10 (1959): 281–298. For the contrary, overstated position, see the earlier E. L. Woodward, Christianity and Nationalism in the Later Roman Empire (London: Longmans Green, 1916).

(12) For early Armenian Christian history, Agathangelos, History of the Armenians, trans. R. W. Thomson (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1976); Elishe, History of Vardan and the Armenian War, trans. R. W. Thomson (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1982); Moses Khorenats’i, History of the Armenians, trans. R. W. Thomson (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978); P’awstos, The Epic Histories Attributed to P’awstos Buzand, trans. N. Garsoian (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989).

(14) P’awstos, Epic Histories, 379. See also Steven Grosby, “Borders, Territory, and Nationality in the Ancient Near East and Armenia,” in Biblical Ideas of Nationality: Ancient and Modern (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2002), 139–142.

(15) Adam Mickiewicz, The Books of the Polish Nation, in Konrad Wallenrod and Other Writings of Adam Mickiewicz (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1975), 172.

(16) Konstantin Symmons-Symonolewicz, National Consciousness in Poland (Meadville, PA: Maplewood Press, 1983), 13–14.

(17) For the classic work on the cult of the saints, see Peter Brown, The Cult of the Saints (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981).

(18) For Sava, Stella Alexander, “Religion and National Identity in Yugoslavia,” in Religion and National Identity, Studies in Church History 18, ed. Stuart Mews (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1982), 591–607; for Louis, Elizabeth M. Hallam, “Philip the Fair and the Cult of Saint Louis,” in Religion and National Identity, ed. Mews, 201–214.

(19) Regestum Clements V. ed. cura et studio monarchorum Ordinis S. Benedicti, 8 vols. (Rome, 1885–92), no. 7501, cited in Smith (2007).

(20) A. D. Smith, “Nation and Covenant: The Contribution of Ancient Israel to Modern Nationalism,” Proceedings of the British Academy 151 (2007): 213–255; and Chosen Peoples: Sacred Sources of National Identity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).

(21) For a recent discussion of conciliarism and nationality, Caspar Hirschi, The Origins of Nationalism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 81–87. For a recent discussion of Ireland and the Catholic Church, William Crotty, “The Catholic Church in Ireland and Northern Ireland: “Nationalism, Identity, and Opposition,” in The Catholic Church and the Nation State, ed. Paul Christopher Manuel, Lawrence C. Reardon, and Clyde Wilcox (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2006), 117–130.

(22) John J. Wright, National Patriotism in Papal Teaching (Boston: Stratford Co., 1942), 196. See also John J. Wright, “Patriotism,” in New Catholic Encyclopedia (Detroit, MI: Thomson/Gale, 2003), 10:955–957.

(23) See H. A. Rommen, “The State,” in New Catholic Encyclopedia (Detroit, MI: Thomson/Gale, 2003), 13:479–490.

(24) Helmut Walser Smith, German Nationalism and Religious Conflict: Culture, Ideology, Politics, 1870‒1914 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995), 10–20.

(25) Michael B. Gross, The War against Catholicism: Liberalism and the Anti-Catholic Imagination in Nineteenth-Century Germany (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2004), 294.

(26) “Nationality,” in Selected Writings of Lord Acton, ed. J. Rufus Fears (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1985), 1:425–426.

(27) For recent discussions of corporate personality, see Steven Grosby, “Methodological Individualism and Invisible Hands,” in Commerce and Community, ed. Robert F. Garnett Jr., Paul Lewis, and Lenore T. Ealy (Abingdon, UK: Routledge, 2015), 122–145; Jacob T. Levy, Rationalism, Pluralism, & Freedom (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 253–282. For an older but valuable discussion, Frederick Hallis, Corporate Personality (London: Oxford University Press, 1930).