Saturday, October 26, 2019
John Paul II in defense of the nation and patriotism
In chapters 11-15 of his last book , Pope St. John Paul II provides a lucid exposition of the idea of the nation as a natural social institution and of the virtue of patriotism, as these have been understood in traditional natural law theory and Catholic moral theology. The relevance to current controversies will be obvious.
What is the nation, and what is patriotism? John Paul begins by noting the connection between the nation and the family, where the former is in a sense an extension of the latter:
The Latin word patria is associated with the idea and the reality of “father” (pater). The native land (or fatherland) can in some ways be identified with patrimony – that is, the totality of goods bequeathed to us by our forefathers… Our native land is thus our heritage and it is also the whole patrimony derived from that heritage. It refers to the land, the territory, but more importantly, the concept of patria includes the values and spiritual content that make up the culture of a given nation. (p. 60)
As that last remark makes clear, the ties of blood are less important than those of culture. Indeed, multiple ethnicities can make up a nation. Referring to his native Poland, the pope notes that “in ethnic terms, perhaps the most significant event for the foundation of the nation was the union of two great tribes,” and yet other peoples too eventually went on together to comprise “the Polish nation” (p. 77). It is shared culture, and especially a shared religion, that formed these diverse ethnicities into a nation:
When we speak of Poland’s baptism, we are not simply referring to the sacrament of Christian initiation received by the first historical sovereign of Poland, but also to the event which was decisive for the birth of the nation and the formation of its Christian identity. In this sense, the date of Poland’s baptism marks a turning point. Poland as a nation emerges from its prehistory at that moment and begins to exist in history. (p. 77)
That a shared culture is the key to understanding the nation is a theme John Paul emphasizes repeatedly throughout the book. He says that “every nation draws life from the works of its own culture” (p. 83), and that:
The nation is, in fact, the great community of men who are united by various ties, but above all, precisely by culture. The nation exists ‘through’ culture and ‘for’ culture and it is therefore the great educator of men in order that they may ‘be more’ in the community…
I am the son of a nation which… has kept its identity, and it has kept, in spite of partitions and foreign occupations, its national sovereignty, not by relying on the resources of physical power but solely by relying on its culture. This culture turned out, under the circumstances, to be more powerful than all other forces. What I say here concerning the right of the nation to the foundation of its culture and its future is not, therefore, the echo of any ‘nationalism’, but it is always a question of a stable element of human experience and of the humanistic perspective of man's development. There exists a fundamental sovereignty of society, which is manifested in the culture of the nation. (p. 85)
In addition to shared values and religion, John Paul identifies shared history as another crucial aspect of a nation’s identifying culture:
Like individuals, then, nations are endowed with historical memory… And the histories of nations, objectified and recorded in writing, are among the essential elements of culture – the element which determines the nation’s identity in the temporal dimension. (pp. 73-74)
The pope notes that citizens of modern Western European countries often have “reservations” about the notion of “national identity as expressed through culture,” and have even “arrived at a stage which could be defined as ‘post-identity’” (p. 86). There is “a widespread tendency to move toward supranational structures, even internationalism” with “small nations… allow[ing] themselves to be absorbed into larger political structures” (p. 66). However, the disappearance of the nation would be contrary to the natural order of things:
Yet it still seems that nation and native land, like the family, are permanent realities. In this regard, Catholic social doctrine speaks of “natural” societies, indicating that both the family and the nation have a particular bond with human nature, which has a social dimension. Every society’s formation takes place in and through the family: of this there can be no doubt. Yet something similar could also be said about the nation. (p. 67)
The term “nation” designates a community based in a given territory and distinguished from other nations by its culture. Catholic social doctrine holds that the family and the nation are both natural societies, not the product of mere convention. Therefore, in human history they cannot be replaced by anything else. For example, the nation cannot be replaced by the State, even though the nation tends naturally to establish itself as a State… Still less is it possible to identify the nation with so-called democratic society, since here it is a case of two distinct, albeit interconnected orders. Democratic society is closer to the State than is the nation. Yet the nation is the ground on which the State is born. (pp. 69-70)
As this last point about the state and democracy indicates, a nation cannot be defined in terms of, or replaced by, either governmental institutions and their laws and policies on the one hand, or the aggregate of the attitudes of individual citizens on the other. It is something deeper than, and presupposed by, both of these things. It is only insofar as a nation, defined by its culture, is already in place that a polity can come into being. Hence it is a mistake to think that, if the common cultural bonds that define a nation disappear, the nation can still be held together by virtue of governmental policy either imposed from above or arrived at my majority vote. For a people have to be united by common bonds of culture before they can all see either governmental policy or the will of the majority as legitimate. (Readers familiar with the work of Roger Scruton will note the parallels, and how deeply conservative John Paul II’s understanding of the nation is.)
Now, as a natural institution, the nation, like the family, is necessary for our well-being. And as with the family, this entails a moral duty to be loyal to and to defend one’s nation – and for precisely the same sorts of reasons one has a duty of loyalty to and defense of one’s family:
If we ask where patriotism appears in the Decalogue, the reply comes without hesitation: it is covered by the fourth commandment, which obliges us to honor our father and mother. It is included under the umbrella of the Latin word pietas, which underlines the religious dimension of the respect and veneration due to parents…
Patriotism is a love for everything to do with our native land: its history, its traditions, its language, its natural features. It is a love which extends also to the works of our compatriots and the fruits of their genius. Every danger that threatens the overall good of our native land becomes an occasion to demonstrate this love. (pp. 65-66)
Among the dangers to the nation are the opposite extreme economic errors of egalitarian statism and liberal individualism, which threaten to destroy the common culture that defines the nation – in the one case from the top down and in the other from the bottom up. The pope writes:
[W]e must ask how best to respect the proper relationship between economics and culture without destroying this greater human good for the sake of profit, in deference to the overwhelming power of one-sided market forces. It matters little, in fact, whether this kind of tyranny is imposed by Marxist totalitarianism or by Western liberalism. (pp. 83-84)
If liberal individualism is an error that pays insufficient respect to the nation, there is of course an opposite extreme error which involves giving excessive esteem to the nation – namely, nationalism. Patriotism, rightly understood, is the middle ground between these extremes:
Whereas nationalism involves recognizing and pursuing the good of one’s own nation alone, without regard for the rights of others, patriotism, on the other hand, is a love for one’s native land that accords rights to all other nations equal to those claimed for one’s own. (p. 67)
John Paul II was clear that the remedy for nationalism was not to go to the opposite extreme (whether in the name of individualism, internationalism, or whatever), but rather precisely to insist on the sober middle ground:
How can we be delivered from such a danger? I think the right way is through patriotism… Patriotism, in other words, leads to a properly ordered social love. (p. 67)
Now, let’s note a number of things about these remarks and their implications. First, as I have said, what the late pope was giving expression to here is not merely his personal opinion, but traditional natural law political philosophy and Catholic moral teaching – the kind of thing that would have been well known to someone formed in Thomistic philosophy and theology in the early twentieth century, as John Paul II was.
Second, John Paul’s teaching implies that those who seek to preserve their nation’s common culture, and for that reason are concerned about trends that might radically alter its religious makeup or undermine its common language and reverence for its history, are simply following a natural and healthy human impulse and indeed following out the implications of the fourth commandment. There is no necessary connection between this attitude and racism, hatred for immigrants, religious bigotry, or the like.
Of course, a person who seeks to preserve his nation’s culture might also be a racist or xenophobe or bigot. The point, however, is that he need not be, and indeed that it is wrong even to presume that he is, because a special love for one’s own nation and desire to preserve its culture is a natural human tendency, and thus likely to be found even in people who have no racist or xenophobic or bigoted attitudes at all. Indeed, it is, again, even morally virtuous.
Needless to say, there is also a moral need to balance this patriotism with a welcoming attitude toward immigrants, with respect for the rights of religious minorities, and so forth. The point, however, is that all of these things need to be balanced. Too many contemporary Catholics, including some churchmen, have a tendency to emphasize only the latter while ignoring the former. They have a tendency to buy into the leftist narrative according to which the current wave of populist and patriotic sentiment in the United States and Western Europe is merely an expression of racism and xenophobia. This is deeply unjust, contrary to Catholic teaching, and politically dangerous. It is unjust and contrary to Catholic teaching because, again, both natural law and traditional moral theology affirm that a desire to preserve one’s nation and its culture are natural human sentiments and morally praiseworthy. It is dangerous because, when governing authorities fail to respect and take account of these natural and decent human sentiments, they are inviting rather than preventing a nationalist overreaction.
(President Trump has famously called himself a “nationalist,” which is unfortunate given the connotations of that term. However, from it seems clear that what he means by this is just the defense of the institution of the nation against those who would dissolve it in the name of globalism, open borders, etc. Moreover, he explicitly affirmed the right of every nation to preserve itself and its sovereignty, and the right of every human being to have a special patriotic love and preference for his own country. He also has repeatedly called for the United States to refrain from intervening in the affairs of other nations. So it is evident that it is really just patriotism in the sense described above, rather than some sort of American nationalism, that he intends to promote.)
The current controversy over illegal immigration must be understood in light of these principles. In , John Paul II emphasized the need to welcome migrants, to take account of the dangerous circumstances they are sometimes fleeing, to avoid all racist and xenophobic attitudes, and so on. At the same time, he acknowledged that “migration is assuming the features of a social emergency, above all because of the increase in illegal migrants” (emphasis in the original), and that the problem is “delicate and complex.” He affirmed that “illegal immigration should be prevented” and that one reason it is problematic is that “the supply of foreign labour is becoming excessive in comparison to the needs of the economy, which already has difficulty in absorbing its domestic workers.” And he stated that in some cases, it may be necessary to advise migrants “to seek acceptance in other countries, or to return to their own country.”
The Catechism promulgated by Pope John Paul II :
The more prosperous nations are obliged, to the extent they are able, to welcome the foreigner in search of the security and the means of livelihood which he cannot find in his country of origin. Public authorities should see to it that the natural right is respected that places a guest under the protection of those who receive him.
Political authorities, for the sake of the common good for which they are responsible, may make the exercise of the right to immigrate subject to various juridical conditions, especially with regard to the immigrants' duties toward their country of adoption. Immigrants are obliged to respect with gratitude the material and spiritual heritage of the country that receives them, to obey its laws and to assist in carrying civic burdens. (Emphasis added)
End quote. Note that the Catechism teaches that immigrants have a duty to respect the laws and “spiritual heritage” of the nation they seek to enter, and that political authorities may restrict immigration so as to uphold the “common good” of the nation they govern.
Hence, there is no foundation in Catholic teaching for an open borders position, or for the position that those who seek to uphold the common culture and economic interests of their nation ought to be dismissed as racists and xenophobes. On the contrary, Catholic teaching explicitly rules out those positions.
There is a further implication of John Paul II’s teaching. It isn’t merely that having a special love for one’s nation and its culture is natural and virtuous. It is that a failure to have it is vicious – a violation of the fourth commandment.
Of course, every nation has its faults, and aspects of its history of which one ought to be ashamed. For example, Germans are right to repudiate the Nazi period of their history, and Americans are right to repudiate slavery and segregation. But there is a mentality prevalent in the modern West that goes well beyond that – that insists on seeing nothing but evil in one’s own nation and its culture and history. This is the mentality – the hatred of one’s own “household” (oikos), in the sense of one’s own nation. One sees this mentality in Westerners who shrilly and constantly denounce their civilization as irredeemably racist, colonialist, etc., downplaying or denying its virtues, and comparing it unfavorably to other cultures – as if Western culture is somehow more prone to such failings than other cultures are, and as if it hasn’t contributed enormously to the good of the world (both of which are absurd suppositions).
Oikophobia is evil. It is a spiritual poison that damages both those prone to it (insofar as it makes them bitter, ungrateful, etc.) and the social order of which they are parts (insofar as it undermines the love and loyalty citizens need to have for their nation if it is to survive). It is analogous to the evil of hating and undermining one’s own family. It is a violation of the fourth commandment.
The oikophobe sees his position as a remedy for nationalism, but in fact he is simply guilty of falling into an error that is the opposite extreme from that of the nationalist. Moreover, he is inadvertently promoting nationalism, because human beings have a tendency to overreact to one extreme by going too far in the other direction. Nationalism is bound to arise precisely as an overreaction against oikophobia. Those who are currently reacting to what they perceive as a resurgent nationalism by doubling down on oikophobia – pushing for open borders, indiscriminately denouncing their opponents as racists and xenophobes, etc. – are making a true nationalist backlash more likely, not less likely. The only true remedy for the evils of nationalism and oikophobia is, as John Paul II taught, the sober middle ground of patriotism.
It is no accident that those prone to oikophobia tend to be precisely the same people as those who want to push further the sexual revolution, feminism, and the destruction of the traditional family and traditional sex roles that these entail. The same liberal individualist poison is at the core of all of these attitudes. As St. John Paul II said, “patria is associated with the idea and the reality of ‘father’ (pater).” Hatred of masculinity and of the paternal authority and responsibilities that are its fulfilment, hatred of the traditional family and of the sexual morality that safeguards it, and hatred of one’s fatherland, are ultimately of a piece. And lurking beneath them all is a deeper hatred for another, heavenly Father.