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Chapter 11: Patriotism, Politics, and Citizenship

Question A: What Are One’s Responsibilities with Respect to Patriotism?

All individuals and families naturally and inevitably belong to larger communities: a local community (the town, city, or rural region), perhaps some intermediate community such as a province or state, and a country or nation. Patriotism is love for one’s country or nation and loyalty to it.1 This question clarifies the duty of patriotism itself, its distinction from immoderate nationalism, and some specific responsibilities flowing from patriotism. But since love for and loyalty toward the smaller, local community is analogous to patriotism, what is said here can be applied with appropriate qualifications to one’s attitude and duties toward both the local community and any intermediate community, such as the state or province.2

As will be explained, the large community which is the primary object of patriotism is prior, at least logically, to its own political organization, so that it is helpful to distinguish between the large community and the political society (or “state”), although normally the same people and groups belong to both. Also, a political society is distinct from its government: its apparatus for making decisions and implementing them. Finally, the government is distinct from any one regime, which is a particular set of people who fill the government’s offices.

The development of the United States illustrates these distinctions: during the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, many of the British colonists in North America gradually became a new nation as they formed an increasingly unified community with interests distinct from those of their homeland; this nation organized itself as a new political society with the Declaration of Independence (1776) and the Articles of Confederation (1781); later, this political society reorganized its government by adopting the Constitution; since 1789, the regime has changed to some extent with each national election and each change in the make up of the Supreme Court.

1. Patriotism Is Both a Natural Attachment and a Moral Obligation

Patriotism has significant emotional components, but centrally it should be a volitional love: the steady willing of the true good of one’s nation. The Catholic Church teaches that patriotism is a duty. People, of course, have an analogous duty to will the good of their local community. Patriotism primarily bears on the underlying, large community and only secondarily on the state, which politically organizes the large community for the pursuit and protection of certain aspects of its common good.

a) Individuals and families naturally belong to larger communities. All people live with others in a particular region, so that they inevitably form a community, larger than even the most extended family, whose members are bound together in various ways. They share a common history and culture, usually including a common language; they work, play, and do business together; moreover, many of the families, neighborhoods, and other groups living in a region are tied together by intermarriages.

Such a regional community can exist at various levels; with the development of agriculture and industry, humankind formed cities and other local communities, and then formed nations. Since regional communities serve a broad set of continuing interests, they are not deliberately developed to carry out a specific act or set of acts but are open-ended (on open-ended community, see 6.C.2.d). At the same time, they also are limited, since their members’ primary attachment is to the smaller and more intimate community of the family, and since individuals and families generally also belong to various voluntary associations in which they pursue important interests not shared by all, or even many, other people living in the same region.

b) Political society is not the primary object of patriotism. As will be explained, the protection and promotion of the common interests of members of any regional community call for political organization. Hence, nations tend to develop and/or maintain the laws and institutions of political society. However, since the large community has a natural basis in the network of nonpolitical relationships among the individuals, families, and other communities dwelling together or operating in a certain region, people can will their nation’s good even apart from its political fortunes. For example, the Ukrainians maintained their national identity and patriotism through a long period despite lacking political independence and national sovereignty. Moreover, the common good of a national community usually includes important interests—for example, in culture and religion—which may be more suitably served by nonpolitical than political means. Therefore, the large community itself is the primary object of patriotism, which extends to political society and its government only insofar as these serve the common interests of the nation’s members and their families, including the interests of the various nonpolitical communities to which they belong.

c) People usually are attached to their regional communities. Most people have strong feelings of affection and gratitude toward their local community and their country. They sprang from this community; it is the land of their forebears, their fatherland/motherland. They were shaped by its culture and feel at home in it, sharing as they do in its common life. Not only does their land’s soil sustain them and their families but its natural features—these forests and fields, these hills and valleys, these rivers and shores, these skies and this weather—provided their first experience of natural beauty and their first insight into the natural world’s inherent meaning and value. That inherent meaning and value show that the natural world is created and thus direct responsive minds toward God the creator. Hence, patriotic and religious feelings are closely related and intertwined.

d) Patriotic feelings must be shaped by sound judgment and good will. Provided it is integrated with the steady willing of the true good of the community, emotional attachment to one’s nation is a powerful motive for fulfilling the responsibilities of authentic patriotism. Unless patriotic feelings are shaped by sound judgment and integrated with an upright will, however, they easily lead to moral failings of various kinds. Some people mistakenly think emotional attachment suffices to make them patriots, although they fail to fulfill their essential responsibilities to the community. Others allow themselves to be swept along by nationalistic feelings into supporting injustices toward other communities or violating the rights of some members of their own community, for example, by joining in the persecution of those who legitimately criticize commonly held opinions and widely accepted practices.

e) Catholics should be patriots, loving their country’s true good. Catholic teaching makes it clear that patriotism, in the sense of love for the true good of one’s nation, is a grave obligation.

Using patriotism as a pattern for the love which Catholics should bear toward the Church, Leo XIII teaches: “The natural law enjoins us to love devotedly and to defend the country in which we had birth, and in which we were brought up, so that every good citizen hesitates not to face death for his native land.”3 Again, he holds that patriotism, like love of the Catholic faith, is a duty “of paramount importance, and from which, in this life, no man can exempt himself.”4 Pius XII clearly articulates the ground and character of the obligation of patriotism: faith not only teaches that love should extend to every human being but that “we must follow a God-given order, yielding the place of honor in our affections and good works to those who are bound to us by special ties.” And Pius supports this point by citing the example of Jesus’ attachment to his own country, a bond he manifested by weeping over the coming destruction of Jerusalem.5

St. Thomas explains that patriotism belongs to a virtue akin to religion; this virtue, which he calls “pietas,” disposes one to dutifulness, gratitude, and reverence toward one’s parents and native land. For humans depend on their parents as procreators and their homeland as the source of their cultural and historical identity in ways somewhat analogous to that in which they depend on the Creator for their very being and every other good they enjoy (S.t., 2–2, q. 101, a. 1).

2. Immoderate Nationalism Is Not Authentic Patriotism

While patriotism necessarily involves preferential love for one’s own country, it does not exclude good will toward other national communities. Vatican II teaches: “Citizens should cultivate their patriotism generously and loyally, but without being narrow-minded, so that they always should look simultaneously to the good of the whole human family, which is united by various links among races, peoples, and nations” (GS 75; cf. AG 15). Thus, while unselfishly willing the true good of their own nation, Christians should not be jingoists or chauvinists, unconcerned about the welfare of other nations. Much less should they be ready to will other nations’ destruction, subjugation, or humiliation.

a) Christian patriots should limit nationalism by internationalism. Humans are by nature social; their communal reality is as essential to their fulfillment as their individuality is (see GS 25; 6.C.1). God created the whole of humankind to be one community; he provided his gifts—material creation, human resources, and his self-revelation—for all peoples; and he calls all to enter into his kingdom. Human interdependencies extend beyond national boundaries, and there is a common good of humankind as a whole, to which every smaller human community should contribute (see GS 84–85). So, just as true self-love and love of neighbor are not only compatible but mutually implicit, so true patriotism and sound internationalism go together.

If a nation is to be truly great, therefore, it must treat other nations justly and generously. Moreover, unless a nation recognizes the need for international community and contributes to its realization, necessary cooperation will be impeded and conflicts will occur (see GS 83). Thus, patriotism itself demands a love comprehensive enough to include the people of all other nations, since without such inclusive love one’s own community will remain unfulfilled in goods requiring wider cooperation, and international peace will be imperiled, at the risk of great harm to one’s own nation.

b) Christians should support justice in their nation’s foreign relations. Immoderate nationalism often leads people to the false view that, provided they act unselfishly toward their compatriots, they may share in their nation’s selfishness in its relationships with other nations.6 By contrast, while Christians cannot disown their country even when it does wrong they should do what is in their power both to prevent it from doing wrong and to bring it to repent and correct whatever wrongs it does, and should support it only when it does right.

c) Christians should discern their nation’s providential mission. Pride and selfishness time and again have distorted the sense of mission of nations, so that it has come to form part of an ideology rationalizing imperialism: “manifest destiny,” “the white man’s burden,” and so on. Still, such ideological distortions do not negate the truth that, just as individuals have a personal vocation, so nations, like other communities, have a proper mission. The divine gifts found within each nation and its homeland have been given to that people not only for them to exploit and enjoy, but for the use and service of others. Thus, the people of each nation should recognize both its strengths and its weaknesses, consider the needs of other nations, and support policies not only of mutual collaboration, when that is possible, but of unilateral assistance, if the means are available, whenever it is desperately needed by another nation.

3. Patriotism Is Realized by Fulfilling Relevant Responsibilities

As the steady willing of the true good of one’s homeland, patriotism bears fruit and is manifested in action: the fulfillment of relevant responsibilities. These are twofold: some pertain to members of the large community independently of its being a political society, and some pertain to citizens as such. The former will be treated in the remainder of this question. Question B will explain the general ground of the duties of citizens, and questions C through E will treat the specific duties.

4. Patriotism Requires the Fulfillment of Many Other Responsibilities

The flourishing of most smaller communities contributes to the well-being of the nation. For example, good families provide good citizens, and good businesses both meet the nation’s needs and make it prosperous. Thus, while one’s responsibilities as a family member, a participant in the economy, and so on have their own proper grounds, they also should be fulfilled for the sake of the common good of the nation as a whole. In this way, patriotism provides an additional motive for fulfilling many other responsibilities.

5. Patriotic Catholics Should Defend and Spread the Faith in Their Own Nation

As baptized and confirmed members of the Church, Catholics are called to share in her apostolate by living the Christian life and bearing witness by their words, whenever appropriate, to the gospel’s truth (see 2.D.4.a–b). Patriotism reinforces this general responsibility insofar as it bears on one’s compatriots. Obviously, it is comparatively easy to contribute to the apostolate in one’s own nation, since one is in contact with fellow community members and shares with them many common interests, which can provide points of departure and opportunities for dialogue. But more than this, precisely because patriots seek their nation’s true good, patriotic Catholics should hope, pray, and work for their compatriots’ conversion to the Catholic faith.7

a) Patriotic Catholics should resist the dominance of secular humanism. Conscious of their nation’s religious traditions, Catholics should recognize all the sound elements in them as among the most precious of God’s gifts to their homeland. They should do their best to safeguard, perfect, and hand on this heritage, in order that their nation will play the role which providence has assigned it in God’s redemptive work in Christ: the spreading of the gospel and the growth of the kingdom. In societies whose culture is strongly influenced by secular humanism, Catholics should work with other religious citizens to resist the privatization of religion and the dominance of unbelieving ideologies in public affairs, the media, and education.

In societies where secular humanism more or less prevails, those who still believe in God’s revelation and try to live by it suffer various forms of discrimination. For example, while careful to treat more fashionable groups with great deference, the media often insult people who hold fast to faith traditions and treat their beliefs disparagingly; likewise, both in making faculty appointments and in determining course content, the academic world’s open-mindedness and tolerance frequently do not extend to the convictions of orthodox Jews, evangelical Protestants, and faithful Catholics. Catholics should point out such instances of religious discrimination and seek remedies, not only insofar as they are afflicted with this injustice, but also insofar as it affects others who are striving to hold fast to divinely revealed truth.

b) Secular humanism harms the nation by destroying community. Secular humanists hold that there is no source of meaning and value transcending human thoughts and desires. People who accept this view tend no longer to believe they should conform to objective norms entailed by the truth about what is good. So, they can neither base community on what is good in reality nor settle differences by appealing to what is truly right. Instead, individuals who happen to have intense common interests of any kind form blocs to promote those interests, regardless of the welfare of other individuals and the wider community.8

As interest groups become blocs in this way, they no longer engage in real dialogue with outsiders. For rational discourse presupposes common, objectively true starting points, and no such starting points are acknowledged. Denying objective truth and dismissing appeals to it as attempts to impose arbitrary restrictions on freedom, the articulate members of each bloc manipulate ideas and words to promote their particular ends. Moral judgment gives way to rationalization, philosophy and theology to ideology, and thoughtful debate to propaganda. As a result, national community degenerates into a multitude of contending blocs, sharing no vision of the common good and no will to promote it. And even these blocs themselves are unstable and shifting, since their unity arises solely from their members’ coincidence of interests, and interests can and do change from time to time. In this way, the abuse of freedom and the denial of objective truth weaken and eventually destroy community.

c) Faith benefits a nation by developing and strengthening community. Just as a nation is harmed by its citizens’ denial of a transcendent source of meaning and value, so it is benefited by their obedience of faith, which recognizes and submits to the full truth about humankind’s condition, dignity, and possibilities.9 The truth of Catholic faith includes a sound morality, and sound morality har~monizes and integrates various interests in forms of cooperation which realize true community. Love of neighbor demands justice and mercy toward others, and justice and mercy toward compatriots bring about the solidarity of community.

Most sorts of differences within any nation are desirable, inasmuch as they enrich the community with their complementary contributions. So-called pluralism, however, is desirable only insofar as it leads to genuine dialogue which moves toward unity in truth. Considered in itself, ongoing division about ultimates does not express complementarity and is not good for community; it is only tolerable at best. The historical examples of Nazism and Leninism make it clear how a false ideology can be a serious threat to a community’s human well-being. The same thing is true in general, since beliefs do have practical consequences: if part of a community is dedicated to a more or less false world view and way of life, whether religious or not, the error will threaten the well-being not only of that part but of the community as a whole. Consequently, precisely insofar as they love their country, Catholics should strive by witness, honest dialogue, and prayer to win all their compatriots to the faith.

But, someone might object, does that not violate religious liberty, as taught by Vatican II, and entangle church and state to the detriment of both? By no means. Religious liberty is immunity from coercion in matters religious (see DH 2); its point is to allow people to seek religious truth and freely embrace it (see DH 3). Hence, far from violating religious liberty, noncoercive efforts to share one’s faith with others appropriately exercise that right (see DH 5, 14). As for the concern about church-state entanglement: while history shows that it is dangerous for the Church and political society to become officially or institutionally involved in each other’s affairs, that is not in question here. The point, rather, is that Catholics should use nonpolitical means to share their faith with their compatriots.

6. Patriotic Catholics Should Promote the Common Good in Other Ways

Besides working for their compatriots’ conversion to the true faith, patriotic Catholics should work in other nonpolitical ways to promote not only public morality, which includes social justice, but community solidarity and their nation’s self-respect and honor.

a) One should foster virtue in one’s nation. In liberal democratic societies, prevailing conceptions of liberty and disagreements among different segments of the community about various moral issues severely limit what government can do to enforce public morality, even insofar as it includes unpopular requirements of social justice. For this reason, it is especially important that upright members of the community fully use all the nonpolitical means available to them for fostering virtue. Individuals and families can do certain things by themselves, and they also can and should form or join appropriate organizations and movements. This kind of nonpolitical work for the common good becomes all the more necessary when a government makes bad laws and pursues morally unsound policies.

In any community, good example and sound admonition, manifesting moral truth and love of neighbor, are the most basic and powerful means of fostering virtue. Even large and diverse communities can be inspired by the stories of saints and heroes who provide relevant models, and upright people not only should give their own good example but should discern other models and do their best to make them known. Not everyone can be a Malcolm Muggeridge telling the world about a Mother Teresa, for most people do not have the gifts required to work professionally in the media of communication, the arts, and education. However, many Catholics can make some small contribution in such sensitive and culturally influential fields, and the cumulative impact of their modest contributions will be very important.

Even if Catholics do not use publicly financed schools, they should take an interest in the educational policies, programs, and personnel of these schools; they should work with other like-minded people and groups to support what is morally sound in both course content and the educational process, and to oppose moral relativism and decadence.

While wholesome entertainment should be praised and supported, Catholics should criticize immoral entertainment by sound standards. This always can be done by communications to editors or managers of the media and sometimes by directly contributing to the content of media, for example, by letters to editors and telephone calls to radio and television programs which accept and broadcast expressions of opinion by listeners and viewers. Organizations working against abuses such as pornography often deserve support, and organized boycotts and other methods of exerting pressure sometimes are appropriate.

Similar methods often can and should be used to promote social responsibility on the part of enterprises which pursue their private interests without regard to the common good by mistreating employees or customers, polluting the environment, and so on. The work of many people in defense of the lives of the unborn provides an example of what can be done, when necessary, to protect and promote essential elements of social justice by nonpolitical means, such as the dissemination of information, public demonstrations, and so on.

b) One should work for local and national solidarity. Patriotism and its analogues toward local community reinforce many responsibilities in strict justice or in mercy, insofar as their conscientious fulfillment, required on other grounds, also is demanded by the common good.

By impeding the full participation of some members in the community’s cooperation, unjust discrimination against any class, region, racial or ethnic group, religious minority, or the like harms not only the individuals directly wronged but the common good. Instead of sharing in, condoning, or tolerating such injustice, a person should consider it a patriotic duty to work to surmount unreasonable lines of division in order to promote collaboration for the common good.

Similarly, as a member of any voluntary association—business, educational institution, professional group, trade union, or the like—a person should do everything he or she rightly can to cause the association’s actions and policies to conform to the Golden Rule. Certainly, that will mean resisting any tendency for the group to engage in irresponsible pursuit of its narrow interests, for this is detrimental to the legitimate interests of other segments of the community, and thereby damaging to the common good. Of course, even a group organized precisely to promote some special interest can serve the common good, provided it represents and pursues its members’ point of view and interest in an honest and fair-minded way, consonant with wider social harmony and with due regard for the particular interests of other segments of the community.

Many nonpolitical community activities contribute in different ways to a local region’s or a country’s solidarity and sense of identity. These include community charities, historical associations, museums, cultural centers and groups, sports teams, fairs, celebrations, and so on. People should appropriately participate in and support such community activities, since each can help in its own way to build up community. For example, spectator sports not only harmlessly entertain many people but provide an object of common interest and enjoyment for individuals and families who differ in many ways, and so significantly contribute to each local community’s and country’s regional and national spirit, which in turn facilitates cooperation in more important matters; hence, the amateur and professional athletes and teams representing cities or nations deserve some support, even if professional athletes and team owners are more interested in personal status and/or profit than in the common good.

c) One should protect the honor of one’s local community and nation. While not boasting about one’s community and being ready to give and accept constructive criticism of it, one should not slander it and should be prepared to defend it against lies and mistaken opinions. When dealing with outsiders and visiting other communities, people should bear in mind that their behavior is likely to be taken as representative, and so should avoid verifying negative stereotypes—the ugly American whose blatant consumerism offends the poor of other nations, the snobbish Parisian who thinks culture ends at the peripheral highway, and so on.

1. This statement about the object of patriotism is not intended to beg political questions. Conflicts often arise over how to identify and delimit the larger community, and wars are fought over the issue of which of two or more communities of different scope will control the political organization of a region. In such cases, what proponents of the claims of the larger community regard as a nation is considered by proponents of the claims of the smaller community to be an imperialistic imposition or, at best, a confederation of nations, each of which is or should be self-governing.

2. A sound and helpful scholarly work on the matters treated in this question as a whole: John J. Wright, National Patriotism in Papal Teaching (Westminster, Md.: Newman Press, 1956). The study was Cardinal Wright’s dissertation for the S.T.D. at the Gregorian University in Rome; completed in 1939, it treats papal teaching from Leo XIII through Pius XI.

3. Leo XIII, Sapientiae Christianae, ASS 22 (1889–90) 387, PE, 111.5.

4. Leo XIII, Au milieu des sollicitudes, ASS 24 (1891–92) 519, PE, 119.3.

5. Pius XII, Summi Pontificatus, AAS 31 (1939) 430, PE, 222.49.

6. See Pius XI, Caritate Christi compulsi, AAS 24 (1932) 179–80, PE, 213.4.

7. See Wright, National Patriotism in Papal Teachings, 93–139, for many references to the teaching of the popes from Leo XIII to Pius XI articulating and explaining this patriotic responsibility.

8. John Paul II, Centesimus annus, 44, AAS 83 (1991) 848–49, OR, 6 May 1991, 13, teaches: “If there is no transcendent truth, in obedience to which man achieves his full identity, then there is no sure principle for guaranteeing just relations between people. Their self-interest as a class, group or nation would inevitably set them in opposition to one another. If one does not acknowledge transcendent truth, then the force of power takes over, and each person tends to make full use of the means at his disposal in order to impose his own interests or his own opinion, with no regard for the rights of others.”

9. See Pius XI, Mit brennender Sorge, AAS 29 (1937) 158–59, PE, 218.29. Though Pius responded in this 1937 encyclical to the challenge Nazi ideology presented to Catholics, his analysis is applicable with little adaptation to the impact of secular humanism on liberal democratic societies at the end of the twentieth century.