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The Dead End of Catholic Nationalism

[This article is adapted from a panel discussion on Christian Nationalism at Freedom Fest in Memphis on July 14, 2023. The other panelists were Norman Horn, Kerry Baldwin, and Alex Bernardo of the Libertarian Christian Institute. ]

The specter of Christian nationalism—variously defined—has become one of the current bogeymen to the Left. “Christian nationalism on the rise,” reports National Public Radio, and The New Yorker asks “How Christian Is Christian Nationalism?” Some churches are even hosting workshops with names like “The Threat of White Christian Nationalism.” Note the insertion of the term “white.” An op-ed at The Salt Lake Tribune takes it a step further declaring at the US Supreme Court is now allied with “white male Christian nationalism” (emphasis added).

The lazy, imprecise way that Christian nationalism is usually defined—or not defined—allows Christian nationalism to be more or less whatever its critics want it to be. Thus, Christian nationalism can be a bookish pursuit of a consistent Christian political ideology on the one hand. Or it can be a half-baked populist movement with little more sophistication beyond flag waving and paeans to vague ideas of “American culture.” The diversity of Christian groups—with varying beliefs—makes it difficult to nail down critics when we want to know the precise details of who these Christian nationalists are, and what they believe. 

What Is Catholic Nationalism? 

This lack of any particular definition of Christian nationalism becomes all the more problematic when we try to get specific and search for a working definition of nationalism for any particular Christian group. This is certainly the case when we try to define Catholic nationalism. Indeed, when trying to define Catholic nationalism, we have an easier time determining what Catholic nationalism is not.

It cannot be any sort of racial or ethnic nationalism, as Catholicism is hardly synonymous—historically or philosophically—with any particular nation-state, national language, or ethnic group. The international nature of the Church is a sizable impediment to any Catholic claiming that “my nation” is objectively superior to—or even fundamentally separate from—any other. Moreover, there are no “national churches” in Catholicism, as we might find with the Russian Orthodox Church or the Church of England. As noted by Benedict Anderson in his book on nationalism, Imagined Communities, the historical Catholic view is that membership within the religious community trumps membership within any local tribal, ethnic, or linguistic group. In this view, when it comes to the truly important issues, a Catholic from New Mexico ought to regard himself as more closely connected to a Catholic in Nigeria than to an atheist in New York. Similarly, a Benedictine monk from Poland is more closely tied to “foreign” Benedictines than he is tied to his so-called “countrymen.” 

Nor does Catholic political ideology dictate any particular type of regime. Although many Catholic traditionalists might claim that monarchy is the only truly legitimate choice for a Catholic regime, this has never been borne out by historical realities. The republican governments of Venice, Genoa, and Florence (among many others) never made those societies somehow “un-Catholic.” 

Nor can it be said that Catholic nationalism is just about getting Catholics into positions of political authority. After all, the fact that John F. Kennedy was a baptized Catholic hardly made the US government a “Catholic regime.” Something similar might be said of the fact that several of the justices on the US Supreme Court are Catholics. 

If the idea of an explicitly Catholic American regime strikes us as an oddity, there is good reason for this. Catholics have never been a majority in the United States, and few would venture to say that American culture is especially Catholic by any measure. Indeed, American traditionalists, at least until recent decades, have been generally hostile to Catholicism. If a Catholic nationalist aspires to form a specifically Catholic-dominated culture or polity in the US, this would be a departure from traditional American culture, not a preservation of it. 

Catholic Quasi-Nationalism: Integralism

Given all this, how might we identify a Catholic nationalist or Catholic nationalism? It appears the closest we can get to something we might call Catholic nationalism is the system known as integralism. We find a definition of this at the integralist site The Josias. The editors write:

Catholic Integralism is a tradition of thought that, rejecting the liberal separation of politics from concern with the end of human life, holds that political rule must order man to his final goal. Since, however, man has both a temporal and an eternal end, integralism holds that there are two powers that rule him: a temporal power and a spiritual power. And since man’s temporal end is subordinated to his eternal end, the temporal power must be subordinated to the spiritual power.

Integralism is not nationalist in the strict sense in that it does not seek the protection or promotion of any particular national culture, language or ethnicity. Integralism is nationalist, however, in the sense that it seeks to strengthen the power of various national states in pursuit of a particular goal. (It is likely not a coincidence that integralism has been especially popular in recent centuries in France where the state model has historically been especially strong and especially old.) 

The general idea of integralism is nonetheless very old in the sense that, even in ancient times, many Catholics believed civil authorities ought to have an active role in defending and strengthening the Church. 

Many Church fathers, however, understood the peril that comes with a “partnership” between Church and civil authorities. Even after Theodosius I declared Christianity to be the state church of the empire in 380 AD, this left unanswered the sticky problem of which Christians would be favored at any given time. Initially, it was the Nicene Catholics, but various emperors would ally themselves with various Christian factions spelling the doom of whoever happened to be on the losing side. For example, in the seventh century, St. Maximus the Confessor and Pope St. Martin I were exiled for holding “incorrect” views, although their views were the orthodox ones by Church standards. Such reversals of fortune are hardly limited to the realm of religion, of course. They are common in military and partisan affairs of all types throughout history.  The point is that Christian groups are no more insulated from the capriciousness of civil government than is any other group. 

Having learned from his own exhaustive review of ancient history in City of God, St. Augustine was extremely skeptical of worldly princes as reliable allies. Augustine had declared unjust princes to be no better than pirates. He also concluded that even when worldly rulers can establish peace, such peace is nothing more than the naked “conquest of those who resist us” and only lasts so long as petulant civil rulers find the peace to their personal liking. In Augustine’s view, truly virtuous worldly rules are so rare that there is little security or value in tying Church power to civil authorities. After all, the civil government merely oversees the “City of Man” which is altogether separate from the City of God.” In fact, the very idea of using the state to accomplish Christian ends does not compute with Augustine. As John Milbank describes it

In Augustine, there is, disconcertingly, nothing recognizable as a “theory of Church and State”, no delineation of their respective natural spheres of operation. The civitas terrena is not regarded by him as a “state” in the modern sense of a sphere of sovereignty, preoccupied with the business of government. Instead this civitas, as Augustine finds it in the present, is the vestigial remains of an entire pagan mode of practice, stretching back to Babylon. There is no set of positive objectives that are its own peculiar business…

By the High Middle Ages, however, many Catholic theologians had become far more optimistic about the prospects for the existence of Christian polities—potentially ruled by virtuous princes—that serve the Church. This is perhaps why today we find that modern integralists are often disciples of St. Thomas Aquinas, trusting that natural reason can somehow be harnessed to create a just and reliable civil government in the integralist model. 

Why Integralism Fails

Experience, however, suggests that Augustine’s radical skepticism of civil authorities is the more accurate view. Rarely do we find civil governments that pursue the goals of Christian virtue beyond short periods of time or during the reigns of unusually virtuous rulers. In practice, integralism has usually worked in reverse, rather than as intended. That is, the integralist ideal is that the civil government will be subject to religious authorities, but it is usually the civil governments that dominate religious institutions. (The Papal States are notable, extremely rare exceptions.) Thus, attempts at integralism provide examples like the Spanish Inquisition which served primarily to strengthen the Spanish state and was under the monarch’s control. Or we might recall the Avignon popes who “reigned” under the thumbs of French monarchs. Rather than result in theocracy, as many critics of integralism claim is bound to happen, the usual result of the Church-state alliance is the opposite of theocracy: clerics become servants of the civil government. 

Ultimately, we might conclude that while integralism is not nationalist in theory, it is nationalist in practice: integralism ends with a strong national state pushing a specific social vision. Rarely are such polities subject to religious authorities, but the integralist may be fooled into thinking it is. In actuality, the integralist state is simply a state in which civil rulers—for a time—regard the Church as a convenient ally. Once the Church ceases to be so, however, the integralist state transforms into a state hostile to those it was once designed to protect.

Thus, integralism goes down the same road as Christian nationalists in general: these movements favor the creation of a strong state that will, sooner rather than later, turn on its creators.

[This article is adapted from a panel discussion on Christian Nationalism at Freedom Fest in Memphis on July 14, 2023. The other panelists were Norman Horn, Kerry Baldwin, and Alex Bernardo of the Libertarian Christian Institute. ]

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