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Robert W. McElroyJanuary 24, 2017

A powerful nationalism surges through our country. It points to the feelings of dispossession that have been abroad in our land. It hints of past betrayal. It calls forth sentiments of heartfelt patriotism rooted in the historic legacy of the American experiment in freedom and democracy. It signals a nostalgia for the past and searches for renewed greatness in our nation.

As a new administration and Congress begin, the merger of populism and nationalism at work in the cultural and political currents of the United States compels us to explore deeply the nature of both nationalism and patriotism and to evaluate them in the light of our identity as disciples of Jesus Christ.

In Catholic social teaching, the love of country is a virtue. The Compendium of the Social Teaching of the Church states clearly that “the principle of solidarity requires that men and women of our day cultivate a greater awareness that they are debtors of the society of which they have become a part.” And in his moving message to the people of Poland entitled “My Beloved Countrymen,” Pope John Paul II spoke of true patriotism amid the cauldron of oppression and upheaval: “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.”

But if love of country is a virtue and a moral obligation, the nationalistic impulse itself has no moral identity. It can signal the most virtuous patriotism that integrates the love of country into the spectrum of moral obligations that accrue to our humanity, or it can be rooted in pride, isolationism and discrimination.

There are three questions the United States must wrestle with in the coming months in order to insure that the nationalist impulse so prominent in our society today produces a substantive patriotism that is morally sound and unitive for our country.

But if love of country is a virtue and a moral obligation, the nationalistic impulse itself has no moral identity.

Who Are “We the People?”

The first of these questions is: Who are “the people” in the United States? Populist movements in American history, and in this most recent election cycle, have raised important and substantial claims of injustice against oppression by elites in economic, political, juridical and cultural life. They have brought to the fore the need for democratic reforms that have empowered the citizenry of the United States in enormously beneficial ways. But frequently populist nationalism has targeted specific marginalized groups in American society—the Irish, blacks, Southern Europeans, Jews, immigrants and the poor. As a consequence, populist nationalism has often been exclusionary and nativist, carrying with it claims that “the people” are really only some of the people who live within the United States.

The recent election campaign was deeply marred by exclusionary rhetoric and proposals that have driven deep wedges into our culture and raised the specter of imposing exclusionary government policies that target specific groups on the margins of our society. It is essential that this nativist element of the nationalist current in our culture, that does not represent a majority of Americans in either political party, be purged from the national debate in the coming months.

In its place, the church teaches, must be the principle of solidarity, which “highlights in a particular way the intrinsic social nature of the human person, the equality of all in dignity and rights and the common path of individuals and peoples toward an ever more committed unity.” The well-being of our nation cannot be advanced by a search for unity rooted in exclusion. Rather we must seek to heal the cultural divide that is so detrimental to our country’s future by fostering a deep spirit of inclusion and put behind us the ideological and partisan tribalism that has brought us to this continuing national impasse on the most basic issues facing our nation. The Catholic sense of solidarity has been so absent in our nation during the past decade that we have lost our way. The first step to recovery is to rediscover the bonds that tie us all together as a people and to accentuate them in our society, culture and politics.

“Who are the people” in the United States? All of us.

Where Lies America’s Greatness?

The second question that America must confront is: What does greatness mean for the United States? Does this greatness revolve principally around questions of power, wealth and success? Or is the greatness we seek founded in the order of justice, freedom, truth and solidarity? In short, is it a material greatness or a greatness of the soul?

The question of American exceptionalism has long been a source of contention in historical and political debate. And this exceptionalism has been characterized in many different ways. But at this moment in our nation’s history the most important idea of exceptionalism that we might claim flows from the reality that we as a nation of immigrants are not tied together by connections of blood, but rather by the set of aspirations our founders set forth in 1776 and that they both succeeded in attaining and failed to attain. Thus patriotism for us as Americans is an aspiration renewed in every age by understanding the noble elements of our nation’s birth and the defects of its original vision. Our patriotism is not a foundation for pride but an ever-deepening challenge to ennoble our culture, society and government. As Pope Francis reminded us in his address to Congress, America’s greatness lies in the freedom proclaimed by Abraham Lincoln, the justice lived out by Dorothy Day, the poignant dream of racial equality articulated by Martin Luther King Jr. and the spiritual richness of Thomas Merton.

Such a greatness seeks to challenge every injustice in our midst—the reality that young black men fear for their security when facing law enforcement, the sense of dispossession felt by young white men without a college education; the specter of deportation for mothers and fathers and Dreamers and children in the millions, the fear that police face every day trying to protect society; discrimination against Muslims; the economic devastation of family life in the coal country of our nation.

Who are “the people” in the United States? All of us.

In the coming months there will be efforts from every part of the political spectrum to curtail this expansive vision of American greatness, to reduce it to something parochial, materialistic, divisive or superficial. But fidelity to the dreams and the failures of our founders, and, even more important, to the dignity of the human person and the common good demanded by our Catholic faith, must not allow us to ignore the fundamental reality that greatness for our nation is not a possession or power but an ever-challenging aspiration of the heart and soul.

Nationalism and the International Common Good

The final question our country must answer in relation to the nationalism coursing through our culture is whether that nationalism conceives itself as rooted in the interests of the United States alone, or whether it is connected on a fundamental level with our obligations to the whole of humanity. In surveying the effects of globalization on the world, Pope Benedict lamented, “as society becomes ever more globalized, it makes us neighbors but does not make us brothers.” What are the central bonds of brotherhood and sisterhood that the empirical reality of globalization thrusts upon the people of every nation as members of the human family?

The starting point for identifying the demands of the international common good lies in the pivotal affirmations of our faith that God is the father of the entire human family, that creation is a gift to every man and woman, that the stewardship of our planet belongs by right to all and that war is a massive failure of the entire human family.

Three Key Issue Areas

These teachings point to the obligation of every nation to integrate its policies and the pursuit of its national interests with the good of humanity as a whole, becoming, in the words of Pope Francis, “a community that sacrifices particular interests in order to share in justice and peace, its goods, its interests, its social life.” Parochial nationalism utterly rejects such an integration. Thus a central question for our nation, and especially for the Catholic community, is whether our nation’s actions in three key issue areas of foreign policy will be dictated by American self-interest alone or by American interest seen in the context of the international common good.

The first of these issue areas is the global economy. Speaking to the United Nations, Pope Francis was clear in describing the current economic realities of our world that all nations must sacrifice to change: “In effect, a selfish and boundless thirst for power and material prosperity leads both to the misuse of available natural resources and to the exclusion of the weak and the disadvantaged. Economic and social exclusion is a complete denial of human fraternity and a grave offense against human rights….” In the vision of economic life that the pope has so powerfully presented to the world, grotesque levels of inequality, unemployment, dire poverty and malnutrition constitute the wholesale violation of core elements of an authentic substantive global common good. They are compounded by the instrumentalization of the human person through globalized markets in human trafficking, the sexual exploitation of children, slave labor and the drug and weapons trades.

The second area of challenge between nationalism and Catholic social teaching centers on the global environment. In “Laudato Si’” Pope Francis sounds a fire bell to the world about the environmental crisis looming for our world in climate change, the deterioration of biodiversity and the loss of farmlands and water for the poorest peoples of the world. The pope is clear that the only pathway forward lies in international cooperation designed to confront the destructive trajectories that have been inflicted upon our common home by human choice. “An interdependent world not only makes us more conscious of the negative effects of certain lifestyles and models of production and consumption that affect us all; more important, it motivates us to ensure that solutions are proposed from a global perspective, and not simply to defend the interests of a few countries. Interdependence obliges us to think of one world with a common plan.”

The third major area of Catholic social teaching that conflicts with nationalism concerns the responsibility of all peoples for the refugees in the world. It was this responsibility that brought Pope Francis to the island of Lampedusa in the earliest days of his pontificate to remember in prayer those hundreds of refugees who had drowned seeking freedom from oppression and suffering. Recalling the story of Cain and Abel in the Book of Genesis, Francis declared: “God asks each one of us: Where is the blood of your brother that cries out to me?... Today no one in the world feels responsible for this; we have lost the sense of fraternal responsibility.” In a world that is confronting the largest refugee crisis in more than six decades, the nationalism surging through the United States categorically denies just that sense of responsibility for refugees that Francis underscores. This is what passes for nationalism in a country that has historically distinguished itself as being a haven for refugees.

The Task Ahead

The Catholic vote was pivotal in the 2016 election. Now the Catholic community must be pivotal in bringing the vision of the church’s social teaching into the dialogue that will unfold in the coming months. That dialogue is immensely enriched by the new acceptance within the presidency and the Congress of the right to life for the unborn. It must also be enriched by a rearticulation of what patriotism means for the citizens of our nation: a patriotism that recognizes that every member of our society constitutes equally “the people,” a patriotism that sees greatness not in power or wealth but as a moral and spiritual aspiration founded in justice, freedom and solidarity; and a patriotism that advances America’s aims in the world in a manner that enhances the dignity and integral human development of all peoples.

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Charles Erlinger
7 years 4 months ago

Thanks for this, even though it requires a lot of re-reading.

Chuck Kotlarz
7 years 4 months ago

An outstanding piece, thanks!

Yes, inclusion can strengthen society economically. Foreign-born individuals make up roughly one-third of the California’s population. California has the 7th largest economy in the world.

Only one thing can stop US inequality, taxes on the 0.1%. Three noted US billionaires, Gates, Soros and Buffet, supported Hillary Clinton. Clinton backed the Buffet rule calling for a minimum 30% income tax on the top 0.1% earners. Eight Americans now have a much wealth as the poorest three billion people on the planet.

China’s People’s Daily notes, "Western style democracy used to be a recognized power in history to drive social development. But now it has reached its limits. Democracy is already kidnapped by the capitalists and has become the weapon for capitalists to chase profits."


Stuart Meisenzahl
7 years 3 months ago

Be careful in your reference to Messers Gates, Soros and Buffet; they have arranged their affairs so that they take very little "earned or ordinary income "......they get dividends, and in Soros' case "carried interest"... none of which is taxed at ordinary income rates. Dividends are now taxed at roughly half the same amount as the as ordinary income on high amounts. Buffets famous comparison between his tax rate and his secretary's tax rate is totally distorted by this tax rate differential and the very very large salary she earns.
If these guys were so concerned with equality they would not have totally sheltered their wealth via Trusts on which no inheritance tax will ever be paid. Further most of their travel and a lot of their living expenses are paid either by these Trusts or is deductible business expense via their corporate entities.

Derrick Weiller
7 years 4 months ago

In this we find both The Word and The Path of Christianity.
Thank you.

john collins
7 years 4 months ago

"The nationalistic impulse itself" refers to that which is, a priori, charitable. If charitable, then moral. Whence comes it, then, for the Bishop to aver that this impulse itself "has no moral identity?"

Frank Bergen
7 years 4 months ago

Open letter to President, sent Jan. 25:
I am an American who has lived eight decades in acceptance of the message of the Statue of Liberty. As a lifelong New Yorker you are familiar with that message. And now you are in a position to embrace the message or to turn your back on it. Much of what you said during your campaign, and steps you appear ready to initiate now, are in contradiction of Berthold's statue and Lazarus' message.
As a descendant of immigrants I wrote to a fellow descendant urging restraint of your apparent fear of immigrants and refugees. Today it is just the people to whom you would prohibit entry into the country you want to make great again whose presence in our midst would help us to preserve the greatness which has endured generation after generation in large measure becaue of the contributions made by new Americans from every part of the world. One's native land or language or the color of one's skin or the name one uses when addressing one's Creator are not indicators of what will make that person an American. We are too big to make America small. We are too generous to make America selfish. Listen please, Mr. President, to our God imploring us to let God's people come to a land where they can be free and safe and we can be greater for their presence, their contributions.
Thank you, Mr. President.
Reverend Franklyn J. Bergen
Episcopal Church of St. Matthew
Tucson, Arizona

Luis Gutierrez
7 years 4 months ago

"America First" and "Make America Great Again" are just symptoms. Neoliberal capitalism is the disease, a cancerous growth that is destroying the entire community of creation, including human civilization. Socialism is a toxic chemotherapy that can fight the cancer but has many undesirable side effects, including the creation of a "new technocratic elite" and, when implemented in the most extreme form as communist socialism, also creates a police state as bad as or even worse than right-wing dictatorships. A new culture of solidarity and sustainability is the best alternative to foster social and ecological justice. An informed citizenship, and participative governance at all levels (local, national, global), is indispensable for such new culture to take shape and function for the common good. We need a mirror, not a wall. We must liberate ourselves from our inordinate attachment to a superfluous and wasteful life style driven by debt, irresponsible consumption, irresponsible parenthood, and selfish neglect of the poor and the planet we call home. All nations must overcome isolationism driven by fear. We all live in a planet inhabited by 7.5 billion people. We all live in the same "spaceship earth." Either we reconcile population and consumption with carrying capacity, or the future of our children and grandchildren is compromised. It is foolish to expect that political quick fixes and/or some miraculous technologies will resolve the ecological crisis. The ecological crisis is a human crisis, and must be resolved by collective social evolution from irresponsible procreation to responsible parenthood, from selfishness to solidarity, and from consumerism to sustainability. Quick and easy fixes are delusional. No pain, no gain.

David Backes
7 years 4 months ago

Luis, that was an excellent capsule summary. Thank you.

Jim MacGregor
7 years 4 months ago

Finally, a reasoned analysis of our situation. This article is like a breath of fresh air from the many one-sided views, with their hidden assumptions, that we have read from America lately.

Kevin Murray
7 years 4 months ago

We must allow the light of the Beatitudes, the light of Christ, to permeate every aspect of our lives - our personal lives and the life of our nation. America first in compassion, first in generosity, first in liberty for all - that's the destiny that would make our founding fathers proud. Thanks, Bishop McElroy, for this piece.

7 years 4 months ago

Unfortunately, Bishop McElroy's message was not that of the vast majority of Catholic prelates making up the USCCB during the campaign. As a result those other Bishops threw the election to Trump by avoiding to urge their flocks to measure the two candidates through the prism of Francis's message to be faithful to the Beatitudes. Surely, nothing in Trump's candidacy or personal life reflected any understanding of the beatitudes or the obligation of all of us to practice corporal works of mercy and participate fully in the fight for equal justice for all irrespective of race, color, creed, sexual orientation and country of origin. America has reported on the many instances of diocese's focusing solely on the Don't do abortion, contraception and same-sex marriage (Catholics of the Don'ts or CODs) but those same dioceses continuously ignored urging their flocks to commit to the Lord's commandment to Do all we can for our fellow persons. Measured by that yardstick Trump is "unchristian" as he was labeled by Pope Francis almost a year ago. However, the USCCB never endorsed our Pope's message to their flocks.

Kester Ratcliff
7 years 3 months ago

This is really good and I'm not disagreeing but only adding two things:

The first thing is that, as a European, we've seen this before. Europeans are much more wary of even patriotism because it is too close to nationalism, and 20,000,000 people (including in Russia) died because of populist nationalism in Europe last time around. Many Germans especially are, as the funny but really meaningful song goes, "proud of not being proud".

The second thing is, in Europe again, there is more history of Church teaching on extreme political movements and the doctrinal and moral errors implicated in them. In particular I recommend people actually read:

Mit Brennender Sorge, papal encyclical concerning the Nazis in 1937 but really about universal and essentially atemporal principles http://w2.vatican.va/content/pius-xi/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-xi_enc_14031937_mit-brennender-sorge.html read especially paragraphs 8-11 and 33:

I'm going to quote it at length because it's so good:

"8. Whoever exalts race, or the people, or the State, or a particular form of State, or the depositories of power, or any other fundamental value of the human community - however necessary and honorable be their function in worldly things - whoever raises these notions above their standard value and divinizes them to an idolatrous level, distorts and perverts an order of the world planned and created by God; he is far from the true faith in God and from the concept of life which that faith upholds.

9. Beware, Venerable Brethren, of that growing abuse, in speech as in writing, of the name of God as though it were a meaningless label, to be affixed to any creation, more or less arbitrary, of human speculation. Use your influence on the Faithful, that they refuse to yield to this aberration. Our God is the Personal God, supernatural, omnipotent, infinitely perfect, one in the Trinity of Persons, tri-personal in the unity of divine essence, the Creator of all existence. Lord, King and ultimate Consummator of the history of the world, who will not, and cannot, tolerate a rival God by His side.

10. This God, this Sovereign Master, has issued commandments whose value is independent of time and space, country and race. As God's sun shines on every human face so His law knows neither privilege nor exception. Rulers and subjects, crowned and uncrowned, rich and poor are equally subject to His word. From the fullness of the Creators' right there naturally arises the fullness of His right to be obeyed by individuals and communities, whoever they are. This obedience permeates all branches of activity in which moral values claim harmony with the law of God, and pervades all integration of the ever-changing laws of man into the immutable laws of God.

11. None but superficial minds could stumble into concepts of a national God, of a national religion; or attempt to lock within the frontiers of a single people, within the narrow limits of a single race, God, the Creator of the universe, King and Legislator of all nations before whose immensity they are "as a drop of a bucket" (Isaiah xI, 15)."

"33. Thousands of voices ring into your ears a Gospel which has not been revealed by the Father of Heaven. Thousands of pens are wielded in the service of a Christianity, which is not of Christ. Press and wireless daily force on you productions hostile to the Faith and to the Church, impudently aggressive against whatever you should hold venerable and sacred. Many of you, clinging to your Faith and to your Church, as a result of your affiliation with religious associations guaranteed by the concordat, have often to face the tragic trial of seeing your loyalty to your country misunderstood, suspected, or even denied, and of being hurt in your professional and social life. We are well aware that there is many a humble soldier of Christ in your ranks, who with torn feelings, but a determined heart, accepts his fate, finding his one consolation in the thought of suffering insults for the name of Jesus (Acts v. 41). Today, as We see you threatened with new dangers and new molestations, We say to you: If any one should preach to you a Gospel other than the one you received on the knees of a pious mother, from the lips of a believing father, or through teaching faithful to God and His Church, "let him be anathema" (Gal. i. 9)."

Decree against the doctrine of communism, 1949
Again, the principles expressed are not only particularly relevant to communism. It explains the responsibilities of Catholics not to participate in political movements which contain implicitly doctrines and morals fundamentally incompatible and antithetical to the Gospel, and the spiritual consequences if we do so.

Decrees of excommunication of Charles Maurras and prohibition of the periodical L’Action française, 1929
The relevant comparison is that the political party Action Française was misusing association with the Church and symbols of Christian faith for ends completely and utterly opposite to the ends of the Gospel. They were also at least proto-fascists, altho they may not at that point have developed to the paligenetic or revanchist stage of ultra-nationalism.

Lisa Weber
7 years 3 months ago

That the Catholic vote was pivotal in the election is a matter of shame for the Church. I find the concern of the bishops for refugees and the earth to be cheap words after helping to elect a man who was clearly a bigot and climate change denier during the campaign. The larger social issue of nationalism is concerning, but reinforcing it by supporting a bad candidate was not helpful.

Michael Barberi
7 years 3 months ago

Thank you Bishop McElroy for these important thoughts for reflection. Until all Americans and their elected officials can agree on the moral and spiritual principles that will guide our Ship of State through the storms of reality, we will continue to be poisoned by polarization, disrespectful language, exaggerated and demeaning accusations, rigid and inflexible positions and miss the opportunities that will bring a greater good to all Americans and our neighbors in need..

Unfortunately, what we are witnessing today are extreme positions and in some cases hatred. People on both sides of the aisle rarely compromise because "every issue" becomes a moral principle that each side will never violate. It is time to stop the finger-pointing and extreme rhetoric and start to implement domestic and foreign policies that will benefit, within reason, all Americans and our good neighbors. Unfortunately, both sides believe they are right. Let us pray that God will send us all the gifts of virtue and right reason.

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