Clarifying the Virtues and Limits of Nationalism

Yoram Hazony’s recent book The Virtue of Nationalism, reopens an important debate about the virtues and dangers of nationalism. Contrary to those who see nationalism as a dangerous force leading to violence and intolerance, Hazony believes that nationalism “is a principled standpoint that regards the world as governed best when nations are able to chart their own independent course, cultivating their own traditions and pursuing their own interests without interference.”[1] Hazony signals agreement with John Stuart Mill’s notion that, “It is in general a necessary condition of free institutions that the boundaries of government should coincide in the main with those of nationalities.”[2] Political cohesion is “rare in arbitrarily assembled human populations,” claims Hazony, and it can usually only be found in “families, tribes and nations that share a distinctive cultural inheritance and a history of joint action in the face of adversity.”[3]   

Hazony is critical of those who try to impose “universalist” moral claims on a nation, whether they are what he calls “universalists of the old school,”—Christian, Muslim, or Marxist—or “the new liberal universalists.”[4] A substantial portion of the first section of Hazony’s book is dedicated to a criticism of what he frequently calls the “universal Catholic empire” or the “medieval Catholic empire.” Hazony contrasts the “imperialist” designs he imputes to this “universal Catholic empire” of the Middle Ages with what he calls “the “Protestant construction,” characterized by “the right of national self-determination” and a “moral minimum required for legitimate government” determined by the prohibitions of the Ten Commandments.”[5]

I do not intend, here, to undertake a critique of Hazony’s book or its thesis. If, however, prompted by Hazony’s provocative thesis, we ask whether nationalism and national sovereignty are threats to be feared or principles that protect our freedom, the answer is that much depends on what one means by “the nation” and “nationalism.” One problem is that it is not always clear what various parties are arguing for or against when they use the term “nationalism.”

Confusing the Nation and the State

Are the terms “Nation” and the “State” synonymous? Can one defend the Nation and oppose the State? In Poland, it is commonly said that Pope John Paul II “defended the Nation against the State.” Did the nationalism of the German nation, the French nation, and the Russian nation cause the First World War, as is often claimed? Or was it a certain attitude of the governments of those nations? Is “nationalism” dangerous or is it States that are (or can be) dangerous? Is the danger not “nationalism” per se but “statism”? If so, what kind of State is guilty of “statism”? Can one have a nation-state which is not “nationalist”? Can the State be anti-nationalist?

Or consider the following two statements from Hazony’s book: (1) “We should permit each nation to determine for itself what constitutes a legitimate rule, a legitimate church, and appropriate laws and liberties.”[6] And (2) “Nations have the right of self-determination, meaning the right to govern themselves under their own national constitutions and churches without interference from foreign powers.”[7] Would these statements be essentially the same if we substituted the word “State” or “States” for “Nation” or “Nations”? Would it be possible, for example, to argue that although each Nation has certain rights from non-interference, these rights of non-interference do not necessarily apply to a particular government?

Consider the sad state of affairs described by Ashraf Ghani in his 2009 book Fixing Failed States that takes place each year in New York City when the leaders of the world’s countries make their way in September from expensive hotels across the city to the opening ceremony of the General Assembly of the United Nations. Afterward, says Ghani, “there are the numerous parties and banquets,” all of them lavish and expensive. Wouldn’t the money be better spent on the poor? he wonders. Certainly. And yet, the weaker and more distressed states depend more heavily on these “conspicuous rituals of sovereignty” because “[t]he rites of September bestow legitimacy and authority on these leaders, at least in principle, to the extent that the United Nations, IMF, and World Bank treat the national government of every state in the world as the sovereign representative of its people. . .” even though many of these State officials represent their people only in name. These “rituals of state sovereignty” Ghani says, bestow on these leaders “the crucial power to enter into agreements, receive funding for development projects, borrow money from private banks, and … enter into treaties that commit their people to legally binding obligations. . .”[8] “Thanks to the doctrine of ‘noninterference in the internal affairs’ of sovereign states,” Ghani complains, “government officials have great latitude to plunder state coffers and turn their nation’s resources into privately held assets.”[9] Is this the sort of “nationalism” anyone would want to defend?

What attitude should the Catholic Church take toward all of this—not only toward the question of whether “nationalism” is a deleterious force in international affairs, but also toward Hazony’s assertion that each Nation has the right “to determine for itself what constitutes a legitimate rule, a legitimate church, and appropriate laws and liberties,”[10] and the right “to govern themselves under their own national constitutions and churches without interference from foreign powers” (emphasis added).[11] Is the Catholic Church a foreign power that threatens the rightful autonomy of national churches? And if so, what should be the proper relationship between the Nation and the Church and/or the Church and the State?

The Lasting Value of the Thought of Jacques Maritain

Although there are many sophisticated treatments of these issues, I propose taking as our guide insights from one of the leading Catholic intellectual figures of the twentieth century: French philosopher Jacques Maritain. Maritain’s writings, especially on social and political thought, had a widespread influence both in Catholic circles and outside the Church. His 1951 book Man and the State offers a clear, fairly simple, and useful way of distinguishing between the Nation, the State, and the Body Politic.[12]

Although the primary goal of what follows is to clarify the terms of the debate over nationalism, the thesis is that States (be they monarchies, oligarchies, or democracies) should never consider themselves to be sovereign in the sense that they are autonomous from the moral claims of the natural law. While individuals cannot in all cases assert their independent moral judgments against the judgments of the State, lest chaos ensue, the State must always remain open to a moral critique of its policies and practices based on the principles of the natural law because it is ultimately a moral entity depending upon the moral commitment of its citizens. When the State is guided by the fundamental moral principles which, according to centuries of reflection, transcend the authority of any particular State, these principles, I argue, ultimately provide a more secure foundation for state authority than demanding obedience to laws understood as the commands of a sovereign accepted due to fear of sanction.[13]

The Nation

Maritain defines the “Nation” in the following terms:

The word Nation originates from the Latin nasci, that is, from the notion of birth, but the nation is not something biological, like the Race. It is something ethico-social: a human community based on the fact of birth and lineage, yet with all the moral connotations of those terms: birth to the life of reason and the activities of civilization, lineage in familial traditions, social and juridical formation, cultural heritage, common conceptions and manners, historical recollections, sufferings, claims, hopes, prejudices, and resentments.[14]

Maritain’s description of the Nation here bears some resemblance to Yoram Hazony’s cohesive nationalism in which the mutual loyalty of families, clans, and tribes are cemented by “long years of shared hardship and success.”[15]

Maritain, however, asserts the importance of not confusing the “Nation” with the “State.” When that happens, says Maritain, we often find the State “trying to enforce the tribal and regional characteristics of the Nation by means of the centralized government.” This will eventually cause the State to lose its “sense of the objective order of justice and law” in favor of “what is peculiar to tribal as well as to feudal community achievements.”[16]

Consider the case of foreign immigration. Immigration can challenge the social character of the Nation (in Maritain’s sense). And yet, depending upon the circumstances, immigration need not diminish either the stability or virtue of the Political Society as a whole. It may even be a great benefit. Immigration is frequently resisted at first precisely because it appears to challenge the traditional character and cultural heritage of the Nation. And yet, immigrant citizens can be an incalculable benefit to the Political Society both in terms of economic energy and creativity and because of the characteristic virtues they often bring.

By the same token, the distinctive cultural heritage of “the Nation” is important, and modern liberal theorists who dismiss such local, regional communities and cultures in favor of a more “globalized” world are likely, given the character of human attachments to what is local, regional, and familial, to provoke significant resentment from communities that have benefitted greatly from those communal attachments and whose definition of the “good life,” the “noble life,” includes service to just such local communal groups. The attempt to get such people to forget their local communities is like asking them to forget their mother. The response is likely to be akin to the one Socrates gave to Crito when he exhorted him to leave Athens instead of accepting his execution: “Did my family and community not bring me into existence? Did its laws and customs not regulate the marriage of my parents and my education as a child? Do I not, then, owe my life, my education, and much of what I am to that community?”[17]

Recall that Maritain spoke of the benefits of the Nation as the “birth to the life of reason and the activities of civilization, lineage in familial traditions, social and juridical formation, cultural heritage, common conceptions and manners, historical recollections, sufferings, claims, hopes, prejudices, and resentments.” Such a distinctive cultural heritage is important and valuable, and it is deeply human to wish to protect it as one would protect one’s own parents.

The Nation and Living Traditions      

One need not be a devoted “globalist,” merely a historian of one’s own culture, to recognize that “cultures” are always an amalgam and must be strong enough to face the inevitable challenges brought on by the changed circumstances of history. We might then say of the character of a Nation (as Maritain defines it) what Alasdair MacIntyre says about “tradition”: “Traditions, when vital, embody continuities of conflict.” A “living tradition,” on this view, is precisely one that asks itself repeatedly about its fundamental presuppositions. A living tradition is “an historically extended, socially embodied argument, an argument precisely in part about the goods which constitute that tradition.” Traditions must have a certain continuity with the past, for “all reasoning takes place within the context of some traditional mode of thought.” Thus any attempt to do away with the resources of a living tradition would be like cutting off the branch on which one is sitting. It would be to do away with the shared principles and standpoint that those within the community use to analyze arguments, even arguments critical of their tradition. And yet, if a tradition is a living tradition, interlocutors can and often will transcend “through criticism and invention the limitations of what had hitherto been reasoned in that tradition.”[18]

Purported “globalists” whose intention is to sweep away the customary and characteristic traditions and practices of local communities will not foster the kind of dialogue that can bring needed change, because such a dialogue in that culture generally presupposes the traditions, customs, and practices of that community. And yet, Nations and communities that resist or refuse this sort of self-critical dialogue entirely, thinking they are in this way “preserving the cultural heritage of the Nation,” are simply shoveling dirt on a dead tradition.

Hence it would be important to distinguish those challenges to the character of the Nation needed for the Nation to retain a living tradition from those attempting rather to set aside that conversation and those traditions entirely in order to replace them with another that would render that conversation one-sided and largely meaningless. A bad example would be cases where a government entity imports institutions and practices directed primarily to economic profit in order to replace the traditional practices of a culture dedicated, even above individual economic benefit, to the care and support of extended families. Rather than asking, “Do these new economic institutions and practices help us better care and support our extended families and, if so, how?” government and corporate spokespersons often avoid the troubling or inconvenient issue of extended families altogether by focusing sole attention on the greater individual economic benefits which might then be spent (if the individual chooses) on extended families. Often, little thought is given to how the dislocation brought on by these new economic institutions, as parents and children have to move to ensure employment, will affect the relationship which had hitherto been fundamental between the generations, from grandparents to children to grandchildren and between aunts, uncles, cousins, nieces, and nephews.

In one tradition, a job is something one does to support a family within the context of a certain community. In the other tradition, a “good job” is the goal, and a family is a choice one may or may not make, the dissolution of which need not affect one’s “career.” In the first case, jobs are a means to an end. Jobs come and go, whereas the progress of one’s family is the determining factor in the narrative of one’s life. In the second, family members, even spouses, may come and go, whereas the progress of one’s career is the determining factor in the narrative of one’s life.

A healthy tradition would support practices of a certain sort, but also a discussion about that tradition and those practices positing questions such as: What is the good of the family?

It may be, for example, that the traditions of “the Nation” have always expected that women stay at home. Indeed, the State may even have instituted policies to foster this result. A healthy tradition in MacIntyre’s terms would support a discussion precisely about what subsidiary practices and institutions continue to be needed to support the good of the family and which are now stifling that good. So too, a healthy tradition would provoke a discussion precisely about what the “good” of business is or should be, how we should understand that “good” in relation to other human goods, and how we should order them in order to achieve authentic flourishing.

The State

On Maritain’s account, the State and the Body Politic differ from each other “as a part differs from the whole.” “The Body Politic or the Political Society is the whole. The State is a part—the topmost part—of this whole.”[19] “The State is only that part of the Body Politic especially concerned with the maintenance of law, the promotion of the common welfare and public order, and the administration of public affairs. The State is a part which specializes in the interests of the whole.”[20] It has the broad perspective needed to direct the affairs of the different members of the Body Politic toward the common good.

But the State, insists Maritain, is neither a whole nor a subject of right. It is a part of the Body Politic and, as such, is inferior to the Body Politic, subordinate to it, and at the service of its common good. Although the State enjoys “topmost supervisory authority,” this authority is received “from the Body Politic, that is, from the people; it is not a natural right to supreme power which the State possesses of itself.” Nor is it an authority that can be granted by a foreign government or authority, such as the U.N. Legitimate authority can only be granted to the State by the Body Politic, says Maritain, and only for a determined amount of time.

In this regard, consider again the tragic situation that Ashraf Ghani describes in the United Nations where the “rituals of state sovereignty” bestow on leaders a certain legitimacy, despite the fact that many of these leaders represent their people only in name.[21]  

Maritain’s analysis reveals the source of the problem. We have taken a property appropriate to the Body Politic—namely, a rightful autonomy with respect to other bodies politic—and transferred it to the representatives of the State. Whether the leaders of “the State” are in fact legitimate representatives of the Body Politic is another question, one that justice demands we answer.

There are good reasons, therefore, for us not to mistake “the State” for the Body Politic, nor attribute a sovereignty to the State unrelated to its proper role. “When we say that the State is the superior part in the body politic,” says Maritain, “this means that it is superior to the other organs or collective parts of this body, but it does not mean that it is superior to the body politic itself.”[22] When the State mistakes itself “for the whole of the political society, and consequently takes upon itself the exercise of the functions and the performance of the tasks which normally pertain to the body politic and its various organs,” then, says Maritain, we have what is sometimes described as “the paternalistic State.” The State adopts not merely a supervisory function with a view to the common good, it begins “directly organizing, controlling, or managing” all forms of the life of the Body Politic, whether economic, commercial, industrial, or cultural.[23]

Ashraf Ghani, currently president of Afghanistan, describes one sort of “paternalistic state” in Fixing Failed States: Third World despots who extend their influence over more and more sectors of society to maintain their control. But another form, more characteristic of the Developed World, is the paternalistic welfare state. In both cases, the sovereign has convinced himself (or the elites of the ruling oligarchy have convinced themselves) that “the People” simply can’t be trusted to direct their own affairs, and so this assumption becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. As the people are more and more denied any legitimate avenues for self-rule, they have less and less ability to exercise autonomy apart from the paternalistic “care” of the State.

For this reason the State may or may not be eager to defend the traditional character of the Nation depending upon what those in control of the State believe will keep them in power or benefit their particular interests. So, for example, if replacing traditional family structures with corporate farming or manufacturing would enrich the State, and by this I mean the coffers of the central government, then they are likely to pursue it. One might consider, in this regard, the forced introduction of collectivized farming in the Soviet Union between 1927 and 1933 or compulsory villagization in rural Tanzania in the 1960s and 70s.[24] In these instances, the State was not attempting to preserve the traditional character of the Nation, but to remake it by using the coercive power of the State to make traditional practices illegal.

The Will of “the People"

Why not insist, then, that the People are or should be sovereign? We could, but it’s important to notice that we rarely do. Rather we call governments “sovereign,” not people, which is why the representatives even of the despotic governments of failed states are treated with honor by fellow dignitaries from around the world at the U.N. and elsewhere.

But there are additional problems. How, for example, is the sovereign “will of the People” to be determined? One answer is: by a simple vote of the majority (51%). And yet, we know that the will of majority can be detrimental to the rights of the minority, the other 49%. The stakes here can be especially high since, as Maritain rightly warns, commenting on Rousseau’s notion of the General Will, the “will of the People” is not merely a simple majority—indeed, it may not be a majority at all. It is, rather, says Maritain, “a monadic, superior, and indivisible Will” supposedly emanating “from the people as one single unit, and which is ‘always right.’”[25]

Politicians play this game all the time: posing as the voice of “the People.” “The American people are tired of these high taxes,” says one politician. “The American people want us to take care of the uninsured,” says another. Who speaks for “the People”? And in what sense is the sovereign will of the People theirs, and not that of some self-designated spokesperson? Who is authorized to express the General Will?

Rousseau held that “each citizen should be in perfect independence of the others, and excessively dependent on the State . . . For it is only the power of the State which makes the freedom of its members.”[26] And so, “It was held as a self-evident principle, at the time of the French Revolution, that the Sovereignty of the people,—absolute, monadic, transcendent as every Sovereignty—excluded the possibility of any particular bodies or organizations of citizens enjoying in the State any kind of autonomy.”[27]

And yet, it was precisely the presence of such “partial societies” in early America—what are sometimes called “intermediary associations”—for which the French political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville praised the young republic in Democracy in America, arguing that:

The more [the government] stands in the place of associations, the more will individuals, losing the notion of combining together, require its assistance: …. No sooner does a government attempt to go beyond its political sphere and to enter upon this new track than it exercises, even unintentionally, an insupportable tyranny.[28]

The problem with the claim by those who have power in the State that they are merely exercizing the “sovereign will of the People” has often been, as history has repeatedly shown, that once a person or committee or court has presented itself as speaking on behalf of “the People,” then others who might wish to disagree are then taken to be “enemies of the People. Voices contrary to those authorized to express the General Will cannot be allowed to intrude, lest (A) the “will of the People” be frustrated, and (B) the People’s confidence in that political body to act as the authentic spokesperson of its will be undermined.

One such example of a political body trying to eliminate opposition to one of its most controversial decisions by essentially claiming for itself the authority to express “the will of the People” can be found in the 1992 US Supreme Court decision in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which upheld the Court’s earlier decisions ensuring unlimited access to abortion in the United States. In his majority opinion, Justice Kennedy wrote that “the American people’s belief in themselves as a people dedicated to the rule of law cannot be separated from their understanding of the Supreme Court as being invested with the authority to decide their constitutional cases and speak before all others for their constitutional ideals.” On this view, if disagreements with the Court’s sovereign decision on abortion were allowed to undermine the People’s confidence in the Court to act as the People’s authentic spokesperson (that is, to speak before all others in constitutional matters), then the rule of law itself would be undermined. The argument here is, I would suggest, essentially a Hobbesian one: individuals can disagree with a decision of the sovereign privately, but they must not undermine the public’s acceptance of the sovereign’s authority (whether the “sovereign authority” is that of an executive or a Supreme Court), because the order imposed by that sovereign is precisely what protects civic peace and stability from “the war of all against all.”

Notice, however, that in requiring people to put aside their moral reservations about abortion in favor of obedience to the Court (because otherwise they wouldn’t be showing themselves faithful to the “rule of law”), the Court didn’t address the damage done to respect for the rule of law by forcing citizens to obey laws they consider unjust and immoral. Nor do they address the crisis that occurs when a major moral issue such as this one is taken by a federal court out of the realm of meaningful deliberation within the Body Politic and reserved only to the judgment of five out of nine Supreme Court justices.

Just and Unjust Laws

But the “will of the people,” as Maritain argues, should also not be considered sovereign in “the vicious sense that whatever would please the people would have the force of law....” “A law is not made just,” says Maritain, “by the sole fact that it expresses the will of the people. An unjust law, even if it expresses the will of the people, is not law.”[29]

This, as we should remember, is what Martin Luther King, Jr., argued when he was told that the “will of the People” of the State of Alabama was not to allow a black man to enter the University of Alabama or that forced an elderly black woman like Rosa Parks to sit at the back of the bus. In that case, as in so many others, the “will of the People was simply another word for “the will of the People who matter,” whether it is people of the right color, the racially fit, or the educated elite and culturally sophisticated. But let’s presume for the moment, that it was also the will of “the majority” of people in the South.

When in the spring of 1963 King was jailed by the authorities in Birmingham, Alabama, for violating a court order that had prohibited him and others from holding a peaceful demonstration, he was criticized by a group of fellow Protestant pastors for violating the law at a time when they were exhorting those who dissented from the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education to obey the law, even if they found it distasteful. In reply, King penned in reply his famous “Letter from the Birmingham Jail” in which he suggested that his actions were in accord with laws higher than those of the state. “An unjust law,” wrote King, echoing Thomas Aquinas, “is a human law that is not rooted in the eternal and natural law.”

It is precisely the role of the State, as Maritain understood it, to correct such injustices, when one part or faction of the Body Politic (especially if it is the majority faction) is denying the basic human dignity of another part or denying them their just share in the common good. “Justice,” claims Maritain, echoing St. Thomas, “is a primary condition for the existence of the Body Politic.”[30]

So who has “sovereign” authority? If by “sovereign” authority, we mean “a right to an independence and a power which are supreme absolutely or transcendently,” an authority which answers only to itself and not to any higher authority, then not the Nation nor the State nor even “the People” should be considered “sovereign.” To his credit, even Yoram Hazony admits that “there are natural standards of legitimacy higher than the dictates of any particular government,” so “nations cannot rightly do whatever they please. They are always subject to judgment by God and man, and this necessarily makes government conditional.”[31] Similarly to his credit, Hazony admits that this moral principle is “in tension with” his other fundamental principle, “the principle of national freedom,” which “strengthens and protects the unique institutions, traditions, laws, and ideals of a given nation against the claim that they must be overturned in the name of doctrines being promoted by advocates of a universal church or empire.” “While the existence of a moral minimum is recognized,” says Hazony, “interpreting how this minimum will be expressed is taken to be a right of every independent nation, each approach the issue for a perspective rooted in its own historical circumstances, experience, and insight.”[32] But considering how many cases of State-sponsored, State-enforced injustice we perpetually encounter, it is hard to imagine that this moral minimum would always or for the most part be sufficient.

What Should Be The Role Of The Church? 

In Hazony’s book, he lauds the Treaty of Westphalia as an important factor that helped bring about the “new, Protestant construction” in the West and paved the way for the birth of a ring of independent national states on the Western rim of Europe”—England, the Netherlands, France, Switzerland, Sweden, and Denmark. It was in the Thirty Years’ War, claims Hazony, “that the concept of a universal Christian empire, which had held sway over the West’s political imagination for thirteen centuries was decisively defeated.[33]

This is not the place to discuss the ways in which this statement falsifies thirteen centuries of serious Christian political reflection. So let us recall instead that one of the main provisions of Westphalia was that all parties would recognize the Treaty of Augsburg of 1555 which fashioned the principle of cuius regio, eius religio, “whose region, his religion” so the religion of a region would be determined by the religion of the ruler. On this view, religion was understood to be part of the national character. Hazony seems fairly content with this view.

And yet there are many potential difficulties with this version of the “Protestant construction.” One traditional problem has always been how, on this view, religion can have the independence it needs from the demands of either the State or the Nation to provide the moral critique that is one of the roles necessary to its calling. Is the role of “religion” merely to foster the ends of the State or the Nation?

To be fair, Hazony does not suggest that the State should conscript religion to its own purposes. But it is not entirely clear how he intends to prevent this from happening. It is not clear how he envisions “the church” remaining sufficiently independent of the state. He seems more concerned with keeping the State free from the demands of a trans-national, “global” church, even though it has more often been the case that the State has attempted to manipulate local, national religious authorities and conscript them to its own purposes, whether it was in the service of foreign wars or a domestic policy agenda.

In an article in the journal First Things, Hazony argued that the state should uphold and honor “the biblical God and religious practices common to the nation.” “These are the centerpiece of the national heritage and indispensable for justice and public morals,” he wrote.[34] Later in the same article, under the heading “public religion,” he criticizes the view that “religious and national tradition” (which are interestingly intertwined here), which had earlier been the basis for a public understanding of justice and right, can be replaced in public discourse by universal reason itself.” The only “stable basis for national independence, justice, and public morals,” claims Hazony, “is a strong biblical tradition in government and public life.”

There is much with which one can agree in these statements, but the claims raise other, more difficult questions. What centuries of the “Protestant construction” have shown is that the Bible is far from being a self-interpreting document. Some have thought—wrongly—that the Bible was calling for the dispossession of the property of Jews due to their guilt as “Christ-killers.” Others have thought the Bible countenanced, even blessed, slavery. There are good reasons to conclude that these are unfounded conclusions based on inadequate or improper interpretations. But that did not make them any less popular, or dangerous, when they were being promoted.

The question is how are Biblical moral principles to be discerned and then applied, and by whom. If a church sees itself as an instrument of the State, an expression of the Nation, or even as the voice of the People, it often cannot make the kind of biblical-moral critique that may be needed of each group, depending upon the circumstances. When the Church sees itself as subservient to the State or the Nation, it is to this extent more difficult to find someone like Bishop von Galen of Münster who opposed Nazi policies in Germany from 1934 on or like Archbishop Rummel of New Orleans who in 1953 condemned members of his flock who refused to integrate the churches and schools in his archdiocese, an initiative vigorously opposed by the government and the majority of people in the State of Louisiana, including many of his fellow Christians and Catholics.

Just as the Church in earlier ages made itself an annoyance to the king by asking whether his sovereign will was in accord with the natural and divine laws, so now the Church is often considered a pest when it asks whether the General Will, the policies of the State, or the traditional structures of the Nation accord with the moral law. The response is usually that Catholics have no business questioning the sovereign authority of the State, Nation, and its people. But who has acted beyond their rightful authority: Catholics and others who speaks out against fundamental violations of justice and human dignity, or governments that consider their own judgments superior to the natural law?

The Church should not see itself as an imperial power. Indeed the Church herself has proclaimed that “the force which the Church can inject into the modern society of man consists in that faith and charity put into vital practice, not in any external dominion exercised by merely human means.”[35] And yet the Church’s faithfulness to its prophetic role to call the members and institutions of the society to a faithful adherence to the biblical-moral principles by which it should be governed often has caused it to be mistaken for one.[36]

 The Catholic Church, however, has repeatedly stated, most recently in Gaudium et Spes, that the task of prudently applying the general biblical-moral principles enunciated by the Church to the specific circumstances of each country properly belongs to the laity, the members of the Body Politic of that country.

Laymen should also know that it is generally the function of their well-formed Christian conscience to see that the divine law is inscribed in the life of the earthly city; from priests they may look for spiritual light and nourishment. Let the layman not imagine that his pastors are always such experts, that to every problem which arises, however complicated, they can readily give him a concrete solution, or even that such is their mission. Rather, enlightened by Christian wisdom and giving close attention to the teaching authority of the Church, let the layman take on his own distinctive role.[37]

Later in the same document, the Council warns Catholics to remember that “it happens rather frequently, and legitimately so, that with equal sincerity some of the faithful will disagree with others on a given matter” — that it to say, one group will envision one application of the moral principles which will differ from others. “Hence it is necessary,” insists the Council, “for people to remember that no one is allowed in the aforementioned situations to appropriate the Church's authority for his opinion.”[38]

Unfortunately, there are churchmen who, contrary to the teachings and admonitions of their Church, make the mistake of too eagerly entering into the political arena, siding with the specific agenda of one party over another, which is something they should refrain from doing unless there is a clear violation of the natural law, as in the case of slavery, the treatment of Jews in Germany, or abortion. What the Church has said is that, in most cases, the job of the clergy is to set out the basic moral principles and leave it to the laity to apply them prudently and to argue about what a prudent application of those principles would be. The Church would enter into the debate only to re-iterate the basic principles, to indicate problematic interpretations or to restrict clergy who are becoming too partisan or political.

And yet, who can remind citizens of the justice due to those who are not powerful or have status within the society? To critique the unjust policies of the State, the Nation, or the People? Who can insist that none of these groups stands beyond moral critique of its actions? What institution within the society is established in such a way that it can offer the kind of prophetic critique needed to keep the society in accord with the biblical-moral principles they would prefer to ignore or avoid?

It is one thing for a biblical-moral critique of this sort to come from other Nations or States. They have their own agendas, and they are open to the charges of hypocrisy or of attempting to enforce their own national character and rules on another nation. Hence what is needed, for a host of reasons, is a Church that has no specific State or National agenda or ambitions other than calling people to fidelity to these basic biblical-moral principles.

The role of the Catholic Church, therefore, in this context, is to provide a transnational, extra-national prophetic voice calling States, Nations, and Peoples to an ever-deeper engagement with and adherence to the fundamental norms of the natural law, especially as they have been revealed and expressed in the Ten Commandments. Although the particular application of these basic moral principles should be left to laypeople within specific nations, with Church teaching serving as a kind of “leaven” operating from below rather than as an external, “imperial” political authority operating from above—yet the Church as a global, “catholic” entity still has a role to play in:

  1. helping clarify the basic biblical-moral principles and distinguish them from fundamental misinterpretations of the biblical text and its commandments;
  2. constantly reminding people, politicians, and political leaders of their obligations, given these basic moral principles and furthering the high-level conversation needed to make these moral obligations a reality and not merely words on a page; and
  3. preventing local churches from becoming too attached to state or national interests or surrendering to the unwarranted and irrational prejudices of the majority.

To help prevent these misunderstandings, the Church should steadfastly refuse to be seen as or to operate merely like yet another multi-national NGO in a “globalized” world seeking to substitute itself for the proper authority of the State. Rather, the Church within each nation can and should strengthen the legitimate national pride of its citizens while always insisting that true love for the nation means insisting on a clear-eyed, honest critique of its moral failings. In this way, the Church, both as an institution internal to the nation, dedicated to the national well-being, and as a trans-national entity devoted to universal natural law principles that preserve human dignity and foster authentic human flourishing, can both temper the excesses of nationalism while fostering its legitimate and invaluable expressions.


[1] Yoram Hazony, The Virtue of Nationalism (New York: Basic Books, 2018), 3.

[2] Hazony, Nationalism, 236-237; quoting Mill, Utilitarianism, On Liberty, and Considerations on Representative Government, ed. Geraint Williams (London: Everyman, 1993), 394.

[3] See

[4] Ibid.

[5] Hazony, Nationalism, 24.

[6] Cf. Hazony, Nationalism, 25.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ashraf Ghani and Clare Lockhart, Fixing Failed States: A Framework for Rebuilding a Fractured World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), 17-18.

[9] Ghani, Failed States, 18.

[10] Cf. Hazony, Nationalism, 25.

[11] Ibid.

[12] References throughout will be to Jacques Maritain, Man and the State. (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 1998; orig. published by the University of Chicago Press, 1951).

[13] Cf. John Austin, Lectures on Jurisprudence, or The Philosophy of Positive Law, 2 vols., ed. R. Campbell, 4th edition, rev. (London: John Murray, 1879; reprint, Bristol: Thoemmes Press, 2002), esp. lecture 1.

[14] Maritain, 5.

[15] Hazony, 69.

[16] Maritain, 7.

[17] Cf. Crito, 50d-e.

[18] Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, 3rd ed. (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2007), 221-222.

[19] Maritain, 9.

[20] Maritain, 10.

[21] Cf. Ghani, Fixing Failed States, 17-18.

[22] Maritain, 13.

[23] Maritain, 21.

[24] For the details, see James C. Scott, Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1998), chs. 6 and 7.

[25] Maritain, 44; see also Rousseau, Social Contract, Bk 2, chs. 3 and 4.

[26] Maritain, 46, quoting Rousseau, Social Contract, Bk. 2, ch. 12.

[27] Maritain, 47.

[28] Tocqueville, Democracy in America, Bk. 2, ch. 5.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Hazony, Nationalism, 25.

[32] Hazony, Nationalism, 25-26.

[33] Hazony, Nationalism, 23.

[34] Hazony, “Conservative Democracy,” First Things (January 2019), online at 2019/01/conservative-democracy.

[35] The Second Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (Gaudium et Spes), 42.

[36] It is noteworthy in Prof. Hazony’s book that he never discusses the prophets specifically as an institution whose role is to call a wayward nation back to fidelity to the commandments. Hazony sees the prophets, rather, in terms of his overall thesis about the opposition between empire and nation-states. The “political aspiration of the prophets,” he says, “is not empire but a free and unified nation living in justice and peace amid other free nations” (Hazony, Nationalism, 18-19). Would it not be more accurate to say that the “political aspiration” of the prophets was to ensure that the Jewish nation remained faithful to the covenant and the commandments? Different prophets operated under different political regimes with which they often found themselves at odds. Other than this issue of faithfulness to the law and the covenant, the arrangement of the particular political regime under which the prophets labored does not seem to have concerned them overly much. It would be more than a little eccentric to claim that the primary message the prophets came to deliver Israel was that they should not succumb to the temptation of becoming an empire. Let us say very simply that the prophets did not as a group often suffer persecution from the Jewish authorities for resisting empire, but rather for insisting on reminding those authorities of the moral-biblical obligations they preferred to ignore.

[37] Gaudium et Spes, 42.

[38] Gaudium et Spes, 43. See also the discussion of “subsidiarity” in, for example, John Paul II, Centesimus Annos, 48 and the extended discussion of the role of the laity in Christifideles laici, esp. 42.

Featured Image: Barricade bei der Universität am 26ten Mai 1848 in Wien; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Randall B. Smith

Randall B. Smith is the Scanlan Endowed Professor of Moral Theology at the University of St. Thomas, Houston. He is the author of two books: Reading the Sermons of Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide and a forthcoming volume tentatively entitled Aquinas, Bonaventure, and the Pedagogy of Preaching and Prologues at the University of Paris.

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