Attacking Pope Francis, Far-Right Nationalists Reject Basic Catholic Principles

Attacking Pope Francis, Far-Right Nationalists Reject Basic Catholic Principles April 30, 2019

Anthony Crider; cropped by Beyond My Ken: Alt-right members preparing to enter Emancipation Park / Wikimedia Commons

The Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, in May 2019, will be having a plenary session on “Nation, State, and Nationhood,” examining the history and problems of nationalism, as their concept note explains:

The world is facing today a growing threat of nationalist revival. Exclusivist national ideology leads to mutual rejection and enduring conflicts. Yet humanity has learned from its history that nations can coexist, cooperate and prosper together when they put their potential in common.

Right-wing writers, like the disgraced Thomas D. Williams, who reject Catholic Social Teaching in regards nationalism, have no problem stirring up dissent against the Catholic Church and the Pope in order to promote their insidious nationalistic agenda. This follows the consistent push by radicals to promote nationalism to Catholics, such as found in the activities of Steve Bannon in his crusade against the Pope. They deceptively misrepresent and ignore fundamental teachings of the Catholic Church in order to suggest Pope Francis is radically altering Catholic teaching, with the intent to make people believe Pope Francis’s criticism against nationalism is something easily dismissed.

Historically, the Catholic Church has fought against such nationalism in many fronts.[1] The rise of modern nationalism can be seen in part as the result of the Reformation, where the Church’s guidance against nationalism was rejected. The brutal wars of the modern age demonstrated what such nationalism could and would bring about on the world stage, requiring Catholic Social Doctrine to reengage its criticism of nationalism, bringing to it critical tools that it did not possess in earlier times.  Yet, the central core of the Church’s criticism of nationalism has always been the same: humanity is one. Nationalism divides humanity apart, ignoring both the rights and responsibilities everyone possesses because of the innate dignity of the human person.

Thus, we can read many 20th century Popes speaking out against the danger of nationalism, trying to dispel the evil being promoted while acknowledging whatever truth was being distorted in order to promote such evil. That is, dangerous errors would not be so effective if they were obviously false; rather their danger lies in taking some small portion of the truth, exaggerating it, and using that exaggeration to ignore or reject anything which runs contrary to that exaggerated emphasis, such as the good which can be found in patriotism, as Pope Pius XI explained:

Patriotism – the stimulus of so many virtues and of so many noble acts of heroism when kept within the bounds of the law of Christ – becomes merely an occasion, an added incentive to grave injustice when true love of country is debased to the condition of an extreme nationalism, when we forget that all men are our brothers and members of the same great human family, that other nations have an equal right with us both to life and to prosperity, that it is never lawful nor even wise, to dissociate morality from the affairs of practical life, that, in the last analysis, it is “justice which exalteth a nation: but sin maketh nations miserable.” (Proverbs xiv, 34)[2]

Patriotism can be a positive good, but only when it is applied properly with the principles of justice including solidarity, just distribution of the goods of the earth, and the dignity of every human person. When patriotism ignores the unity of humanity and only promotes the good of a particular people, then patriotism itself becomes the tool of evil as such particularism rejects the common good.  Pope St. John XXXIII understood this problem with particularism, which is why he denounced priests who promoted it:

No Christian community anywhere will ever achieve unity with the Universal Church, from which emanates the supernatural life of Jesus Christ, if the local clergy and population succumb to the influence of a particularist spirit, if they arouse enmity in other nations, and if they are misled and perturbed by an ultra-nationalism which can destroy the spirit of universal charity—that charity upon which the Church of God is built and is called “Catholic.”[3]

Priests today, as well as Catholic media entities, who encourage or promote such a particularistic spirit, who reject the common good as they defend nationalistic ideologues, must be reminded that they go against the very spirit of Catholicism itself. If they want to be called Catholic, if they want to engage what is Catholic, they would be Catholic, they would look for and promote the universalistic spirit which seeks the common good in a spirit of solidarity with all peoples.

In recent times, we find more and more mixed communities, where people from different parts of the world come together to live together and share a common destiny together. Nationalists, of course, want to put a stop to this; they hate looking after and caring for others who are different from them. Yet, as Pope St. John Paul II pointed out, the new social situation is in accord with the principles of the Christian faith and actually gives Christians the opportunity to live out their faith by promoting social justice:

It hardly needs to be said that mixed cultural communities offer unique opportunities to deepen the gift of unity with other Christian Churches and ecclesial communities. Many of them in fact have worked within their own communities and with the Catholic Church to form societies in which the cultures of migrants and their special gifts are sincerely appreciated, and in which manifestations of racism, xenophobia and exaggerated nationalism are prophetically opposed.[4]

On the other hand, those who live off of hate, those who work against the common good, those who ignore the plight of their neighbor, or worse, those who find profit in the harm being done to others, promoting nationalism for the sake of personal gain, will be held responsible for what they have done, either in this life, or in the life to come, as Pope Francis warns:

Those, then, who reap economic benefits from the climate of distrusting the foreigner, whose irregular or illegal residence fosters and feeds the system of precariousness and exploitation — which at times reaches a level that gives rise to real forms of slavery — should make a profound examination of conscience in the knowledge that one day they will be held accountable before God for the choices they have made.[5]

Many of the far right, with their nationalism, promote fear and hatred over the other because of the benefits they think they receive from their actions. They find many people listening to them, giving them the attention they seek. They find themselves being called to speak and write by people with money and influence, receiving not only accolades for their hatemongering, but an increase in their own wealth and power. Whether or not they believe the words they state, it is clear they are stoking the fires of hate, and they are guilty of what happens as a result of their words. Currently, we see a  rising up of terroristic white nationalists causing great harm in the world; it will only get worse so long as such nationalism finds itself legitimated by those in power. Those who defend nationalism and reject the principles of social justice must be held responsible for their connection to such terrorists.

The Catholic answer, the Christian answer, has always been the same. Particularism is to be rejected. This is not to deny the good of each particular group, but rather that good should not be used to subvert the common good. There is one humanity, and it is the one common humanity which must be promoted, with love and respect for everyone within. When ideological distinctions arise to cut up that common humanity and subvert the common good, the Christian response must always be the same as with Jesus, to look for and restore the common good. Thus, not only was St. Peter told by God to welcome Gentile converts into the Christian faith (cf. Acts 10:9-16 34-38), he was rebuked by Paul when his nationalistic interests led him to ignore that common good (cf. Gal. 2:11-14).

“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28 RSV). We are all made one in Christ, the “New Adam,” the new humanity which must no longer base itself on a particularism which denigrates the common good. As partakers of that new humanity, we must promote solidarity, justice, charity, and love; where there is injustice, Christ and the Christian faith demands justice. Julianus Pomerius, in talking about justice, explains the Christian principle in which inaction in the face of injustice is injustice:

There are two kinds of injustice: one, whereby we inflict injuries; the other, whereby we neglect to avert those inflicted on others when we can. For in a certain sense we ourselves are oppressors when we scorn the downtrodden though we are able to defend them from oppression. Nor does it avail me anything that I do not circumvent or deceive a man if I permit him to be deceived or circumvented. [6]

We cannot ignore our duty to justice: by such inaction, we show ourselves to be unjust, and failing to meet Christ’s expectations. We are called to love our neighbor as ourselves. Indeed, as we are in this together, by working for and promoting the common good we find ourselves better off as well, as St. Basil understood: “He [God] wishes us to cling to our neighbors with embraces of charity like tendrils of a vine, and to rest upon them, so that keeping our desires always heavenward, we may, like certain climbing vines, reach the upmost heights of the loftiest teachings.”[7] When we find excuses to ignore some particular group, to ignore their needs or mistreat them, we will only find ourselves worse off as well. It is in this spirit, then, the Compendium of Social Doctrine states:

The Christian message offers a universal vision of the life of men and peoples on earth  that makes us realize the unity of the human family. This unity is not to be built on the force of arms, terror or abuse of power; rather, it is the result of that “supreme model of unity, which is a reflection of the intimate life of God, one God in three Persons, … what we Christians mean by the word ‘communion‘”; it is an achievement of the moral and cultural force of freedom. The Christian message has been decisive for making humanity understand that peoples tend to unite not only because of various forms of organization, politics, economic plans or in the name of an abstract ideological internationalism, but because they freely seek to cooperate, aware “that they are living members of the whole human family.”[8]

Right-wing nationalists, taking aim at Pope Francis, often like to have their followers think Pope Francis is instituting a new teaching into the Church, suggesting by such, that what he says against the rise of militant nationalism can be rejected. In doing so, they ignore the history of Catholic teaching, where the common bond of humanity is said to be paramount. In doing so, they promote heresy, a heresy which the Orthodox called Phyletism. Such heresy undermines the basic principles of the Catholic faith because it undermines the catholic or universal nature of the Church. Those who promote nationalism, therefore, attack the very foundation of the Church, and so must be given no authority within the Church itself.

[1] A key example of this is the Vatican’s fight against Gallicanism, which was a French nationalism that led many French Catholics to fight against Catholic principles for the sake of make France great and powerful.

[2] Pope Pius XI, Ubi Arcano Dei Consilio. Vatican Translation. ¶25.

[3] Pope St John XXIII, Princeps Pastorum. Vatican Translation, ¶26.

[4] St. John Paul II, Message for the 89th World Day of Migrants and Refugees 2003. ¶5.

[5] Pope Francis, “To the Participants at the World Conference on ‘Xenophobia, Racism and Populist Nationalism in Context of Global Migration.’” Sept 20, 2018.

[6] Julianus Pomerius, The Contemplative Life. Trans. Mary Josephine Suelzer, PhD (Westminster, MD: The Newman Bookshop, 1947), 149-50.

[7]  St. Basil the Great, “Hexaemeron” in Saint Basil: Exegetic Homilies. Trans. Agnes Clare Way, CDP (Washington, DC: CUA Press, 1963), 76.

[8] Compendium of Social Doctrine. Vatican Translation. ¶432.


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