Nationalism is not catholic.

Nationalism is not catholic. July 6, 2014

Yes, the lower case in this title is intended to make a point: while the same should follow in the “big-C” sense of “Catholic”, I want to make it clear that I am referring to a thing called catholicity – without which calling ourselves “Catholic” wouldn’t mean much.  It is a reminder for those of us in the United States who may have heard nods to Independence Day at Mass this weekend, almost as if it were part of the liturgy, that CATHOLIC (capitalized or not) means universal.  This is an ecclesiological truth much older than America, and one that leaves no room for exceptionalism of any kind, from anywhere, in the universal Church’s universal feast.

That ought to be clear enough from the liturgy itself, even if strains of the conventional “Pax Americana” hadn’t made for a particularly ironic juxtaposition with the first reading for this 14th Sunday in Ordinary Time, from the prophet Zechariah:

Thus says the LORD:
Rejoice heartily, O daughter Zion,
shout for joy, O daughter Jerusalem!
See, your king shall come to you;
a just savior is he,
meek, and riding on an ass,
on a colt, the foal of an ass.
He shall banish the chariot from Ephraim,
and the horse from Jerusalem;
the warrior’s bow shall be banished,
and he shall proclaim peace to the nations.
His dominion shall be from sea to sea,
and from the River to the ends of the earth.

Even more than the dovish overtones in this proclamation of the messianic reign, the line that really jumps out to me is, His dominion shall be from sea to sea, which calls to mind a well-known song lyric (from what is actually one of the more palatable patriotic songs in my opinion), except that it’s his dominion, eternally above any dominion any nation may claim.

The whole liturgy of Word and Eucharist can be seen as one big subversive confession of faith, or what I like to call a subversive orthodoxy, in the sense of giving the glory in the right place.  Around national holidays I cling to this orthodoxy for dear life, and sometimes when we get to statements like, For the kingdom, the power and the glory are yours, now and forever, I feel like shouting it.

Now, I’m not saying that Christian orthodoxy – or catholicity – doesn’t leave room for a healthy and modest love for one’s homeland.  But I do mean to caution that when our homeland is given a place of honor in the context of our worship, it calls into question who or what we are really worshipping.  And even when kept in their proper context, in order for expressions of that love to remain healthy and modest, as my colleague Matt has recently modeled, they must leave room for a few lover’s quarrels when necessary.  And they must also leave room for other people to say the same about other homelands, without contradiction.

For the above reasons (and because it could be sung in reference to any country, notwithstanding the scenery), the following antidote to the idol of national exceptionalism is the only text I can think of that might be called “patriotic” that could be appropriately sung in church (with two verses by Lloyd Stone and a splendidly Christocentric addition by Georgia Harkness):

This is my song, O God of all the nations,
a song of peace for lands afar and mine;
this is my home, the country where my heart is;
here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine:
but other hearts in other lands are beating
with hopes and dreams as true and high as mine.

My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean,
and sunlight beams on cloverleaf and pine;
but other lands have sunlight too, and clover,
and skies are everywhere as blue as mine:
O hear my song, thou God of all the nations,
a song of peace for their land and for mine.

This is my prayer, O Lord of all earth’s kingdoms:
Thy kingdom come; on earth thy will be done.
Let Christ be lifted up till all shall serve him,

and hearts united learn to live as one.
O hear my prayer, thou God of all the nations;
myself I give thee; let thy will be done.


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  • Magdalena

    Ah, the traditional Vox Nova peeing-upon-the-patriotic-holiday post. Who doesn’t love fireworks and a parade? The scowling, finger wagging scolds who take it upon themselves to represent authentic Christianity. That’s who.

    A truly parochial perspective which a trip to say, Poland, or Ireland, or Mexico could cure (a massive Mexican flag hangs at the Shrine of Guadalupe). Pretty much anywhere.

    It reminds me of when another VN poster floated the idea of eliminating military chaplains – you know, the ministry that has existed in the church for more than a thousand years.

    The reminder that our true home is elsewhere is a good one, but as usual as you write more at length the theological and spiritual pathology reveals itself. You freely admit this bitter sourness of yours wells up mostly around national holidays – basically, at the sight of others enjoying themselves.

    Too much of this joy – enjoyed too freely – causes an allergic reaction in you. This source of human happiness irritates you and must be stomped on (or at least shouted down. Somehow I don’t think that’s how Our Lord pictured the Our Father being used).

    The Church disagrees. The Church has no problem with Catholics unreservedly celebrating what is good about their country every once in awhile.

    Or rather – As Pope Francis has taught us, authentic Catholicism is all about attending birthday parties and making sure to remind everyone about all the crappy things the host has done over the course of his life, in case his friends happened to forget for one day of the year. That’s the Christian spirit.


    • Julia Smucker

      So “joy” means never criticizing anything that makes anyone feel good. Hmm…

      Seriously, neither I nor the Church have a problem with Catholics reservedly (that is, in humble measure) celebrating what is good about their countries (plural) every once in awhile. The problem is making any country an object of worship.

      But thanks for showing us all what a joyful spirit looks like.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Magdalena writes:

      A truly parochial perspective which a trip to say, Poland, or Ireland, or Mexico could cure (a massive Mexican flag hangs at the Shrine of Guadalupe). Pretty much anywhere.

      Catholicism is closely linked to national identity in several countries, including those that you list. In Mexico, in particular, there is a complex relationship between devotion to Nuestra Senora and Mexican nationalism, and it is not always a good one. Witness the twin cry from the Grito de Dolores on independence day: “Viva Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe! Muerto a lost Guachupines!” (Trans: “Long live our Lady of Guadalupe! Death to the Spanish oppressors!”)

      However, today the Church in Mexico tries to temper this nationalist, exclusivist streak: Nuestra Senora is the patroness of Mexico, and brought her message to its children, but she is mother of us all. With regards to the Mexican flag, if you scroll down in the following blog post

      you will find an image of the high altar; to the right is a long row of national flags. The picture is too blurry to distinguish them, but I suspect they are from all the nations of the Americas.

      It reminds me of when another VN poster floated the idea of eliminating military chaplains – you know, the ministry that has existed in the church for more than a thousand years.

      That might have been me, since I have elsewhere written in a scholarly journal about military chaplains:

      The problem is not with chaplains serving with military units, but rather a structure which insists that chaplains are military officers first and Catholic priests second.

      Patriotism is a complex thing for me. In my actions I am patriotic: I pay my taxes willingly, I have voted in every election for 30 years, I keep up with issues of importance and I know and speak with my local legislators. I have lobbied extensively for changes in the laws of my state. But the jingoism and consumerism (“love your country: buy a car this July 4”) that are a constant undercurrent are unsettling and off-putting and they make me introspective precisely at this time, when I am celebrating a national holiday. I suspect that the same is true for Matt and Julia as well, though I do not speak for them.

      So by all means, I hope you enjoyed your hot dogs and potato salad, the parade and the fireworks. But this morning, as we all go back to work, I also hope you will see that there is a tension between being an American and being Catholic, and which must prevail.

      • Magdalena

        Of course there’s tension. That’s not my point.

        My point is that Catholic Christianity is not about self-indulgent, self-referential angst. The idea that secular holidays (patriotic or otherwise) must be celebrated “in humble measure” is for instance a rule made up by Julia, not the Church. This post is about her own personal discomfort, not about Christian orthopraxy. The Fourth of July is a celebration of political independence and is morally neutral. She has a problem with it because of the baggage she brings to the party. Period.

        The hymn thing is another good example. We have extant the texts of patriotic hymns composed seven centuries before Christ. This is not a category invented by American wing-nuts, it’s part of the common human experience across time and culture.

        Perhaps the Shrine has altered its arrangement but when I saw it, it had one giant flag only (Mexican). To me jingoism is more about sabre rattling and demagoguery against “illegal” newcomers. Not 4th of July car sales. But perhaps that’s just me.

        • Julia Smucker

          Magdalena, you are making some very exaggerated assumptions. I never suggested patriotism as such was “invented by American wing-nuts”, and I have no intention of denying that I do have my own baggage (and from your own allergic reaction, I might dare to suggest that you examine yours as well). I’m rather flattered that you think I invented humility, though. I’ll try not to let that go to my head.

          In all seriousness, this post is about both my personal discomfort and Christian orthopraxy, and I hope there is some meaningful overlap between the two.

          In any case, there is an important distinction between a healthy appreciation – yes, tempered with humility – for the good in one’s country (Matt Talbot’s recent post here is a good example of this), and exceptionalist claims that are irreconcilable with the lordship of Christ and the catholicity of his Church. Those of us who are Christian citizens of a country where exceptionalism is essentially the political equivalent of sacred doctrine must be especially careful to weigh all patriotic slogans against those two things. We may ask ourselves, for example: 1) Can this be said, without contradiction, alongside the confession that the name of Jesus is above every other name? and 2) Can this be said by Christians of other nations, with both statements being true? If any given patriotic sentiment passes both these tests, then go ahead and enjoy the fireworks. (Just don’t shoot them off in church.)

        • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

          Magdalena wrote:

          “The Fourth of July is a celebration of political independence and is morally neutral. ”

          Would you write the same thing if I replaced Fourth of July with Bastille Day? With October 25, the anniversary of the Russian revolution? With April 1, the day Franco proclaimed the end of the Spanish Civil War? To declare any political holiday morally neutral is to assert that the political events that inspired it, or the interpretation given to them by later generations, are morally neutral, a stance which is contrary to both common sense and to Catholic teaching.

          “To me jingoism is more about sabre rattling and demagoguery against “illegal” newcomers.”

          “Muerto a los guachupines!” seems to fit the bill perfectly, and the fact that this is intimately tied the national cult of la Virgen reinforces the point Julia makes elsewhere that questioning the morality of excessive patriotism is a good and necessary thing for Catholics to do. Our kingdom lies elsewhere and any duties we have to our nations and any filial affection we feel to them must be contingent. If reflecting on that is “self-indulgent, self-referential angst” then I am happy to indulge.

    • Ronald King

      I really get disappointed when sarcasm is used to communicate a difference of perception. Sarcasm is an expression of anger and as such is violent and its effect is to cause further friction and division.

    • Magdalena – in the context of present American culture, in which professing allegiance to American Exceptionalism (which is pretty clearly a species of idolatry) is mandatory for any politician with national aspirations, Julia’s cautionary reflection is entirely appropriate and called for, in my opinion.

  • brian martin

    I just don’t understand the singing of patriotic songs at mass.
    It just doesn’t belong there.

  • Reblogged this on billheiden and commented:
    This post by Julia Smucker on Vox Nova is controversial to say the least, but how many Christians were slain in Rome for not subverting their God to their country? I think that from the perspective of the “business” of faith, we must remember that we are sharing a thoroughly countercultural message.

  • In case Magdalena really can’t get the “tension between being an American and being Catholic,” I suggest that she take a long look at the San Patricios:

    • Julia Smucker

      An interesting piece of history, and one I was not aware of. In one way it doesn’t surprise me, given what I do know about 19th-century anti-Catholic nativism, and in another way it does, given that the more common reaction in my understanding has been long and desperate attempts to prove how American we are, despite certain natural tensions.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      DD: thanks for recalling this bit of American history. The San Patricios need to be paired with the domestic opposition to the war (including Henry David Thoreau) which was the rawest example of imperialism in American history.

      Julia, you are right: that “desperate attempt” to prove how American they were sent thousands of Irish into battle during the Civil War, though it did also spark some of the deadliest riots in American history, the New York draft riots:

      To some extent it did pay off, however. The post war period saw a rise in, if not acceptance, then at least grudging toleration. For instance, in 1870 (I believe) the CT legislature passed a bill allowing the Church to organize as a corporation sole headed by the bishop, resolving property issues that dated back 30 years. They did not want to admit this fact, so it was passed late in the session, without debate, and was not reported.

  • Julia Smucker

    An additional clarification warrants its own comment.

    When I talk about the idolatry of nationalism (and even more blatantly, civil religion), I’m not referring exclusively to the United States. David’s example from Mexican nationalism is one of many examples that could be mentioned. What also springs to my mind is the self-deification that has reared its ugly head from ancient emperors to modern dictators: think 1st-century Roman imperial cult, or going back centuries further, King Nebuchadnezzar. Or for a modern example, the copy I once saw of the “Catechisme de la Revolution” from the Duvalier regime in Haiti still creeps me out when I think about it.

    Nationalism is a perennial idol, though I suspect the temptation to bow to it increases proportionately with personal and/or state power. If I feel the dissonance most acutely around US national holidays, it is because the call to worship of that particular sacred cow is what I hear all around me, and Christians (or more broadly, monotheists) have no excuse to heed it.

    • Ronald King

      Being American and being aware creates its own tension regardless of whether or not one is Christian

      • Julia Smucker

        Maybe so, although that would be a different subject from the caution I’m raising here against temptations toward idolatry specifically, and it raises the question, aware of what?

        I guess it’s easier for me to at least understand over-the-top nationalism in its more secular forms, even if I still find it abrasive.

        • Ronald King

          Julia, I was going to clarify what I meant about being aware in my previous comment but I forgot. Back in the mid to late ’60’s and early ’70’s while I was in the Air Force I had a friend who had a degree in psychology and he sparked my interest in the field by directly challenging my beliefs of self and others and the world. I was encouraged to read Krishnamurti and began to form an understanding of how conflict in the world begins with conflict within oneself through the process of indoctrination into a system of beliefs which form one’s identity and sense of purpose in the world. More later, I must take my daughter and spouse to the starting line of their women’s only half marathon in Seattle this morning. I was told to stop typing.