Letters | Better and worse nationalisms, fearing universal truths, etc.



I was impressed by the serious and worthy intentions of the open letter on “the new nationalism” in the October issue. I was also impressed by the lengthy list of signatories that includes many distinguished scholars and colleagues—an array of thoughtful theologians, some of whom I know personally and some through their writings. But there are two major points on which I need to register disagreement.

First, the letter lays down a pejorative definition of nationalism and fails to recognize a wider range of possibilities for our understanding of a very important notion in political thought and action. This negative approach is closely linked in the open letter with some very bad things, such as racism and xenophobia, as well as the neglect of the needs and rights of the stranger and the needy, and the denial of the full humanity of outsiders. The letter’s indictment of nationalism overlooks the complexity and variety of this very important political phenomenon.  One can point to many different forms of nationalism: Irish, African American, Serbian, Québécois, Biafran, South Sudanese, Yemeni, Cuban, Scottish. A fair evaluation depends on history and context. Perhaps the most morally relevant distinction that the authors of the letter might welcome is to argue that we should respond in very different ways to the nationalism of powerful majorities and the nationalism of oppressed minorities. The nationalism of the powerful is dominant and threatening and often dismissive of the needs and harms felt by minorities and neighbors. While it can gain wide popular support at home, it can also be very dangerous both to peace and to victims. The nationalism of the minority, on the other hand, can be a demand for autonomy, separation, or protection; it is often directed against imperialism (cf. Ireland, the early United States), but it is also likely to be an effort to preserve autonomy and local culture. There are also, of course, conflicts in which two forms of nationalism fight each other, for instance, as in Serbia and Croatia. Nationalism also goes through historic changes itself even in its home country. These changes can be morally significant, as the history of Zionism and Israel illustrates.

Second, nationalism remains an attractive idea in large parts of the world. While its supporters and followers have been involved in many bad things, a wholesale condemnation will not be helpful in many places undergoing profound transformation. Rejecting it altogether would be pastorally and politically unwise. It would also stand in the way of our understanding many popular movements. The notion is too valuable to be abandoned to the most short-sighted and self-regarding elements in contemporary American society.

John Langan, SJ
Retired Bernardin Chair
in Catholic Social Thought
Georgetown University
Washington, D. C.



It was a pleasure to read Kenneth Woodward’s insightful interview with David Tracy (“In Praise of Fragments,” October). Tracy’s intellectual generosity is matched only by his catholicity of spirit.

Unless I am mistaken, Tracy’s bent (more encompassing than a “fragment”) is toward the “apophatic” tradition in theology. It is the governing perspective, embraced by thinkers like Dionysius the Areopagite and Meister Eckhart, who stress the dark incomprehensibility of God.

I readily acknowledge that my own tendency leans toward the “cataphatic” tradition that celebrates the determinate content of God’s revelation in Christ.

Of course, Catholic theology must incorporate both sensibilities. For, even in—indeed, especially in—the crucified and risen Jesus Christ, God’s mystery is not lessened, but heightened.

Hence, I found of particular interest Tracy’s brief but rich remarks regarding Christology. He said: “For myself, Christ is the decisive way. And Jesus of Nazareth is the unsubstitutable person who is the Christ, and Jesus Christ is God and man.” And, though he recognizes that other religions represent ways of salvation, he takes seriously the Christian tradition’s “central understanding of the decisive, unsubstitutable role of Jesus Christ.”

Grateful for what has been given, one nonetheless yearns for more. Do the world’s religions merely coexist as incommensurate fragments? Or do they cohere around a Logos whose full revelation is both given and awaits fulfillment? Here, of course, I gesture toward my own understanding and orientation.

Perhaps some further indication will be forthcoming in “the big book” Tracy promises and we eagerly await. Given the contemporary “nihilism,” “the sense of the absurdity and meaninglessness of life” that Tracy recognizes and laments, we desperately need a cogent and heart-bracing articulation of grace and presence.

For another tension, other than that between “apophatic” and “cataphatic,” is constitutive of Catholic theology. It is the tension of “already” and “not yet.” Perhaps we have been too long so paralyzed by fear of a “totalizing” presence that we have shied from proclaiming what is crucial for Catholic spirituality and theology: Eucharistic presence. For the Eucharist is the presence of Jesus Christ who is ever coming. In the Eucharist the Lord gathers up the fragments of our lives and our theologies, transfiguring both them and us.

Fr. Robert P. Imbelli
Bronx, N. Y.



I thank Commonweal and Gregory Hillis for his article (“A Sign of Contradiction,” October). It resonated with my own periods of disillusionment and frustration due to a lack of Christian charity within the church. My experience pales profoundly to the heroic Fr. Thompson’s, whose entire life was a testament to unimaginable bravery as he chose to confront the people and institutions who professed membership in a church without integrating its most fundamental tenets.

How much might be accomplished with the issues of our day—immigration, respect for life, economic disparities, the environment, abuse scandals—if we, from pulpit to pew, exhibited a fraction of the courage that Fr. Thompson lived each day of his life.

Mary Ann Dorsett
Des Moines, Iowa



Had there been more space in his excellent article, (“Sturzo in Exile,” October) Professor Faggioli might have drawn parallels with that other Catholic party, the Zentrumspartei (Central Party). In 1933 the party, led by Cardinal Secretary of State Eugenio Pacelli, voted for the act that gave Hitler his dictatorship, then voluntarily dissolved itself. Yet this was the party that in the previous century had combatted Bismark’s Kulturkampf. Pacelli, as Secretary of State, was in the same mold as Cardinal Gasparri before him when it came to Catholic parties. As the (Catholic) German Chancellor Heinrich Brüning wrote: “The system of concordats led [Pacelli] and the Vatican to despise democracy and the parliamentary system.... Rigid governments, rigid centralization and rigid treaties were supposed to introduce an era of stable order, an era of peace and quiet.” The Reichskonkordat, negotiated with Hitler by Pacelli over the heads of the German bishops and the Center Party’s representatives, demoralized opposition to Hitler, scandalized German youth, and gave credit to Hitler in the eyes of the world. Incidentally, the Lateran Treaty with Mussolini was drafted, and partly negotiated, by Pacelli’s brother Francisco.

John Cornwell
Jesus College, Cambridge
United Kingdom

Published in the December 2019 issue: 
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