Pope Leo XIII is depicted in this official Vatican portrait. (CNS photo/Library of Congress)

While Francis’s papacy so far has emphasized a pastoral approach to moral and political questions, there is one issue the pope has addressed principally as a critic, and that is nationalism. Francis’s pronouncements on the perils of nationalist politics have highlighted his concern about divisiveness and conflict, his worry about the future of Europe, and his alarm over how the global rise of nationalism weakens multilateralism and generates distrust in international institutions. In all these critiques, the pope has focused on the exclusionary and marginalizing effects of the recent nationalist turn. Thus, when he decried nationalisms that “impose and pursue individual national interests” to the detriment of humanity’s common destiny, he did so not only because such nationalisms threaten our planet, but also because they produce a “mindset of violence and indifference” toward the most vulnerable groups, refugees and migrants.

Francis’s rejection of nationalism is particularly meaningful at a moment in which the political rhetoric and practices shaping American public life legitimize it in its most exclusionary forms—including dangerous expressions of white nationalism. The pope’s words resonate with all American Catholics who view an “America First” preoccupation with U.S. power and interests as inimical to the pursuit of a better, more just society. But in a time haunted by violent kinds of nationalism and intolerance, it is important to probe the potential of more inclusive and more capacious narratives of national belonging. These narratives could provide a forceful response to the claims of selfish nationalism and more importantly, could do so by enabling the sense of solidarity with others both within and beyond national borders. The resources for framing such positive national narratives also lie in Catholic intellectual traditions.

The very idea of positive national narratives would seem to counter the warnings of many theologians who believe that Christians should eschew all nationalisms, not only because of their dark histories, but for deeper moral and theological reasons. The American Catholic theologian William Cavanaugh, admonishing Christians not to succumb to the nation-state as the definitive and inevitable framework of civic participation, argues persuasively that states aren’t natural creations but merely historical ones. Christians, Cavanaugh stresses, should recognize all the ways in which nationalism colonizes their imagination, reducing human personhood and identity to loyalty to the nation-state and inculcating a willingness to die and to kill for it.

To respond to the claims that nation-states make—claims that, Cavanaugh believes, obscure the identity of Christians as “members of a different body, the body of Christ”—Christians must break through the entrapments of national projects, and instead seek communities in which to form attachments to each other and construct new sites of political engagements. Only by rejecting the nation-state as the sole political model and national community as the exclusive domain of identity, Cavanaugh insists, can Christians enact their faith and fulfill their civic role; only then can they demonstrate why the ideals of common good are irreducible to one’s allegiance to a state that, as the “unitary whole,” seeks to replace the church.

Cavanaugh’s theological critique of nationalist projects as signs of “the twilight of gods” and “the age-old sin of idolatry” finds much evidence in history. Anyone familiar with the stories of predominantly Catholic countries—Spain and Ireland, Argentina and Poland—understands the grave dangers of close bonds between the church and modern nation-states, and the lasting negative implications of such bonds for the church’s character and the vibrancy of Catholic faith. And anyone who (like this author) experienced and studied violent conflicts such as those in Bosnia and Croatia knows all too well how successfully nationalist politicians co-opt Catholic symbols and traditions to justify exclusion and domination, and how quickly Catholic clergy can adopt the mantle of nationalist ideologues to formulate theologies of nationhood and legitimize violence against other national and religious groups.

The American historical perspective on the proximity between nationalism and Catholicism further illuminates Cava-naugh’s fears. Here, nationalism emerges as a problem for Catholicism not only through its corruptive effect on the commitment to universality or through the danger of Constantinianism. As my American Catholic colleagues regularly remind me, slogans such as “God, Country, Notre Dame” at the entrance of the University of Notre Dame’s basilica are more than mere symbols of Catholic immigrants’ eagerness to build America. They are warnings that all political projects of nationhood contain a powerful drive to exclude the minority religious group—once Catholics and Jews, today Muslims—coercing them to prove their loyalty and to relinquish at least some parts of their religious attachments in the name of belonging to “one nation.”

And so the reasons for distrusting nationalism and for separating Catholicism from it are significant, both theologically and historically. Yet Catholic intellectual and social traditions remind us that there exists more than one way to address the relationship between Catholic and national identities. These traditions suggest that, alongside the necessity of resistance to the power of nation-states, there is also ethical potential in Christians’ attachment to their country—the potential that arises from their careful discernment of responsibilities both within and beyond the bounds of a given nation.

One resource for constructive views in this regard is the encyclical Sapientiae christianae. Pope Leo XIII issued the encyclical at the end of the nineteenth century, a time when national movements in Europe were frequently accompanied by belligerent anticlericalism, and when nation-states often consolidated their power by diminishing the  powers of the Catholic Church. Yet even though these immediate political developments shape the backdrop of Leo’s statement, his encyclical manages to transcend its historical location and propose a more subtle approach to questions of Catholic faith, civic responsibility, and national identity. It does so by alerting us to the difference between civil obedience and a sense of belonging, while underscoring that all forms of citizenship Christians accept in this world must be bound by awareness of their place in the world to come.

Leo XIII’s thoughts on “Christians as citizens” highlight the discerning way he writes about allegiance to the state and attachment to country. To the “laws of the State,” Leo explains, one owes obedience, yet only when these laws are in accord with the laws of God. If state laws are “at variance with the divine law,” if they contradict the freedom of the church and one’s religious observance, then “to resist becomes a positive duty, to obey, a crime.” These observations on the limits of civic obedience could serve to ground arguments such as those proposed by Cavanaugh; in Leo’s own time, they could also justify the church’s worldly claims to social and political power, claims that more often than not produced the institutional and spiritual corruption of Catholicism. But just as significant as Leo’s focus on the limits of Christian compliance with the state is his attentiveness to the reality of Christians’ love for their country. He declares that we are “bound...to love dearly” the country in which “we had birth, and in which we were brought up,”  and “whence we have received the means of enjoyment this mortal life affords.” This love is “natural,” he asserts: it is a type of affection that proceeds from “the same eternal principle” as does one’s love for the church. “God Himself,” Leo declares, is their “Author and originating Cause.”

For anyone opposed to nationalism as a matter of theological and moral principle, or focused on the immediate context in which Leo’s encyclical was written, it is easy to emphasize—as some American Catholic interpreters do—its instruction that Christians must discern when to resist the powers of worldly political communities and the institutions that embody them. Yet Leo assesses the role of Christians not only as citizens of the state, but also as individuals constituted by—and enacting—love for their country. In distinguishing between obedience and love, state and country, and calling for the evaluation of such dispositions within the postulates of faith, Leo points out that the Christian response to the modern world should not be a matter of rejecting it a priori, but of thoughtfully and responsibly engaging it. He reminds us, to paraphrase here the contemporary German social thinker Hans Joas, that religious traditions do nothing on their own, but become alive only when they are interpreted and enacted in particular times, in the individual and social lives of those who inhabit them.


Christians must frequently reexamine the injustices entailed in the boundaries of their national community—from racism and sexism to the kinds of religious and ideological intolerance that ostracize and exclude.

Read through this lens, Leo’s encyclical becomes instructive for our challenging moment in two ways. First, it suggests that obedience to the state and attachment to one’s country cannot be conflated. The former obligates Christians to duty within the civic order; the latter concerns what Leo calls “natural” affections that unite individuals into a society, affections that compel them to act in order to better their country. In this sense, Christians can disobey the state precisely out of love for their country. Second, and most important, the encyclical unambiguously posits that obedience to the state and one’s attachment to country are curbed by the Christian love for God’s law. Yes, there is in Leo’s considerations a direct link between one’s love for God’s law and one’s love for the church. There is also a definite assertion of the sovereignty of the church, as when the encyclical demands the unity of Catholics, even when their opinions differ, to defend the church against the rising power of modern states.

But if Leo’s Sapientiae christianae raises the same questions today as it did when it was written—when should Christians obey the state, and how can they bring their attachments to their country into accord with the laws of God?—the responsibility to answer those questions at the beginning of the twenty-first century, more than half a century after the Second Vatican Council, resides neither with the national councils of bishops, nor with Catholic theologians. The responsibility resides in the conscience of each individual Catholic believer, and within her multiple communities of attachments. As a consequence, the results of thoughtful discernment about faith, civic duties, and attachment to one’s country cannot be the same for everyone. For some, as Cavanaugh advocates, the answer will be the creation of religious and political communities as local and counter-communities. For others, however, that response will be, as with John Paul II, the “love of” one’s “motherland [as] the measure of human nobility” against “narrow nationalism or chauvinism;” and, as with Leo XIII, it will be one’s love for the country always within the greater Christian moral order of charity.

The second group of responses recognizes that passionate attachment to one’s national community does not necessarily obscure one’s faith, but rather can embody it; it suggests that instead of erecting walls, Christians who love their country can be the ones building bridges to other nations—and ought to be. Even Pope Francis understands this possibility: when observing on one occasion pilgrims waving their national flags, he took it as “a prophetic sign” that Catholics’ national pride can assist in shaping positively “the encounter between peoples.” Here, the plurality of national attachments emerges as both a gift and a responsibility. And Christians’ bonds with those with whom they share identity—language, culture, political institutions, and traditions—do not preclude coming together in a sense of solidarity with those who are different, within or beyond the borders of their own nation.

If there is one reason why Leo’s nineteenth-century encyclical should be read in our moment—a moment in which we are pushed relentlessly toward “either/or” positions—it is the fact that the document does not give one simple answer. Rather, it opens the door for a nuanced deliberation of civic duties and worldly loves through the lens of one’s faith commitments. From the point of view of the Catholic commitment to universality, it is clear that such deliberation must reject the sacralization of any nation. But even more important, a deliberative approach to the relationship between Catholic and national commitments carries the idea that Christians must frequently reexamine the injustices entailed in the boundaries of their national community—from racism and sexism to the kinds of religious and ideological intolerance that ostracize and exclude. Simply put, to remain truly Christian in the love of country, Christians must retain honesty about their nation’s past, and a hopeful modesty about its present and its future.

Slavica Jakelić is the author of Collectivistic Religions and is currently working on two books, Chastening Religious and Secular Humanisms and Ethical Nationalisms. She teaches at Valparaiso University’s Honors College and is a Senior Fellow of Religion and Its Publics Project at the University of Virginia.

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Published in the November 2019 issue: View Contents
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