Monday, December 05, 2016

Is there a Catholic nationalism?

The media is rattling on about a "populist" or "nationalist" movement sweeping the western world. Brexit and the election of Donald Trump are the movement's most notable victories; the defeat of Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi's referendum this Sunday is another. Whether we look to Viktor Orban's Hungary bucking the EU and building a border wall to deter refugee traffic, or the surge of Marie le Pen's National Front in the upcoming French elections, or the mainstreaming of the Fascist Golden Dawn in Greece, everywhere we look the media are seeing nationalist bogeymen.

I do not mean to lump all these disparate movements together; the bloc of U.S. voters who elected Donald Trump is very different from the environmentalist, E-Democratic Five Star Movement that took down Renzi in Italy; and the British voters who opted for Brexit have little in common with the Nazi-sympathizing Golden Dawn in Greece. Many of these folks aren't part of any "movenent"; they are just average people who are sick of getting screwed over by the globalist economy.

But all the hubbub about nationalism begs the question of whether there can be an authentic Catholic nationalism in the modern world? Many of my Catholic acquintances on the Right of the political spectrum see these nationalism movements as manifestations of a crude statism, patently opposed to the subsidiarist model proposed by Catholic tradition; my Catholic acquiatances on the Left (mostly Canadians and Simcha fans) are simply mortified by the alleged "xenophobia" of nationalism, which for them, means essentially taking a harder line on immigration than that proposed by the USCCB. On both sides of the spectrum, Catholics seem uncomfortable with a nationalist political platform.

This is not surprising, as "nationalism" is an extremely broad term. Depending on how one takes it, it can be either something perfectly in line with Catholic political thought, or totally repugnant to it. Thsi is because "nationalism" is a term that is often used as a point of reference to compare it to other ideologies; it is something that is necessarily opposed to some other -ism, and as such tends to take on meaning relative to whatever it is contrasted to.

In the 19th century, nationalism was opposed to the last vestigates of provincialism-feudalism that characterized the waning days of Christendom. The nation-state was unknown for most of Christendom; men thought of themselves not in terms of what national group they belonged to, nor what language they spoke, but to whom they owed fealty to. Political bonds were personal, not national. Thus Christendom was always a polygot concept, with many ethnic and language groups living together under multiple jurisdictions that were primarily local or regional, bound loosely together not by any national identity, but by personal loyalty to a particular family dynasty - but nevertheless all united in their shared Catholicity under the government of God.

19th century nationalism was in intentional antagonism towards this system. In place of dynastic loyalty is substituted national identity. It elevated the state over the Church, prefering the nation-state to be the ultimate expression of culture. It's guiding principle was the rather arbitrary assertion that   

people of a single language group should constitute their own political entity. France for the French, Germany for the Germans, and so on. The nation was the expression of a certain "folk" or unique culture. Localism and regionalism had to be suppressed in favor of centralized bureaucratic management. Tradition had to be dismantled and replaced with a more scientific, positivist approach to government. And the Church, to the degree it stood in the way of the centralization of the nation-state, had to be opposed. 

In the this sense, I do not think a Catholic can be a nationalist. That sort of nationalism was the kind of ideology that ushered in the destruction of the medieval synthesis. It was the nationalism of Bismarck; a kind of political reaction against the Catholicity of the Christian religion. By emphasizing ethnic and linguistic considerations as essential to the idea of the state, that kind of nationalism actually undermines the Catholicity of Christendom, which is composed of men of "every tribe and tongue and nation" (Rev. 7:9). 

Now, this was nationalism understood in contradistinction to the older, regional-localist systems traditionally associated with Christendom. But that is not necessarily the only way we could interpret nationalism. To put it in the tired old contemporary paradigm, 19th century nationalism was a movement for "big government" and statism, which is hardly what most Brexit voters or Trump supporters wanted. Indeed, the Brexit was a repudiation of the bloated, centralized bureaucracy in Brussels; the Trump bloc was pushing back against the outrageous government overreach that has characterized the Obama years. Clearly, the nationalism of 2016 is much different from the nationalism of 1848.

Broadly speaking, the nationalism we are seeing surge across the west could be defined as a desire for the independence of one's country - political, economic, and military independence. It would include an emphasis on promotion of its interests as opposed to those of other nations, and would approach policy issues on whether they value the interests of the nation-state over and above other nations. But most importantly, it is a reaction against globalism

It is beyond the scope of this article to go into the origins of globalism and the agenda of the globalists, but by understanding contemporary nationalism as a reaction against globalism, we can begin to construct a spectrum to place nationalism on. The subsidiarist-regionalist structure of Christendom is preferable to the modern nation-state, but the modern nation-state is much more preferable to globalism. And what nationalism is exactly depends on what it is being opposed to.

Understood as a reaction to globalism, I think there is room for an authentic Catholic nationalism. If patriotism is a love of the fatherland, I think nationalism is the affection for the fatherland translated into a positive, political will to see it protected, strengthened, and extolled. Of course, I am talking about a nationalism that is in accord with right reason and the Catholic tradition (preserving it from a blind jingoism). If nationalism is understood in terms of a rejection of the principles of globalism and pluralism, it certainly can be a very Catholic impulse.

It could be asked, "If one wants to reject globalism, why not adopt subsidiarism instead? Why opt for nationalism?" I honestly do not think nationalism and subsidiarism are opposed to one another. I think one can have an authentic Catholic nationalism that is subsidiarist. But did I not above argue that 19th century nationalism was antagonistic towards the subsidiarist systems of Christendom?

Yes, I did, but I also argued that nationalism has many forms, and that it is often defined by what it is opposing, and that there is no necessary reason why nationalism must include, for example, a mono-lingual society or a bloated, centralized bureaucracy Nationalism has to do with how a nation fends for its own interests relative to other nations; subsidiarism has to do with how a nation organizes itself. As I see it, I don't get why a nation cannot have a fundamentally nationalist foreign policy but a subsidiarist domestic policy. This seems like common sense to me; the virtues, industry, and wealth generated by a robust regional economy could be put into a strong, nationalist foreign policy.

In the contemporary situation where the world's elites are enamored with a globalist vision, I will absolutely take a nationalist foreign policy any day over a globalist one, either of the neo-con or liberal variety. And I don't think such a foreign policy need necessarily conflict with subsidiarity at home, or a Catholic political ethos.


Karl said...

Did Boniface really write this post? I find it hard to believe you have such a crude and delusional understanding of historical peoples. The quote "men thought of themselves not in terms of what national group they belonged to, nor what language they spoke, but to whom they owed fealty to" is bizarre. This may have been true of certain mercenary noblemen but to claim your average farmer defined his being by his lord is as disconnected from reality as one time a man insisted that your average medieval man, when asked what or who he was, would have answered, "Ego Christianus sum".

I would absolutely claim that they defined themselves by what language they spoke, those very small languages and harsh accents, existing in the hundreds and thousands as Europe was divided into all those small regions that people identified them as. Certainly not nations, no, but their home and the people that had lived there for as long back as they could remember.

The examples that spurt off the top of my head: Dante and his love of Florence; Augustine arguing that every people should have their own kingdom; Dagmar of Bohemia arguing that Valdemar II of Denmark should not take Berengaria of Portugal as his wife because their would be added distance between the children of a Bohemian and a Portugese; numerous accounts of sieges and battles where the army is divided between the people from certain regions and them bitterly repelling anyone who tries to enter "their turf" of the fight; all the wonderful different costumes worn in each region showing such a difference between what we now consider the same and "small"; the resistance and tension often found to "foreign" noblemen.

"Thus Christendom was always a polygot concept, with many ethnic and language groups living together under multiple jurisdictions that were primarily local or regional, bound loosely together not by any national identity, but by personal loyalty to a particular family dynasty - but nevertheless all united in their shared Catholicity under the government of God."

The above quote is nothing but a fantasyland.

Boniface said...


Thank you for your comments. I think you are misunderstanding me. You seem to think I am denying that people had any sort of language-identity whatsoever. That's not what I mean; obviously they did. But people did not think that was a sufficient grounds for political independence.

I think some of your examples actually establish the point. I don't see how "Dante's love of Florence" detracts from my point. If we were to ask Dante about his political identity, he would say, "I am a proud Florentine"; he would not say "I am an Italian." He certainly had a "national identity", but it was not based on the Italian language. In fact, Dante saw Florence as naturally more within the sphere of the Germanic Holy Roman Empire even though Florence was geographically and linguistically part of Italy. The point is that he had no sense of Italian political identity based on the Italian language; there's no indication he had any sense of "Italy for Italian-speakers."

Augustine is another example. You cite his teaching that ever people should have their own kingdom. Of course they should, but he does not define "people" as people who all speak one language. The kingdom Augustine speaks of more than any other is the dominion of the Romans. But who are the "Romans" for him? They are certainly not all ethnic Italians who speak Latin as their native language. For Augustine, the Roman "people" is a huge assortment of races and languages: Italians, Latinized Africans, Greek speakers, Romano-British, Celtiberrians, Arabs, Jews, Gauls - all these people who may speak different languages. They are "Romans" not by virtue of speaking Latin, but by virtue of being under the Roman imperium. If someone were to suggest to Augustine that each of these language groups should have their own sovereign state,that would have seemed crazy -it would destroy the unity of the empire.

Your example of the different peoples in the medieval army also proves the point. You might have an army under the command of the King of England; but that army might be composed of many different languages - Norman-French, Breton, Cornish, Irish, Anglo-Saxon, Gascon (Occitan) and probably more. Sure, they would jostle for their own turf - but that only shows their own local, regional identity was more important than some language-based national identity. Those different languages all existed in one army, but the point is no one in the Middle Ages would have assumed all those groups could not be joined together under a single political unit ("the Kingdom of England"), whereas the modern sort of nationalism would argue that each of these groups would necessarily have to have their own political independence.


Boniface said...


The ideal Christian state in the Middle Ages was the Holy Roman Empire, which is ultimately what I was thinking of when I said "polygot reality" - obviously the empire had many languages - German, Czech, Slovak groups and Slavs, French-speakers, Dutch, Swiss, Italian, Danish. But the unity of the Holy Roman Empire was not in any language group.

If we were to travel to Bayonne, France, in the 13th century and ask the common people there how they identified themselves, they would not have said, "We are Frenchmen"; they would have said, "We are Gascons," even though Gascony was geographically and linguistically part of France. If you asked about their political loyalty, they would not have said "We are loyal to the French nation", they would have said, "We are men of the Duke of Gascony", or perhaps, "We are subjects of the King of France." The definition of what was France was those regions under the domain of the King of France, not everyone who spoke French.

My point is that nobody in the Middle Ages assumed that people who spoke their own language needed their own political independence - much less that there could only be one national law or jurisdiction. The average medieval person was under multiple jurisdictions. It was a complex reality. The language based "Germany for the Germans", "one nation, one law" sort of nationalism is a 19th century creation, although one can certainly trace the rise in language-based national identity does begin to emerge in the late Middle Ages.

Karl said...

Boniface, you speak about Italy as some sort of ever-present soul of the boot-shaped peninsula. Would Dante even have known what you were talking about Italy in the sense that you are? So of course he didn't have an Italian identity. But his love of Florence certainly didn't rely on the ruling family -- if so that love would have been banished as he was with all the Guelphs.

Similarly, not to get, as you seem, hung up on "language", Augustine is exactly arguing against the Roman empire, and Empire building itself, of incorporating different peoples under the Roman foundation. Much more peaceful, says he, would it be if each people had their own kingdom and went about their business instead of trying to conquer others.

Now, define it not strictly by language, ethnicity, or geographical location, but a certain mixture of all these. Of course this is what he means, of course this is what a people means. What does God mean when he says, all nations, all peoples, will be judged? Is there no such thing as a people except for the nationalism that you argue for, where all peoples are under one banner? What are the peoples under the banner, what are the "Italians, Latinized Africans, Greek speakers, Romano-British, Celtiberrians, Arabs, Jews, Gauls"? They are precisely that, in Rome, as Roman citizens.

The modern nationalism would NOT argue that they all deserve their own independence. They would argue against Augustine, against me, as you are now -- that we all need to give up this regional identity for the sake of the nation state, of a great identity. That is what happened the last two, threehundred years all over Europe with the Swedification, the Germanification, and so on.

The ideal, the ideal Christian state you call the Holy Roman Empire, this barely Empire, this thing held together by nothing, an entity of infighting and plotting and hatred and anger. It held together, for a while, and to call it ideal is disturbing. Why argue for the suppression of the smaller peoples and for the dominance of one ruler which the majority see as foreign and not looking out for their interest? I think you are blinded by the looking glass through which you see history.

A 13th Frenchman would certainly not have said that he was French, that he was loyal to the French nation, but LEAST OF ALL would he have identified with the Duke of Gascony or the King of France. Political loyalty? The average Frenchman then would have found you absurd to suggest such a thing. I do my work, I plow my fields, and I tell you, the fact that the Duke's man comes by once a year to take some of his stuff would not have been grounds to admit political loyalty to a time-traveling stranger.

You're absolutely right nobody in the Middle Ages assumed people who spoke their own language needed their own political independence - hence the conquering, hence the murder, hence the oppression, hence the suffering. You seem hung up on language. I doubt someone from today southern France would have much understood someone from today northern France. Languages were smaller then, too.

The Hapsburg Restorationist said...

There is much in this post I agree with, it certainly has more of an understanding of the idea of Christendom than is likely to be found in these Modern Dark Ages. But I'm afraid I'm going to have to disagree that there can be a Catholic Nationalism, and take Dietrich von Hildebrand's position that the forms of Nationalism differ in degree and not in kind. I have written somewhat on the subject, which might interest you sir (the author of the post). My work is entitled "On the Current Crisis" and can be found at The War for Christendom. I'd much like to have a discussion on the subject.

Boniface said...


I am hung up on language because language is what defined 19th century nationalism. What it meant to be "Italian" or "German" was defined by what language was spoken. 19th century nationalism was essentially irredentist.

Perhaps I should forget trying to hypothesize what medieval people would or would not say about their identity - the point I am making is that the sort of nationalism that characterized the 19th century movements of Mazzini, Garibaldi, Bismarck and others was absolutely foreign to medieval thought.

Anonymous said...


Thank you for this piece. I agree with the possibility and desirability of a nationalism that is consistent with Catholicism. I think that a hyper-traditional it's-always-1789 lack of context and perspective drives a lot of quixotic NeverTrumpism, for example.

However, I share some of Karl's concerns about your characterization of the pre-modern world. There was a lot of horrible violence among different Christians that was indeed driven by ethnonational/ethnolinguistic antipathies. I refer you to this blog post:

I would also cite an account of ethnic stereotypes at the University of Paris during the Middle Ages: "They affirmed that the English were drunkards and had tails; the sons of France proud, effeminate and carefully adorned like women. They said that the Germans were furious and obscene at their feasts; the Normans, vain and boastful; the Poitevins, traitors and always adventurers. The Burgundians they considered vulgar and stupid. The Bretons were reputed to be fickle and changeable, and were often reproached for the death of Arthur. The Lombards were called avaricious, vicious and cowardly; the Romans, seditious, turbulent and slanderous; the Sicilians, tyrannical and cruel; the inhabitants of Brabant, men of blood, incendiaries, brigands and ravishers; the Flemish, fickle, prodigal, gluttonous, yielding as butter, and slothful. After such insults from words they often came to blows." (

Granted a lot of these identities are "regional" by today's standards ("sons of France" likely means people from the vicinity of Paris), but by Medieval standards they were "national" for lack of a better term. And people who possessed these identities could be every bit as obnoxious and un-Christian in inter-ethnic conflict as later nationalists were. Note that none of these groups are identified by dynastic loyalties, but by ethnic identity or by a geographical identity reinforced by the cultural/linguistic/political unity (as in the case of Poitou).

--Olaus Ouisconsinensis

Boniface said...


You guys all seem to be arguing against something I never said. I know ethno-identity existed in the Middle Ages and that people were territorial about it. That's obvious. All I said is that ethno-identity was not considered the basis for political independence.

Anonymous said...

The English massacring the Danes on St. Bryce's Day, and the Byzantine Greeks rebelling against the Crusaders, and the Sicilians massacring the French in the Sicilian Vespers, and the Castilians trying to throw out Charles V's Flemish backers, might not have articulated an ideology, and they might have turned around and tried to rule other peoples themselves, but they all acted on the principle, "Let's not be ruled by foreigners."


Boniface said...

Sure...but that's different. Saying, "I want these particular oppressive foreigners out of my neighborhood" is a far cry from "Every ethnic group should have its own independent state," which was precisely what the Nationalists of the 19th-20th centuries argued.

Rather than argue about how medieval people felt about their ethno-identity, I guess I should just ask, are you arguing that the Nationalism of Mazzini, Bismarch, Garibaldi, etc. was substantially no different from people's ethnic consciousness in the Middle Ages?

Karl said...

Boniface, you're simply wrong. Nationalists of the 19th and 20th centuries didn't argue that every ethnic group should have its own independent state. They argued for the superiority and expansion of their own nations. Swedish nationalists didn't argue for Scania to be independent, nor this English nationalists argue for the ending of the Empire. Garibaldi didn't argue that every ethnic group should have its own independent state - he wanted to create Italy, destroying several ethnic identities and Italian nations for the sake of creating one. You are ironically only thinking of the identity they created by the very language exclusivity you mention.

You are right that 19th and 20th century nationalism was foreign to medieval thought, but only in so far as the nation state was foreign to medieval thought. Whether the Empire or the Kingdom or the Republic or the Nation State, they still suppressed lesser peoples for their expansion or enriching, they still massacred, and so on.

Boniface said...

Bismarck, Garibaldi, et al wanted their states unified and strong and all their people gathered together under a single government - where "people" is defined as "those who share the same language." That's how one defined what was German, what was Italian, etc. The Italian Irredentist movement of the early 20th century was nothing other than reclaiming portions of "lost" Italy under the Italian monarchy, where what was and was not Italy was defined by whether the people there spoke Italian.

I still love you though, Karl.

Boniface said...

This is interesting. Apparently, the term "nationalism" was coined by the German scholar/philosopher Herder. This is just from Wikipedia, but it notes under the origin of the term "nationalism":

The Prussian scholar Johann Gottfried Herder (1744–1803) originated the term in 1772 in his "Essay on the Origins of Language." stressing the role of a common language.

Karl said...

Boniface, as I write: "You are ironically only thinking of the identity they created by the very language exclusivity you mention." You are right in their use of language to define an identity - but this identity was created by the "nationalists" by destroying lesser nations. It was the lowest common denominator if you will, and for it to be successful it was necessary to remove obstructions in the form of other, very real nations or identities.

Let us imagine that the Scandinavianism of the earlier centuries succeeded. The identities of Swedish, Danish, and Norweigan is attacked and removed until they're only superficial differences most notable by minor accents. As I see it, what you are arguing is these nationalists argued for Scandinavia for Scandinavians. Sure, perhaps, but their "nationalism" is based on first destroying ethnic groups and identities to create a new nationality. This example is applicable to Germany with Bismarck and Garibaldi with Italy. This is why I say that you're wrong to claim the 18th and 19th century nationalists wanted a nation for each ethnic group.

I feel like I am repeating myself now so I will stop posting. I hope you at least got something out of this.

Boniface said...

I think kit has given some further points to consider. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Why do eastern Orthodox consistently omit the slaughter of the Latins?