The Church has always been patriotic here. America offered a better life to millions of Catholics fleeing poverty and oppression, and allowed the Church freedom to worship, evangelize, do charity, and run her own affairs. Catholics responded with gratitude. Indeed, critics complained they went too far, and sometimes seemed to view America rather than the Church as the light of the world.
But times have changed. It was easy to be patriotic as long as the country itself was patriotic, and the Church could be happy with her position as long as that position remained what it was. But American political society has fallen into a crisis that has radically worsened the Church’s position and seems likely to be fatal to American patriotism.
Patriotism is love of country, of a people living together over time, along with the things that make them a people—their history, habits, and qualities. As such, it necessarily includes a desire that the country remain largely true to type.
American patriotism therefore had an inner weakness. The “nation with the soul of a church,” as Chesterton called us, was based on a universal creed, liberty and justice for all. But life cannot be based on abstractions, so our country like others was also based on a particular tradition. England was the Mother Country, and our liberty and justice came out of English liberty and common law, as developed through our own experience. That background limited what the abstractions meant.
All that worked as long as our historical background and the general state of our society was something most people accepted, and the universal creed was not interpreted in too abstract and open-ended a manner. That was so for a very long time. American politics was not ideological but practical, sectional, and interest-based. William F. Buckley, Jr., the conservative Irish Catholic, and Lionel Trilling, the liberal son of a Jewish tailor from Bialystok, could both be Anglophiles and no one took it much amiss.
But weaknesses eventually come due. As liberalism has progressed and social connections weakened, “liberty” has come to be taken in a radically self-defining sense that turns marriage, the basis of social order, into whatever two people say it is, and treats distinctions as basic as the distinction between the sexes as oppressive obstacles that must be pushed aside.
“Justice for all” has also been radicalized. In its current “woke” form it demands not equality before the law or equality of opportunity, but “equity”—equality of result. If two people both want something, and only one gets it, then whatever caused the exclusion of the other is oppression backed by state violence that must be ended immediately. If you disagree, you’re blaming the oppressed for his oppression.
At the same time, the English and older American heritage has come to seem irretrievably foreign to many people, so much so that telling sheriffs that their office “is a critical part of the Anglo-American heritage of law enforcement” is now considered racist. And that complaint has its logic. Anglo-Americans are European in origin, so praising their legal tradition, and using it to determine how state compulsion is applied, now seems to many people pure white supremacy. The same applies to all aspects of American society and government with deep roots in the past.
The net effect of all this is that vocal and influential people now view American society and government as illegitimate except to the extent they are engaged in the struggle to create a new society and government that are no longer tied to the discredited traditions that formerly ordered our national life, and so are able fully to realize the ever-expanding demands of freedom and equality. That is the meaning of “Hope and Change” as a political slogan.
Under such circumstances patriotism—love of country and its people and history—is no longer wanted. What’s wanted is ideological loyalty that rejects those things as they have existed.
There are, of course, serious problems with such views, some of which I touched on in my CWR column on wokeness and Catholicism. A very basic one is that they offer no point of stability, no point at which the Revolution might be declared over and reconstruction begin. “Expropriate the expropriators” at least has an end point, when the state has seized all property and life can begin anew with the government in charge of all economic activity. That might mean poverty and slavery, but at least it means order of some sort.
The abolition of sex distinctions and cultural community in favor of radical equality of every identity, lifestyle, and culture, limited only by the need to maintain control and minimum functionality, is far more radical. If taken seriously it means total state control of all thought and social relations for goals that can never be achieved because they are at odds with human nature.
Even so, there is very little respectable resistance. Our ruling class has partly lost touch with reality through its embrace of a technological understanding of human life, partly fallen into the cowardice, conformity, and lack of principle of the careerist. And bureaucrats and billionaires are not likely to object to a movement that destroys all authority but that of money and government.
Much of the populace—the deplorables who are too far down the social ladder to be careerist, and too uneducated to be out of touch with reality—sense the problems with current tendencies, and have made Donald Trump the symbol of their resistance. But a civilization that has to fall back on Mr. Trump for its defense is in a bad way. His immunity to the thought of his betters has left him with the common man’s aversion to their fantasies, but he is not notably civilized.
Which is not to say that the situation is hopeless. When the prospects are otherwise intolerable, you keep on fighting. Official doctrine isn’t going to give us a system that works, and something unexpected may bring better days. And you can’t do politics without getting involved with people who are no less imperfect than you are.
But the Church, whatever her concern for the common good, is not primarily political. So what should she do in the present crisis?
Mostly, what she has always done. Preach the gospel, administer the sacraments, sanctify, engage in charitable works, evangelize. We need those things now more than ever. Her ability to do them is becoming more restricted in a world that has its own gospel, whose absolute and peremptory demands are increasingly backed by the power of the state. So she will need prudence as well as courage to carry out her essential mission.
Prudence includes dropping the illusion that the world’s gospel is compatible with the Gospel of Christ. Many of those who inspired and guided the Church during the very influential quarter century following the defeat of Nazism and death of Stalin—John XXIII, Paul VI, Jacques Maritain—were saintly men. But saints are not always the best politicians, and sometimes attribute to secular tendencies more good qualities than are actually there.
As it turns out, the “prophets of doom” John XXIII dismissed in his address opening the Second Vatican Council had a point. Wokeness is not Christian justice, which doesn’t lie, teach hatred, or think itself entitled to use extralegal violence to pursue its goals. And inclusiveness isn’t Christian love, which refuses to deny the meaning of the body or mutilate troubled young people.
The Church in America should remain patriotic because it is Christian to do so. To love what is human is to love what is noble but flawed. So she should love this country, her people, and the things that make them a people. But she should understand that patriotism as entirely different from what has apparently become our official national creed—an anti-human ideology with no room for the natural and normal, or for a Church that is not utterly subservient.
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