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January 14, 2017

Nationalism by Bishop Robert McEroy, San Diego

This talk, titled "Three Kinds of Erroneous Autonomy," was delivered Jan. 10 at the symposium "Erroneous Autonomy: The Dignity of Work" organized by the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at The Catholic University of America, Washington D.C

An excerpt from the talk: Nationalism by Bishop Robert McEroy, San Diego


Make America great again! These words point to the feelings of dispossession which have been abroad in our nation. They hint of past betrayal. They call forth noble sentiments of true patriotism rooted in the glorious legacy of the American people. They also signal a nostalgia for a more homogenous nation.

The merger of populism and nationalism at work in the cultural and political currents of the United States has given new power to the nationalist impulse.

In Catholic social teaching the love of country is a virtue. The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church states that "the principle of solidarity requires that men and women of our day cultivate a greater awareness that they are debtors of the society of which they have become a part." And in his moving message to the people of Poland entitled "My Beloved Countrymen", Pope John Paul II spoke of true patriotism amidst the cauldron of oppression and upheaval: "Love of our motherland unites us and must unite us above all the differences. It has nothing in common with narrow nationalism or chauvinism. It is the right of the human heart. It is the measure of human nobility."

But if love of country is a virtue and a moral obligation in solidarity, the nationalistic impulse itself has no moral identity. It can signal the most virtuous patriotism which integrates the love of country into the spectrum of moral obligations that accrue to our humanity or it can be rooted in pride, isolationism and discrimination. As a consequence nationalism as a directive force in society is an example of erroneous autonomy; it is a moral good only when it is connected and subordinated to the order of justice and freedom. It is immoral when it functions autonomously from that justice and freedom.

There are three questions which the United States must wrestle with in the coming months, in order to insure that the nationalist impulse coursing through our society evolves into a true patriotism which is morally sound and unitive for our country.

The first of these questions is: who are "the people" in the United States? Populist movements in American history have raised important and substantial claims of injustice against oppression by elites in economic, political, juridical and cultural life. But populism has also often carried with it claims that "the people" are really only some of the people who live within the United States. For this reason, populist nationalism has often been exclusionary and nativist. The recent campaign was deeply marred by exclusionary rhetoric and proposals that have driven deep wedges into our culture and raised the specter of imposing exclusionary government policies. It is essential that the nationalistic impulse be purged of this nativist dimension so that it can be a source of unity in our nation rather than division.

The second question which America must confront is: what does greatness mean for the United States? Does this greatness revolve principally around questions of power, wealth and success? Or is the greatness we seek founded in the order of justice, freedom, truth and solidarity? In short, is it a material greatness or a greatness of the soul?

The question of American exceptionalism has long been a source of contention in historical and political debate. And this exceptionalism has been characterized in many different ways. In my view the most important form of exceptionalism which we might claim flows from the reality that we as a nation of immigrants are not tied together by connections of blood, but rather by the set of aspirations which our Founders set forth in 1776 and which they both succeeded and failed to attain. Thus patriotism for us as Americans is an aspiration renewed in every age by understanding the noble elements of our nation's birth and the defects of its original vision. And our patriotism is not a foundation for pride, but an ever deepening challenge to ennoble our culture, society and government. Such is the nature of true greatness for America.

The final question which our society must answer in relation to the nationalism coursing through our culture is whether that nationalism conceives itself as rooted in the interests of the United States alone, or whether it is connected on a fundamental level with our obligations to the international common good. In surveying the effects of globalization on the world, Pope Benedict lamented "as society becomes ever more globalized, it makes us neighbors but does not make us brothers." Does the nationalism which we are experiencing today view our country as brother and sister to the other peoples of the world? Catholic social teaching has become ever clearer that on issues of international trade, the environment, human trafficking, refugees and migrants, and war and peace there is an international common good which must constrain powerful nations from using their asymmetrical power to disadvantage the most vulnerable peoples of the world. Moreover, the dominant nations of the world have a special obligation to use their strength to create collective goods for the world as a whole. Only a nationalism attentive to such a notion of the international common good is truly capable of bringing greatness to America.

The Challenge of Erroneous Autonomy

The past year compels us to pay greater attention to deep cultural and political currents which rage within our nation, rather than to carefully thought out ideologies and political programs. It has also alerted us to central cultural forces which claim moral legitimacy, but which are in themselves morally neutral or even devastatingly destructive when disconnected from a moral and political framework tied to the order of justice, freedom and solidarity.

It is not in their internal structures that the drive for free markets, the technocratic perspective or nationalism are dangerous. It is when they are morally autonomous, when they in themselves are directive of cultural thinking and public policy, that they become perilous for the well-being of our nation.

It is our task as a people to reconnect these cultural currents to sound moral anchors. It is a task of dialogue and solidarity, honesty and openness. And ultimately it is a task of grace and hope.

[Robert McElroy is bishop of the San Diego, Calif., diocese.]