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Is Patriotism a Virtue?

Note: Skip to the On the Contrary if you are not familiar with a Thomistic article.

Objection 1: It seems that Patriotism is not a virtue. For our Lord said, My Kingdom is not of this world (Jn. xviii. 36) and, further, we are strangers and pilgrims (I Pt. ii. 11) whose citizenship is in heaven (Php. iii. 20). Therefore, since no earthly kingdom comes before Christ the King, Patriotism is not a virtue.

Objection 2: Moreover, we are all one human nation in reality since there is neither Gentile nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian nor Scythian, bond nor free. But Christ is all and in all (Col. iii. 11). Therefore there should be no national loyalty, no borders, and no special love for our nation. In fact, a global government is the best way to manifest this truth and maintain peace and justice (Gaudium et Spes, 83ff). Therefore, Patriotism is not a virtue.

Objection 3: In addition to this, the governments of most nations were founded by fratricidal wars, Freemasons or secularists, and imperial ambition (with its subsequent sins of racism and genocide). Therefore, Patriotism at least forgives these crimes, so it is not a virtue.

Objection 4: Moreover, loyalties to nations have caused innumerable wars. Witness the United States’ “Operation Iraqi Freedom” in which Patriotism was used by the Bush administration to invade another nation on false pretenses. Therefore, it is better to avoid Patriotism in favor of peace with all men.

Objection 5: Finally, is not Patriotism simply a manipulation of the masses by the elites? “The Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association”? The word is simply a means for communists and their ilk to control men through an invented virtue of Patriotism. The number of nations persecuting and killing Christians is myriad. Therefore, Patriotism is not a virtue.

On the contrary, St. Thomas says concerning the virtue of piety, “The homage (cultu) given to our country includes homage to all our fellow-citizens and to all the friends of our country” (S.T. II-II q101 a1). Patriotism as a proper love and honor toward one’s country is a part of the virtue of piety, therefore Patriotism is a virtue.

I answer that, We must give thanks for every good gift from God (Ja. i. 17). Now, it is manifest that the first gifts of our existence — namely, food, shelter, family, and faith — all come in some way by means of the land and our society with citizens of our county. Thus, we receive food and shelter from the land as well as economic exchange from other citizens. Our parents also survive by this, thus our family exists. Finally, the justification given in baptism is also given through the existence of water coming from the land or people in society. Therefore, besides other goods, thanksgiving for the source of these things means loving the country in which one is born. Thus, St. Thomas says our country has “given us birth and nourishment” (loc. cit.). Therefore, even a Christian living in a Mohammedan country can still give thanks and love his country for the beginnings of his life.

Now, a country is made up of many things — not only a land, people, and society, but also a government, economic policy, and history. It is not necessary to love the government as such, since this refers to the actions of men in power, which may be good or evil. A virtue is defined, moreover, by a moderate middle between two extremes of defect or excess. Some men love their country to excess, even to call good evil and evil good (Is. v. 20). This excessive love may be called Nationalism, which seeks to place human law even above divine law. Wherefore St. Thomas says that if our duties to our country ever take away from duties to God, we must set them aside for God’s sake (S.T. loc. cit., a4).

On the other hand, other men may suffer from a lack of love for their own country and commit the sins of ingratitude for the land and hatred for her people, making themselves generally odious to the society. Others simply neglect giving honor where honor is due and care little about the common good. Still others are willing to openly break even just laws and commit public sin against due peace and order. All of these manifest an immoderate lack of love for one’s country.

Both an excess in Nationalism and a defect of ingratitude can lead to violence. The former leads to the conquest over other nations’ rights and the latter to a disordered violence against other citizens. Rather, by the virtue of Patriotism, a man can love his country according to the due mode: paying allegiance to his country but with the highest allegiance reserved for Christ the King. Thus it is said, “All authority on earth as well as in heaven belongs to Jesus Christ; therefore, civil societies and all other associations of men are subject to his kingship so that ‘the duty of offering God genuine worship concerns man both individually and socially'” (Declaration of Truths, 29). This is true Patriotism, since it pays honor to our earthly kingdom (I Pt. ii. 17) but confesses our true citizenship under Christ the King.

Reply to Objection 1: It is true that no earthly kingdom comes before Christ the King. And yet, since we are sojourning in this world, we must give thanks for the gifts of nature through our country. Therefore, a moderated love for God’s sake is just, while we “look forward to the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.”

Reply to Objection 2: It is true that a certain international cooperation among nations is beneficial. However, “it is an injustice and at the same time a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher association what lesser and subordinate organizations can do” (Quadragesimo Anno, 79). Based on this principle, individual sovereign nations, according to the needs of every people, are just, including the maintenance of borders. A man should show charity to men from foreign countries, but maintaining his own society also means reasonable maintenance of his border.

Reply to Objection 3: Patriotism need not excuse the crimes of founding members of the nation. Patriotism must give due honor to Christ the King and work to conform public laws to the divine law. This may not require any changing of the founding of the nation, or in other cases (such as in Mohammedan countries), it may.

Reply to Objection 4: Reasonable debate can be had about the Iraq War. If such things really did take place, this is Nationalism, which uncritically accepts whatever the government wishes and condemns any reasonable questions from being heard. Patriotism reasonably demands that any conflict conform to the strict requirements of Just War. If these are met, a Patriot is willing to fight and die.

Reply to Objection 5: It is true that unjust regimes have used “Patriotism” as a propaganda tool of control. However, this relies on an excessive and unreasonable Nationalism, which places human laws above divine laws. Even in a country killing the faithful, a man can still love the land, people, and society for the birth they gave him. He can thus strive so that the country will eventually pay allegiance to Christ the King, just as our fathers did before the Roman Empire was conquered for Christ by Constantine.

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