Reflections of a Bad Catholic and American Nationalist
Pope Francis’s recent visit to the United States rightly and predictably sparked a flurry of political commentary, with partisans on both sides of the aisle claiming the mantle of Papal legitimacy for their own pet causes. Greens and anti-poverty activists were delighted by the pontiff’s renewed emphasis on economic justice and environmental stewardship, while social conservatives scrambled to highlight Francis’s continuing opposition to abortion, euthanasia and same-sex marriage. If anything can be gleaned from this mishmash of political stances affirmed by Vatican theology, it is only the most obvious- the pope is, indeed, still a Catholic. Perhaps a Catholic with considerable media savvy, but a Catholic nonetheless- every pronouncement and every scripted or spontaneous gesture Pope Francis made on his visit aligns closely with the ancient teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, applied to the globalized world of the 21st Century.
Those of us who stand somewhat outside of the standard partisan divide have necessarily taken more nuanced views on the pontiff’s American odyssey and its broader meanings. Three relatively center-right figures who have influenced a lot of my political thinking interpreted the Pope’s economic and environmental ideas negatively. New York Times columnist David Brooks, citing The Breakthrough Institute’s work, argues that Pope Francis’s environmental ideas are misguided, though well-intentioned. Sociologist Peter Berger argues something similar. California urban theorist Joel Kotkin has gone so far as to make the unique argument that papal pronouncements on the environment amount to a renewal of the gentry-clergy alliance of Medieval Europe.
While I generally agree with the sentiments of these three intellectual mentors of mine- namely, their understanding that contemporary Green ideology and policy undercuts broad-based economic growth and social mobility- I think they all get a premise wrong. Pope Francis is not a card-carrying Greenpeace member, and his intellectual and theological foundations are fundamentally anthropocentric and deistic, as opposed to the neo-paganism approaching nature worship that informs post-Transcendentalist environmentalism. As such, the pontiff’s views on environmental protection are more based on the Judeo-Christian God’s admonition of stewardship over all Earth’s creatures to Adam, than on a pre-Christian reverence for nature as a god unto itself that views Man as at best a mere component of the natural world and at worst a curse upon it.
This sort of environmentalism is much more amenable to human wellbeing and, ultimately, to economic growth, than the neo-pagan anti-growth environmentalism that drives mainstream environmental activism. And it is more open to policy experimentation and pragmatism than the ironically dogmatic cults of sustainable development and climate change prevention that dominate most environmental discourse nowadays. Brooks, Berger, and Kotkin do not seem to take into account the idea that Pope Francis’s call for dialogue between policy intellectuals and theologians on the best ways to protect the global environment and fight global poverty could, theoretically, result in Vatican endorsements of Lee Kuan Yew-esque developmental economics across Africa and South America, informed by Eco-Modernist ideas on nuclear energy development and access, industrial farming, and other measures that could simultaneously bring abundant energy, food, and wealth to developing countries, while reducing those countries’ carbon outputs and total land use. Broad-based economic growth and the ascent of the Global South’s mass middle class need not contradict carbon reductions and ecological preservation. If anything, a combination of growth economics and Eco-Modernist environmental policies is the best way for policymakers to achieve the Vatican’s twin goals of poverty reduction and environmental stewardship.
So there is not necessarily a conflict of interests in my personal identity as both a Catholic and a capitalist. Things are more complicated, though, when my political identity as an American nationalist comes into conflict with my Catholic faith. As a follower of Machiavelli and Montesquieu- two influential political thinkers who openly criticized the Catholic Church and sought a return to and updating of Roman quasi-pagan political thinking- I stand in a political tradition that, while aligning well with Christian moral realism, tends to disparage most of the classically Christian ideas on communal political morality that have always driven the Vatican’s social teachings and pronouncements on international relations.
The most glaring area of inconsistency between my Catholicism and my nationalism is on the question of war. While the Church nominally endorses the complicated twists and turns of Just War Theory, in practice, it has generally condemned all wars as unjust in recent decades. Pope Francis said much the same himself. Students of Machiavelli, or of Hamilton or Disraeli or Bismarck or any other number of great nationalists, tend to support war-making as a basic tool of the state and an unfortunate reality of political life. And I must confess that I am comparatively a warmonger on this front, believing that the injustice of war is preferable to the perpetual violence of unresolved geopolitical tension and fratricidal low-scale conflict, or the irredentist aggressions of revisionist powers, or crude imbalances of power that would compel otherwise free nations to adopt so militaristic a stance as to abdicate their domestic liberty (read: the American way of life.) Some things are worth fighting for, but the reasons are rarely “just.”
For example, I am an ardent defender of the American wars of conquest of the 19th Century and American internationalism and imperialism throughout the course of the 20th. I’m an ardent defender of American imperialism in the 21st Century too, for that matter. The 19th Century wars of continental conquest and unification- the Mexican War, the Civil War, the interminable Indian Wars, and the aggressive diplomacy that secured for the United States the Louisiana Purchase, Florida, and the Oregon Territory- secured Washington D.C. unparalleled hegemony over the American continent. This dominance ensured that American continental politics would not feature the constant military mobilization required in multipolar Europe, where powerful central governments limited liberty in the interests of security. Continental dominance was and remains foundational for the preservation of America’s republican essence. Similarly, American power-balancing in Eurasia over the course of the World Wars and the Cold War was integral to forging a liberal international system and, theorists and statesmen rightly hoped, precluding constant wars and violent great power competition. All this was a bloody and duplicitous business better explained by Isaiah Berlin’s “The Originality of Machiavelli” than any treatise of Aquinas’s or Augustine’s, but the ends continental dominance and Eurasian power-balancing served- a republican way of life for the American people, and a liberal international order for the Americans and their allies- were indeed worth fighting for. Catholic theology and Just War Theory would of course approve of the results, while being rightly appalled at the brutal means of attaining them.
In my American Nationalist-Catholic dilemma, I have no choice but to revert to the Catholic John F. Kennedy’s explanation of his identity. When, as a presidential candidate, he was confronted by Protestant ministers brandishing Pope Pius IX’s “Syllabus of Errors” (an 1864 Vatican document which, among other things, condemned freedom of conscience and freedom of religion,) he replied that his Catholic faith would not usurp his duties of citizenship and high office.
“…I am not the Catholic candidate for President. I am the Democratic Party’s candidate for President who happens also to be a Catholic.”
Similarly, Catholic condemnations of war and nationalism do not bind me, and, I must confess before God and my fellow man, that in public life I am more bound to the American’s Creed than to the Nicene Creed. The Roman Catholic Church informs my moral thinking, but as Machiavelli discerned an insurmountable gulf between public and private morality, I necessarily must be a complicated moral thinker and a bad Catholic destined for a good amount of burn time in Purgatory.
A more personal mentor of mine, the historian and priest Father Jim Heft, routinely counsels me that this course is spiritually dangerous- that it is wiser to be a Catholic who happens to be an American, than an American who happens to be Catholic.
I don’t doubt that Father Jim is right, and I expect that if I enter public life or even simply influence it through my writings, I’ll be going to confession quite a bit. Here, I suppose, I must stand with Machiavelli again, and acknowledge that I love my country more than I love my soul.