The Pontifical Academy’s assessment of the “growing threat of a nationalist revival”

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Apr 30, 2019

It is interesting that the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences is hosting a three-day conference designed to shed light on what it sees as a growing nationalist revival throughout the world. The Academy’s announcement discusses various forms of national identity and the rise and potential fall of mechanisms of international collaboration. “Our conference wants to understand,” the statement explains, “why after World War II supranational institutions became increasingly powerful, and why in the last years there has been a backlash against internationalism.”

Perhaps we should all take up a similar challenge, wondering why the explosion of ever higher layers of regulatory governance have left large numbers of people so deeply unsatisfied over the past fifty years.

Nationalism’s bad press

The more limited organizational power of nationalism acquired a bad reputation between the seventeenth and twentieth centuries because it caused no end of bloody conflict over the extensive claims of the several European powers which dominated the world during this period. Against this backdrop, it is easy to see why “supranational institutions became increasingly powerful” after the two world wars which marked the last century. The more difficult problem is a growing awareness that the level of personal discontent has, if anything, risen throughout the West over the past twenty years or so, despite the unlikelihood of open warfare among any of these Western states.

This discontent has indeed led to something of a backlash—symbolized neatly by Brexit—that has the dominant intellectual class in a bit of a tizzy. It is not too much of a stretch to suspect that the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences reflects both some of the wisdom and some of the prejudices of this dominant intellectual class, very much like the reigning pontiff, who seems to be very concerned about the parallel phenomenon of populism. I am not at all sure that such concern is justified: It is not obviously better to strive for ever-increasing internationalism than to pay heed to a growing desire for greater local determination. But it would certainly be wise actually to attempt to learn something from this increasingly pervasive discontent.

In any case, while nobody should forget the dangers of an excessive nationalism (which was already far from any genuine form of self-determination), it requires an astounding and very privileged prejudice not to recognize that the new international order—which is essentially an order of secular commercial and political elites—has left huge numbers of people out of its allegedly benign calculations. Not only has it abandoned those who yearn for a wholesome self-determination and positive community development through local institutions and economies, but also it has disenfranchised those who see both personal achievement and personal contentment as arising through the cultivation of the human powers we call virtues, in accordance with the nature we have been given by God.

The Regulation of Life

At the material level, we have witnessed the collapse of production economies in a technocratic world, manufacturing economies in which many people used to find satisfying work. Today the locus of basic productivity shifts like lightning from region to region as the market dictates, with little concern for what Pope Benedict XVI called the communities of reference. This in itself signals a critical dislocation of honest labor from the communities it serves, such that whatever material advantages accrue to some, the ties that bind us together in a common purpose tend to disappear. This is probably enough to explain why economic dislocation ranks high on the list of complaints among growing numbers of people who feel our new world order has taken just about everything out of their own hands.

This sense of powerlessness is exacerbated by internationalism. The statement of the Pontifical Academy announcing its conference very likely reveals more than its drafters intended in the following two sentences:

The European Union is an example of what could become a supranational state with precise and limited sovereignty in matters of European common good. The social doctrine of the Church calls this the principle of subsidiarity which does not destroy national autonomies but rather protects them from the illusion of exclusive state sovereignty.

When the sole reference to subsidiarity is to its persistence in national government, we have indeed entered a world in which everything is political—and where everything is controlled at the highest possible levels. For only rarely have men and women found their participation in and contribution to the common good at the national level; the apex of the nation-state in the twentieth-century was already a massive blow against any subsidiarity worthy of the name. In the wake of large-scale production, war and rapid transit, smaller communities were already disappearing, just as intermediary institutions were rapidly eroding with the breakdown of cohesive communities rooted in a strong sense of place and time.

Note the question at issue now: Should the regulatory apparatus that governs life as we know it be controlled at the international or the national level? It is a Hobbesian choice which serves to highlight the frustration so many people feel at their inability to play a significant role in the determination of their own work and productivity, their own contribution to the common good.

Virtue at the Core

But there is an even more common discontent created by our secular world order, by which I mean the pervasive loss of meaning characteristic of modern societies. Many who are restless—and who may be suffering economically—as yet have no clue concerning the deeper cause of their malaise, which can be readily tracked statistically through such indicators as addiction, suicide, sexual profligacy, and divorce. I mentioned that our current order disenfranchises those who recognize fulfillment in the cultivation of virtue. Such persons at least know what they are up against. But the banishment of both God and nature by modern secularism leaves millions in a state of chronic discontent even though they do not recognize the cause.

The world secular establishment cares nothing for virtue, for the family, or for local communities bound together in common civic and religious purposes. The identification of life with a kind of “wage slavery”, the destruction of the family, the erosion of personal fidelity, the refusal to bear and raise children, the thirst for an elusive material satisfaction—all these not only erode communities but undermine personal wholeness, integrity, satisfaction and confidence. I doubt very much that it is possible to restore a sense of well-being without restoring things like marital fidelity and the centrality of family life. This is why so many people are locked in a spiral of self-destruction even without the economic pressures imposed upon them by national and international elites.

Indeed, the spiritual and moral destruction is far more pervasive than the material, and it was fairly advanced even in the twentieth century. It is hardly inconceivable, then, that a return to nationalism should be feared, for it seems that at the national level, at least, it was still possible for people to rally around a flag that concealed their own emptiness, or to adopt a particular ideology which reinforced their status as forces to be reckoned with in a chaotic world.

For this reason, a certain kind of reaction-into-nationalism could lead us back over old and horrifying ground, if those who react against the secular world order acquire no better understanding of the sources of contemporary discontent. Lack of genuine understanding is the father of ideology, and even bad causes can give meaning to those who do not understand their own confusion. But without true subsidiarity it is very difficult to escape the patterns imposed from on high. It is surprising to me that even some popes have not recognized the degree to which the international order sets itself against Jesus Christ, an opposition that exceeds in most cases even that of the national order, which in turn exceeds that of the state (or provincial) order, and again that of the local order.

Nature’s God

One wonders whether the Pontifical Academy will take such considerations into account. Perhaps the very arrogance of those who constantly seek to be “in charge” at higher and higher political and commercial levels makes them least suited to recognize the values necessary for cohesive communities ordered to the good. It is easy for civic and economic leaders to call for the international regulatory consensus required to address environmental and economic problems in their world-dimensions; it is far harder for the rich and successful of the world to acknowledge the truths and values which the human person must hold deep in his heart to provide the meaning necessary to live morally—for himself, his family, his neighbors, and for the common good.

Sometimes even Catholics talk as if there is some mystical trust to be placed in the world order, yet I do not fear its loss. Jesus Christ told us whom to fear—the One who can cast into hell. I am perfectly content to take my chances with diminished globalization, de-centralization, and genuine subsidiarity. There is always the danger that the current backlash will not take us very far in the right direction. But the Pontifical Academy for Social Sciences would be wise to think outside the internationalist box, to probe the principle of subsidiarity at levels somewhat deeper than the nation state. God does not create states; he creates persons. Human persons growing in the natural and Divine virtues engender healthy communities, not global regulation.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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Show 2 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: john.aerts6220 - May. 01, 2019 11:38 AM ET USA

    Easter Amen!

  • Posted by: seebert424930 - Apr. 30, 2019 6:24 PM ET USA

    Supernationalism was caused by sins against solidarity of humanity. The Nationalist Backlash is caused by sins against the subsidiarity of the local village. It's pretty obvious that human beings need to be tribal, governments need to be limited in population and geography.