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The Philosophy of American Patriotism In the Present Crisis

by Fr. H.F. Tiblier, S.J.

Descriptive Title

The Philosophy of American Patriotism


The idea of Patriotism or devotion to one's country is as old as the human race. The mere existence of historical documents and monuments is a guarantee of the existence of patriotism in the hearts of the most ancient peoples, for it is patriotism that has inspired these monuments and histories. Love of one's country is as human as mother-love or filial devotion. It awakens the same thoughts, ideals, sentiments in the hearts of the most cultured and the most ignorant." This article was written during WWII but the principles are perennial.

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The Ecclesiastical Review



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American Ecclesiastical Review for The Catholic University of America, December 1942

The idea of Patriotism or devotion to one's country is as old as the human race. The mere existence of historical documents and monuments is a guarantee of the existence of patriotism in the hearts of the most ancient peoples, for it is patriotism that has inspired these monuments and histories. Love of one's country is as human as mother-love or filial devotion. It awakens the same thoughts, ideals, sentiments in the hearts of the most cultured and the most ignorant. The English Cockney in the pub has much the same sentiments about England as Prime Minister Winston Churchill; and the American school-boy would yield neither to President Roosevelt nor to General MacArthur in his love for the United States of America.

The sacred books of the Jewish people are filled with glorious accounts of patriots from Gideon, Samson, and Judith to the Machabees. The history of Greece and Rome is the record of their patriots. Their great writers like Thucydides, Xenophon, Demosthenes, Cicero and Virgil,—all were great patriots and extolled patriotism. The word "patria" is the same in Greek, Latin and the Romance languages and the meaning has been the same since before the time of Homer. All these men loved what we love—a country and country-men.1

St. Thomas treats the question of patriotism in his Summa of Theology, the second part of the second part, question one hundred and one. He sums up our duties, to our country under the virtue of piety,—the technical term for patriotism.2 As a virtue it partakes of the virtue of justice. Justice demands that we give to another his due according to equality. The one to whom we are most indebted is, of course, God. He is our first principle and last end; He has created us and keeps us in existence. He governs us by His divine Providence. To Him we owe a return; not according to equality, for this is impossible; it must then be a return of gratitude, adoration, reverence, service and love. This is the virtue of religion.

But by the providential Will of God, we have received our lives from Him through our parents and our country. Hence, justice demands that we make some return to our parents and our country for the gift of life we have received. St. Thomas calls the virtue which prompts us to fulfil this duty the virtue of piety. The word is well chosen, for it brings home to us how intimately these three should be united in a man's love, respect and devotion: his God, his parents, his country. These are the authors of his being and his guides. It is our country and our parents who best image for us the divine from Whom through them we have received all that we are. Towards God then we practice the virtue of religion; towards our country and our parents, the virtue of piety. True philosophy does not deify one's country, but it teaches that we cannot truly love God, if we have not love for our country and our parents since these represent God for us. For a Christian and for a sane philosopher the country of one's birth or free adoption is the authoritative self-revelation of God on earth.

Cardinal Mercier, the great scholastic philosopher and Belgian patriot of the last war, brings this out beautifully in his pastoral letter of Christmas, 1914, addressed to the people of invaded Belgium: "When in her throes she brings forth heroes, our Mother Country gives her own energy to the blood of her sons. Let us acknowledge that we needed a lesson of patriotism . . . For down within us all is something deeper than personal interests, than personal kinships, than party feeling, and this is the need and the will to devote ourselves to that more general interest which Rome termed the public thing, Res Publica. And this profound will within us is Patriotism ... Our country is not a mere concourse of persons or of families inhabiting the same soil, having amongst themselves relations ... of business, of neighborhood, of a community of memories, happy or unhappy. Not so; it is an association of living souls subject to a social organization to be defended at all costs, even the cost of blood, under the leadership of those presiding over its fortunes. And it is because of this general spirit that the people of a country live a common life in the present, through the past, through the aspirations, the hopes, the confidence in a life to come, which they share together ... And the religion of Christ makes of patriotism a positive law; there is no perfect Christian who is not also a perfect patriot."3

The nature of patriotism becomes clearer from an analysis of the duties it imposes upon us. These are respect, love and obedience.


Respect for our country arises from the recognition of the participation of the divine by the country which under God has given us life and governs us. If we honor God, we must respect what comes from God and which represents Him. Thus a child respects his parents and our country is a second father and mother. The national family, not only by its present-day activity, but thanks to centuries of labor and to millions of its heroic dead has contributed most effectively to our physical, moral, intellectual, civic, social and religious development.

In a democracy, it is good to insist upon another obligation of patriotism: respect for the administration which being duly elected represents the country officially. Through them our country speaks, acts and governs. Their power comes ultimately from God and hence to them honor and respect is due. Ours is a government of the people, by the people and for the people; but the power which the people give to their representatives is from God. Whatever our personal opinions, the duly elected representatives of the people deserve our honor, respect and obedience. The rash judgments which thoughtless people pass on their government gives solace to the enemies of our country.


To our country we owe love. Our duties to our country are governed by the virtue of charity. We should acknowledge gifts received; ingratitude is a sin, a refusal to pay a debt of love. Who can estimate what we Americans have received from our country? In fact, what have we or what are we that we have not received gratuitously from God through our country? Patriotism then for us should be an exercise of the virtue of charity. True it is that charity bids us love all men, but those especially who are bound to us by closer ties. Such is the teaching of all scholastic philosophers and the powerful promptings of human nature confirm it, as do the whole history of peoples, the language of Sacred Scripture and Christian tradition. Just as if we love God, we shall respect and obey Him, so if we love our country, we will also respect and serve it. A parallel exists between these three loves of a good man: love of God, love of neighbor, and love of country. We can then safely paraphrase the words of St. John concerning love for one's neighbor: If any man say, I love God, and hateth his country; he is a liar. For he that loveth not his country whom he seeth, how can he love God, whom he seeth not?4

The love of God and the duties of religion exempt no man from the duty of patriotism. Patriotism flames as a divine fire through the books of the Old Testament and Christ Himself honored the traditions and the great men of His people. He makes no secret of his special solicitude for the lost sheep of the house of Israel.5 Despite the ingratitude of Jerusalem, the capital city of his fatherland, He weeps at the thought of the evils which would come over it when it would be destroyed by Titus in the year 70 A.D. He compares His love for His country to that of a hen who would protect her little chicks from danger by hiding them under her wings.6 The same is true of the Apostles. It is well known what love St. Paul had for his people: "I have great sadness, and continual sorrow in my heart. For I wished myself to be anathema from Christ, for my brethren, who are my kinsmen according to the flesh."7 A rightly regulated patriotism is then but a manifestation of one's love for God Himself.

Patriotism is not Chauvinism or exaggerated nationalism. It does not prompt us to hate other peoples. Just as a family may be united most closely by the bonds of a special love without warring against other families, so the most exalted patriotism need not imply hatred of other nations and races. The true patriot wants the good, the peace, the prosperity, independence and honor of his country; he is not prompted by the spirit of conquest and unjust aggression against other nations. He respects the lawful rights of other nations, but he will fight and sacrifice and suffer and die if need be to safeguard the rights of his own country.

Nor has the individual family aught to fear from love of country. The country is made of families and the country enriches each family with its national traditions, ideals and scientific conquests. Families have certain inalienable rights independent of the country or state. Yet the country and legitimate state has the right to make heavy demands upon its citizens and families for the defense of its liberties which after all are the liberties of the citizens and families themselves. As Pius XII has said in his encyclical, "Summi Pontificatus"8 "Goods and blood it can demand . . ." In times of danger, it can take the son from the family and send him to the battlefield; but in fighting for his country, the citizen is fighting for himself and his family. He exposes his life in the defense of his country which is the family of all families, the union of all individuals; he thus protects at once his country, his family and his own person.

It is true that because of the malice of men in authority who have launched their country on a campaign of aggression and unjust conquest, or who have flagrantly violated the rights of God and religion, there may arise conflicts in the soul of the individual who wishes to be faithful at once to his country, to his God, and to the right. The people of the United States in the present crisis are blessed that they have no such conflict of duties. Their government has sincerely worked for peace9 and the settlement of international disputes by arbitration, but conscious of its obligation to defend its liberties against world-wide gangsterism, and of its obligations as a great power in the family of nations, it has consistently refused to recognize territorial aggrandizement due to force of arms, and has lent aid to those free peoples who were resisting aggression and fighting for God-given rights. As a result it has been attacked and now it is fighting for its life. The duty of American citizens is clear. Their duty to their God, to their country and to themselves is one. We are fighting a just war and there is no sacrifice too great to be demanded or cheerfully given. St. Thomas did not hesitate to say: " The common good of the many is more divine than the good of the individual."10

The money, work, or blood, which the American citizen gives for his country is part of himself; a donation of self and hence an act of love and by that act he shows that the peace, tranquility, well-being, reputation and liberty of his country are as dear to him as his own person; and that he prefers these things to what he sacrifices, whether it be money, rest or life. This is a sign of true love.


Patriotism demands obedience to the legitimate orders of one's country. When the laws of our country are in accord with right reason, in harmony with the natural law, and with the positive precepts of God's revelation and in accord with the constitution of the State, then no hesitation is possible. Obedience is necessary; it is a moral, religious and Christian duty. Our country is one of the principle instruments of which God makes use to govern the world and our lives and to direct us to our end. To it God gives of His power and authority. All men are created equal. Some may be more apt by nature to command and govern, but such aptitude gives them no authority. Even the whole community has no right to lay commands on any of its members; but since God has willed to found and preserve civil society, and since civil society implies, authority, the rulers of the State receive their authority from God Himself.

Hence citizens have an obligation in conscience to obey the State and its lawful authorities, and in obeying them they obey God. One's respect and love for his country finds its natural flower and fruit in obedience. If we love someone, we accomplish his reasonable demands of us. This is what Jesus Christ meant when He said: " you are my friends, if you do what I have commanded."11

It is evident that only that authority can demand our respect and obedience and love which is legitimate. If by injustice or violence an invader has overrun a land and installed Quislings to govern the country, such a government can demand no obedience from the people. Public order and the common good may force him to obey in those things which do not imply that he accepts the present state of affairs; but he owes neither respect nor love to such a government.

In the pastoral letter referred to once before this is clearly brought out by Cardinal Mercier: "I consider it a duty of my pastoral office to define your duties in conscience before a power which has invaded our land, and which for the moment occupies the greater part. This power is not a legitimate authority; and hence in the intimacy of your soul, you owe it neither respect, obedience nor love. The unique legitimate power in Belgium is that which belongs to our King and his government and the representatives of the nation. He alone has authority over us; he alone has a right to the affection of our hearts and to our submission. Of themselves, the acts of public administration of the occupying power would be without force; but the legitimate authority tacitly ratifies those acts which the common good justifies; and from this ratification alone comes all their juridical force . . . respect the regulations which are imposed upon us only as long as they do not prejudice either the liberty of our Christian consciences nor our patriotic dignity."12

Such is the Christian philosophical concept of devotion to one's country. It guarantees the dignity of the human person. Men remain equal and no man need sacrifice his rights to another mere man. The patriot does not bow to brute force; nor does he sell his soul for material gain. His will obeys alone the Will of God and he ennobles himself in accomplishing it. In every legitimate authority he sees God.

Our Patriotic Duties In the Present Crisis

The present crisis will make great demands upon our patriotism, but our courage and calm determination must not falter for the issues involved transcend merely national rights; there is question today of the survival of traditional Christian civilization itself. The crusaders of old fought to deliver the holy places from the infidel; we are fighting to deliver the bodies and souls of men from neo-pagan slavery.

Civilization is a moral and spiritual patrimony transmissible by inheritance from generation to generation. Each succeeding age should enrich and develop it by further moral, social and scientific conquests. But civilization can be wasted, ravaged and destroyed by barbaric forces of nihilism. Such destruction is what we are facing at the hands of Japanese divine-emperor imperialism, and Nazi blond-god Pan-Germanism.

Present day European and American civilization is not formally Catholic nor completely Christian. Many non-Christian and even anti-Christian elements have been at work in its development. Despite this, however, its fundamental ideals of human freedom, of the common brotherhood of all men, and of dignity of the human person; its recognition of a higher law to which even the State is subject; its rejection of the principle that might makes right or that the State is the arbiter of good and evil are all Christian ideals. Christianity is at least compatible with Western civilization as we know it. In such a civilization, Christianity is free to pursue its historic and divine mission of bringing souls to Christ and bettering the social and intellectual condition of man.

But Christianity is not compatible with the ancient paganism of Japan nor the neo-paganism of Nazi Germany, for these cultures not only deny supernatural Christianity, they would also destroy the natural law, which has received so much clarification from Christian revelation, and which must be the foundation of any human civilization worthy of the name. They would destroy this foundation by perverting the idea of God and making a god of the State; by reintroducing human slavery; and by destroying Christianity.

The recent history of the actual practice of both Japan and Nazi Germany makes me feel that I am bludgeoning the obvious when I quote from sources in proof of these statements.

Perverting the Idea of God and Making a God of the State

In the case of Japan, the statement is obvious, for the Japanese Emperor claims to be a lineal descendant of God and himself divine, and the people think that they have the heaven-sent mission of ruling the world. In regard to Nazi Germany we shall quote the words of Pius XI in his encyclical of March 14, 1937, " On the Condition of the Church in Germany."13

"Take care, Venerable Brethren, that first of all belief in God, the primary and irreplaceable foundation of all religion, be preserved true and unadulterated in German lands. He is not a believer in God who uses the word God rhetorically, but who associates with the sacred word the true and worthy idea of God. He who, in pantheistic vagueness, equates God with the universe, and identifies God with the world and the world with God does not belong to believers in God ... He who takes the race, or the people or the State, or the form of Government, the bearers of the power of the State or other fundamental elements of human society—which in the temporal order of things have an essential and honorable place,—out of the system of earthly valuation, and makes them the ultimate norm of all, even of religious values, and deifies them with idolatrous worship, perverts and falsifies the order of things created and commanded by God. Such a one is far from true belief in God and a conception of life corresponding to true belief."

National Socialism denies that it is godless; anyone accusing it of godlessness is brought before the law courts and condemned. Officially, those who abandon the cross of Christ to rally around the swastika are called "Believers in God—Gottgläubig." The Nazis protest that "the Church has no monopoly on God," but to this protestation they add: "the German religion can be boiled down to these words: All for Adolf Hitler."14

Reintroduction of Human Slavery

To the history of fact of the past three years on the enslavement of the peoples of Europe, we shall add a few quotations: "Without this possibility of utilizing inferior men, the aryan would never have been able to take the first steps towards his later culture; exactly as, without the help of various suitable animals which he knew how to tame, he would never have arrived at a technology which now allows him to do without these very animals. The words 'The Moor has done his duty, he may go', has unfortunately too deep a meaning."15

This is Hitler's idea of the Society of the future: "There will be a Herren-class, an historical class tempered by battle, and welded from the most varied elements. There will be a great hierarchy of party members. There will be no middle class. And there will be the great mass of the anonymous, the serving collective, the eternally disfranchised, . . . but beneath them there will still be the class of subject alien races; we need not hesitate to call them the modern slave class. And over all of these will stand the new high aristocracy, the most deserving and the most responsible Führer-personalities."16

The Jew in Germany has already been made a slave and deprived of citizenship. Article 4 Section 1 of the Nuremberg Laws on Citizenship and Race has the following: "A Jew cannot be a citizen of the Reich. He cannot exercise the right to vote; he cannot occupy public office."17

Destruction of Christianity

Pius XI has not minced words on this matter. In the encyclical already quoted he says: "The lessons of the past years make it clear where the responsibility lies. They disclose machinations that from the beginning had no other aim than a war of extermination."18

What follows is the record of a conversation of Hitler with Julius Streicher and Hermann Rauschning: "The religions are all alike, no matter what they call themselves. They have no future—certainly none for the Germans. Fascism, if it likes, may come to terms with the Church. So shall I. Why not? That will not prevent me from tearing up Christianity root and branch, and annihilating it in Germany."19

We could go on with this type of thing, but it is not necessary, None of us is so blind or deaf that he does not know what we have to expect if Germany and Japan win this war.

Some Practical Hints

The obvious strategy, both German and Japanese, will be to divide and conquer. What would you do if you were a Nazi or a Japanese faced with the coalition of the United Nations. You would not bother with the outer electron region of the smaller nations; you would try to smash the nucleus of the atom—the strong inner core of the United States and the British Empire. You would promote distrust—question motives—repeat ugly stories—dig up historic scandals—invent stories of cowardice on either side—play both ends against the middle. Repeat that the British will fight to the last American; and to the British, that the Americans will fight to the last Britisher; that America is becoming an appendage of the British Empire; that the British Empire is disintegrating and the choice pieces are falling into the lap of plutocratic America.

Kant once said that there is in the greatest misfortune of our best friend something that does not entirely displease us. He was hitting upon a profound psychological truth and Hitler and his gang are nothing if not profound practical psychologists. The terrible part of this is that up to now he has been successful. He kept the small nations of Europe divided from England and France and he gobbled them up one by one. He divided France from England and now France is in slavery. He has taken advantage of the defeats of the United Nations to attempt to divide the United States and England. The most unpatriotic thing we can do today is to foster this distrust between peoples who can conquer only if united. When we repeat irresponsible stories which discredit our allies to our best friend, we forget that our best friend has a different best friend, and before a week the story will have traveled from New York to Los Angeles.

The Duties of Citizens In a Democracy

The true concept of the State is that of a Society which exists for the good of the individuals which constitute it. Its existence is demanded by nature and nature's God as a necessary instrument for the protection of the inalienable rights of human persons—the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. "We hold these truths to be self-evident," says the Declaration of Independence, "that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."

Democracy has emphasized the value of the individual person, and the obligation of the State to respect and protect the individual's rights, but this has occasioned the weakness of democratic States. The individual of a democratic state has often forgotten his social obligations,—his duties to the state. The totalitarian state abuses the rights of the state at the expense of the individual and other states. In a democracy the individual has often abused the rights of the individual with the result that civil society has been weakened and made an easy prey to the ruthless power of dictator nations. We are a democracy and we are at war with three powerful dictator nations. Our culture, our civilization, our civic and religious freedom is imperiled. If we are to succeed in this titanic struggle, the individuals of the democracies must become conscious of their obligations to the state.

All of us hate to face a difficult situation; we prefer not to think about it—especially when the situation involves stupendous and unpredictable sacrifices, but face it we must if we are to survive as a nation of free men. We all need courage and an unfaltering determination to work, to sacrifice, to suffer, to pray and to fight and never give up until the danger has been removed by the complete victory of our armed forces. Such courage and determination will be ours only if we are inwardly convinced of the justice of our cause and of our supreme duty in the sight of God unquestioningly to make any sacrifice which the practical service of our country will entail. Our old easy way of life is gone, at least, for the duration. Not personal rights, but patriotic duty must be uppermost in the minds of Americans. These duties may mean sacrifice of wealth, of rest, of home, of loved ones, of limb, or of life itself, but American citizens will not falter for they realize that the fundamental issues involved are simple and their duty plain.


1 For a systematic study of the concept of Patriotism cf. Comte du Plessis de Grenedan, Dictionaire Apologetique de la Foi Catholique, Tome III, ar Patrie, col. 1588-1621; also Msgr. S. G. Ruch, evèque de Strasbourg, Dictionaire de Thelogie Catholique, Tome XI. art. Patrie (pieté envers la) col. 2301-2326. We recommend these two articles as perhaps as good a synthesis on Catholic doctrine on Patriotism as can be found. We have used them freely in the preparation of this paper.

2 St. Thomas, Summa Theologica II-II, q. 101.

3 Cardinal Mercier, Lettre pastorale sur le patriotisme et l'endurance, Malines, 1914. English translation to be found in The Voice of Belgium, London, Burns and Oates, p. 17, 18.

4 Cf. I. John 4:20.

5 Cf. Matt. 15:24.

6 Cf. Matt. 23:37; Luke 13:34.

7 Romans 9: 2, 3.

8 Pius XII, Summi Pontificatus October 20, 1939; Official Vatican English Translation; N.C.W.C., Washington.

9 Cf. Pius XII, Letter to President Roosevelt; January 7, 1940. Text give in The Pope Speaks.

10 St. Thomas, Summa Theologica II-II q. 31 a. 3 ad 2um.

11 John 14: 15, 23.

12 Cardinal Mercier, op. cit. pg. 25, 26.

13 Pius XI, Mit Brennender Sorge, March 14, 1937; Official Vatican English Translation, On the Condition of the Church in Germany, N.C.W.C.

14 Discourse given October 18, 1936 at Opera of Salzburg by Provincial Counselor Springenschmidt.

15 A. Hitler, Mein Kampf. English translation, Reynald and Hitchcock, N.Y. 1939. Vol. I. c. 11, p. 404. This whole chapter is an elaboration of the same idea.

16 H. Rauschning, Voice of Destruction. N.Y. 1940, p. 41.

17 Cf. Henri Lichtenberger, The Third Reich, N.Y. 1937, p. 313 Appendix V. The Nuremberg Laws on Citizenship and Race. art. 4 (1.)

18 Pius XI. On the Condition of the Church in Germany.

19 Rauschning.Op. cit. p. 49.

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