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Against the New Nationalism

I first visited Ukraine in November of 1998, just a few days before my fifteenth birthday. I was travelling with my family to a Byzantine Catholic priestly ordination. We took a Soviet-era train (with red velvet upholstery) from Vienna to L’viv. At the border between Slovakia and Ukraine, the train was hoisted upon cranes and the wheels changed. The reason, we were told, was that Stalin had had the gauge of train acks in the Soviet Union widened to discourage invading armies.

Crossing the border into Ukraine in the nineties was like going back in time. As the train rattled through the Carpathians, we looked out on women in headscarves washing clothes in icy rivers and horses pulling sledges and wagons. The wagons had car tires on their wheels, but otherwise we could have been in the nineteenth century.

At the train station in L’viv we were met by an old man in a towering fur hat, who was to drive us to the house where we were staying, and by a young student who spoke English. The student told us that the old man had spent years in a Siberian labor camp during the Soviet persecution of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church. We gaped at this Solzhenitsyn character come to life.

What struck us most about L’viv, however, is how Austrian it looked. L’viv had been a part of the Austrian province of Galicia from the partition of Poland in the eighteenth century till the First World War, and its architecture is strongly reminiscent of Vienna. Even the Greek Catholic cathedral is Austrian Baroque, with an iconostasis that looks for all the world like the reredos of an Austrian church. And we found there was a great deal more nostalgia for the Austrian Empire than we had expected.

Our friends in L’viv were fiercely patriotic, but they admitted to a certain disappointment with the results of Ukrainian independence. In Soviet times they had had an image of Ukrainian independence as a return to an arcadian past of free peasants singing folk songs and reciting Taras Shevchenko. The reality of Leonid Kuchma’s deeply corrupt post-Soviet regime was very different. As Infrastructure crumbled, unemployment sky-rocketed, industry and agriculture declined. Ukraine’s real gross domestic product is said to have fallen by more than eighty-eight percent between Kuchma’s election in 1994 and our visit in 1998.

Even as visitors we no ced the hardship this caused. We thought we were used to cold weather, coming from Gaming in the Limestone Alps. But in Austria when one came in from the cold one would soon warm up in the well-heated buildings. In L’viv after being thoroughly frozen during the long Byzantine liturgies in totally unheated churches, we would go into houses and restaurants only to find that economizing on fuel meant that they too were barely heated. We never got warm. We took to wearing all the clothes that we had brought along both indoors and out, and we were still cold. We stayed with a family for whom a meal meant to serve seven persons would consist of a large bowl of mashed potatoes with a single sausage cut into very thin slices strewn over the top.

But the dissatisfaction with Ukrainian independence that many in L’viv felt went deeper than economic discontent. There was a feeling that they had overestimated the cultural unity of Ukraine. The politically dominant central and eastern parts of the county were too Russifed. They had exchanged a set of Russian tyrants in Moscow for a set of Russified Ukrainian rants in Kiev. The true Ukraine seemed to them to be the part that had been in the Austrian Empire.

The partition of Poland had been a catastrophe for the Poles, but for the Ukrainians and Ruthenians of Galicia it was a liberation from Polonization. Austria gave Ukrainian culture a measure of room to develop. This was certainly in part to counterbalance Polish nationalism in Galicia, but it also stemmed from the additions of Catholic empire as unifying many nations without destroying their national identities. Of course, the Habsburgs’ understanding of their imperial mission took different forms at different times, and at any given me included elements that were in tension with each other—Joseph II’s rationalist absolutism, for example, was in tension with more traditional Catholic understandings of empire— but the traditional understanding always played a part.

The Peace of Westphalia in 1648, often seen as the inauguration of the modern European system of sovereign national states, may have actually prevented the Habsburgs from becoming a national dynasty . The Holy Roman Empire had always aspired to unite many nations, but over the course of its history it had come more and more to be associated with the German peoples. The Emperor was always a German, and the Imperial Diet, representing the estates of the Empire, was composed almost entirely of Germans—as was the Electoral College, which elected the Holy Roman Emperor. Between election and coronation, the Holy Roman Emperor was informally known as “the German King.” But the Thirty Years War ended hopes of a restoration of Catholic union in Germany, and thus seriously compromised the Emperor’s ability to exercise his authority in German lands. Beginning with the Emperor Ferdinand III, at the time of the Peace of Westphalia, the Habsburgs moved the focus of their rule from the Empire to the Slavic, Magyar, and Italian lands to the East and South—lands which were outside the juridical framework of the Empire, and not represented in the Imperial Diet. is eventually led to the establishment of the so-called “Austrian Empire,” consisting of the crown lands of the Habsburgs, in 1804, and to the (arguably illegal) abolition of the Holy Roman Empire in 1806. As a system of various kingdoms, duchies, peoples, and estates, bound together through relations of feal to the Emperor, the new Austrian Empire constantly looked back to an older ideal: Christendom as a union of many kingdoms and nations. It was partly because of this ideal that the Habsburgs allowed Ukrainian identity to flourish in Galicia. And the Ukrainians were so grateful that they came to be known as “Tyroleans of the East” second only to the countryman of Andreas Hofer in their loyalty to the Emperor.

What exactly is the Catholic ideal of empire, and how much basis does it really have in Scripture and tradition? The ideal of empire has recently come under attack by “National Conservatives,” reacting to the regime of neoliberal globalism. In The Virtue of Nationalism, the Israeli philosopher Yoram Hazony argues that the Hebrew Bible is consistently anti-imperialist, amounting to an argument for a system of independent nations inspiring each other through example, as the best way to order human life. Hazony argues that Catholicism, infected by the pagan ideology of Rome, actually promotes an anti-biblical imperialism:

For more than a thousand years, Christianity thus aligned itself, not with the ideal of seeing the nations free as had been proposed by the Israelite prophets, but with much the same aspiration that had given rise to imperial Egypt, Assyria, and Babylonia: the aspiration of establishing a universal empire of peace and prosperity.

Hazony is particularly harsh towards the House of Austria. He sees the Emperor Frederick iii’s cryptic motto A.E.I.O.U., which he reads as a call for Austria to subdue the entire world to her rule, as an inspiration for Adolf Hitler. He sees Hitler’s “third” German Reich as being basically in continuation with the ideals of the “first” German Reich: the Holy Roman Empire. Thus, on Hazony’s reading National Socialism was not really a nationalist, but an imperialist movement.

Hazony sees Protestantism, with its principle of sola scriptura, as rediscovering the anti-imperialist teaching of the Old Testament. For Hazony therefore, the peace of Westphalia, and the establishment of a system of sovereign states to which it led, was not the tragic end of the union of Christendom, but rather a new dawn of a truly biblical politics.

Surprisingly, certain Catholic writers have agreed with Hazony’s assessment. At a conference organized in Washington. D.C., in 2019 by Hazony, R.R. Reno of First Things argued that while Christianity is not tied to any political form—being able to adapt to empires, kingdoms and republics—nevertheless, Christianity is opposed to “any political project that pretends to a universal mission or dominion.” The only universal community for Christians, Reno argues, is the Church herself: she alone “can overcome divisions and restore union to the human race.”

I think that there is an element of truth to the arguments put forward by Hazony and Reno. They offer a useful  critique of secular globalism in our time. But I think that they are wrong in identifying the problem with imperial universalism as such. Hazony is unable to give a clear criterion by which empires and na ons could be distinguished. He fails to see that the real point of the biblical critique of pagan empires is not that they are empires, but that they are pagan. Any complete human community that does not give the one God the worship that is His due and submit itself to the spiritual authority that He has established will inevitably tend to idolatrous totalitarianism—whether it sees itself as a universal empire or only a single nation. Reno is right to see the only truly universal community as the Church. Any program of universal dominion outside of the Church will necessarily be unjust. But he neglects the perennial truth that temporal political life can be “baptized,” thereby being included in the Church. Christendom ought to be the Church herself seen under her temporal aspect. The lay estate within the Church is called to subordinate temporal affairs, the natural goods of political peace, to the supernatural end of the Church. By opposing the Church to political projects, Reno is being simultaneously too clericalist and too laicist. Clericalism and laïcité are, in fact, two sides of the same coin. When politics is secularized, and political communities are no longer seen as part of the Church, then the Church will naturally be identified with the clerical estate. But in reality there are three estates within the Church— clerical, religious, and lay. To the lay estate is given power over temporal matters, but a power that it must submit to the judgements of the spiritual power entrusted to the clergy, and which is always in need of the prophetic witness of the religious.

There is no denying that Scripture does severely condemn the pretensions of the empires of Egypt, Assyria, and Babylonia. In the Books of Maccabees this condemnation is extended to the Hellenistic Empire of Alexander the Great. And in the New Testament it is extended to the Roman Empire. The Apocalypse of Saint John portrays Rome as the Seven-Headed Beast on which the Whore of Babylon sits, drunk on the blood of the Martyrs of Christ.

And yet, there is another thread out of which the text of Scripture is woven. This thread sees the pagan empires as a providental preparation for the Kingdom of God, which will in some way include all that was good in them, making true their false promise of universal peace. As Peter J. Leithart has pointed out, Jeremias speaks of God giving the King of Babylon universal rule in the language of messianic prophecy:

My strength it was, the exertion of my power, that made earth, made man and beast to walk on it; and I give dominion over it to the man on whom my choice falls. And all these countries I have handed over to my servant Nabuchodonosor, king of Babylon, making even the wild beasts subject to him; all the world must obey him, and his son and his grandson after him, until the time has run out, for him and for his land both; nations a many and great kings shall pay him their homage. Nation or people that will not be vassal to Nabuchodonosor, will not bow to Babylon’s yoke, I will punish with sword and famine and pestilence, until the last of them is left at his mercy.

And Isaias applies Messianic titles to the King of Persia:

Thou art my shepherd, and thou shalt perform all my pleasure. . . my anointed Cyrus, whose right hand I have taken hold of, to subdue nations before his face, and to turn the backs of kings, and to open the doors before him, and the gates shall not be shut.

In the mysterious workings of divine providence, the pagan empires were a preparation for the coming of the ue empire of God. is is mostly expressed by the famous vision in Daniel of a statue with a head of gold, breast and arms of silver, belly and thighs of bronze, legs of iron, and feet partly of iron and partly of clay, which is destroyed by a stone that grows to all the world. Daniel interprets the vision as referring to a series of empires, beginning with the Babylonian empire of his own me (the head of gold). The Church Fathers see the iron empire with feet partly of clay as a prophecy of Rome. Daniel goes on to say that the stone which destroys the statue is the empire of God, which is truly what the pagan empires only pretended to be: “And while those empires yet flourish, another empire the God of heaven will bring into being, never to be destroyed, never to be superseded; conqueror of all these others, itself unconquerable.” that empire will only be fully established at the Second Coming, but it is present already now in the Church. Jesus chooses Caesarea Philippi, named after Caesar Augustus, to declare Peter the rock on which He will build His Church; when He confirms Peter’s mission to feed His sheep, He chooses the shores of the Sea of Tiberias, named after another Caesar. As Vladimir Soloviev observed:

In the borders of Cæsarea and on the shores of the Sea of Tiberias, Jesus dethroned Cæsar. . . He dethroned him because He had created a new and better center of universe, a new and better sovereign power based upon faith and love, truth and grace. And while dethroning the false and impious absolutism of the pagan Cæsars, Jesus confirmed and made eternal the universal monarchy of Rome by giving it its true theocratic basis. It was in a certain sense nothing more than a change of dynasty; the dynasty of Julius Cæsar, supreme pontiff and god, gave place to the dynasty of Simon Peter, supreme pontiff and servant of the servants of God.

In the foundation of the new, spiritual Rome Peter is helped by Paul. Paul is not only a Roman citizen, but also a son of Benjamin, “the wolf,” and his temperament has something of Rome’s wolf-like violence. Like Rome itself he is highly gifted and full of zeal for justice and law, and, like Rome, he for a while persecutes the Church. But after his conversion he becomes a great missionary, spreading the truth throughout the earth. It is he who formulates most clearly how Christ dissolves the barriers between Israel and the nations: “He is our bond of peace; he has made the two one, breaking down the wall that was a barrier between us.”

The new Rome, founded not on Romulus and Remus, but on Peter and Paul, is a spiritual empire. And yet it is one to which temporal kings and emperors are bound to subordinate themselves. As Saint John Henry Newman argues, when the persecuting powers were converted they had to submit themselves to the Church: “There was no middle term; either they must deny her claim to divinity or humble themselves before it.”

By submitting themselves to the Church, temporal powers establish a united juridical community among themselves: Christendom. While the unity of Christendom was always incomplete and dissensions remained, it was more than a mere idea, as Lord Acton observed: “The period of [the Church’s] undisputed supremacy was that in which all Western Europe obeyed the same laws, all literature was contained in one language, and the political unity of Christendom was personified in a single potentate.” In the darkest days of World War I, the great Austrian theologian and poli cian Ignaz Seipel looked back upon that uni with nostalgia: “ Those times were surely not the worst in which the Lombard Peter, the German Albert the Great, and the Neapolitan Thomas Aquinas all taught at the University of Paris; nor those in which the Spaniard Caramuel y Lobkowitz was successively Abbot of Melrose in Scotland, Professor at Louvain, and imperial minister in Vienna.” The unity of Christendom did not destroy the particular loyalties of Lombardy, Germany, Naples, or Spain; it ennobled them by ordering them to a higher unity. 

Hazony and Reno are certainly right to criticize the liberal globalism of our time. Hazony argues that imperialism is based upon “abstract categories” which are “detached from the circumstances and interests, traditions and aspirations of the particular clan or tribe.” While he is wrong to accuse imperialism in general of this fault, he is correct to find it in contemporary liberalism. There is something inhuman about such detachment, because it is natural for human beings to be bound together by loyalties that begin with their family relations and extend outward to wider communities which they see as extensions of themselves. Liberal globalism, insofar as it has contempt for such bonds, and effectively dissolves them, provokes a very natural reaction.

Reno, for his part, argues that the love of particular nations and peoples for their communities is a training in the overcoming of disordered self-love and thus a preparation for the more universal union of loves in the City of God. The proponents of liberal globalism “imagine justice without virtue and peace without love.”

But Reno and Hazony are wrong to turn to nationalism as the solution. To see the populism of Brexit and Trump as an effective form of resistance to liberal globalism is possible only from a superficially pragmatic point of view. This resistance does not call into question the secular presuppositions of the modern state. It is intrinsically doomed to failure.

Secular nations are destructive of human bonds, as are empires. Take, for example, the homogenization of France in early modernity , which destroyed local cultures, languages, and jurisdictions. Indeed, Hazony’s book gives unwitting testimony to this problem in the difficulty that it has in distinguishing between nations and empires. Hazony remarks that a nation needs not only some kind of religious or linguistic unity but also the military power necessary to protect itself. Hence many groups which consider themselves to be nations are condemned to be protectorates of larger nations:

A nation or tribe that does not have [military strength] can only hope to live in peace by seeking an alliance with a powerful neighbor, which is to say, as a protectorate. This is perhaps not what everyone would wish for. But a federated or protectorate state with some measure of delegated authority is, for most peoples on earth, the greatest degree of collective self- determination that can be attained.

How is such a protectorate state different from an empire? And what will prevent the larger nation from destroying the local traditions of its protectorates?

But the dissolving powers of the secular nation state go much further. As Patrick Deneen put it in his speech at Hazony’s National Conservatism Conference last year, nationalists have often had “a stance of hostility to the local, the communal, the particular, and. . . the family.” Deneen identifies a kind of totalitarian tendency in nationalism, but he does not go far enough.

Charles de Koninck, in his masterpiece On the Primacy of the Common Good: Against the Personalists, did. Human beings are political animals, and this means that they are ordered to the common good of the complete communities to which they belong. Common goods are ends pursued in common. But ends are only truly good if they are ordered to the absolutely final end: God as the end of all creatures. As a rational being, man is able to attain that final good, and he thus has a dignity that is violated when he is ordered to any good that is not itself ordered to that more ultimate end. In human choice, the first principle is the last end. When the last end is removed, all other ends are hollowed out:

Man cannot be subordinated to the good of political society alone; he should order himself to the good of the perfectly universal whole to which every lower common good should be expressly ordered. The common good of political society should be expressly ordered to God, both by the chief citizen and by the citizen who is a part, each in his own way. The common good requires, of itself, this ordination. Without this express and public ordination, society degenerates into the “State,” frozen and enclosed in itself.

Thus, de Koninck can ask rhetorically, “Is not society corrupted in its very root when those who have charge of the common good do not order it explicitly to God?” A political or imperial community that orders its common good explicitly to God is able to preserve the common goods of smaller communities such as nations, tribes, and families because it can see how they tend to the final good. But the modern secular state, not being ordered to the true common good of human beings, will inevitably enter into competition with the goods of smaller communities. It has an inevitable tendency to set itself up as an idol, to which everything else is sacrificed. As de Koninck shows, the so-called “liberal” state of modernity is essentially totalitarian:

The common good has lost its distinctive note, it becomes an alien good. It has been subordinated to that monster of modern invention that is called the “State,” not the state taken as synonymous with civil society or the city , but the “State” which means a city elevated into a sort of physical person.

De Koninck was writing during the Second World War. In the period following the war there was a strong movement among Catholics to establish international authorities for the sake of peace. In a speech to the members of the Universal Movement for World Federation in 1951, Pope Pius XII said: “Your movement, gentlemen, aims at bringing into being an effective political world organization. Nothing is more in line with the traditional doctrine of the Church.” Yet there was a key element of the Church’s traditional teaching on world government that such movements neglected.

As Alan Fimister has shown, the founders of the European Union were in part inspired by the teachings of Pius XII. And they hoped through European unification to achieve a “new Christendom.” But their fatal flaw was that they thought this Christendom could be an “anonymous” Christendom, lacking explicit ordination to God, and thus lacking explicit subordination to the spiritual authority of the Church. De Koninck could have told them that this was a fool’s errand. In the European Union of today the illusion has become a nightmare. As Adrian Papst put it, the E.U. is now “abstract, administrative and alien vis-a-vis its citizens.”This is the fate of any communities —whether national or imperial—which does not explicitly order itself to that ultimate good to which we can only be led by divine love, or Christian charity . This is the perennial wisdom of the Church. Modern Catholic social teaching has again and again emphasized this point. Pope Leo XIII said that it is a sin for the state not to order subordinate itself to the true religion. Saint Pius X taught that unless all wills are united in “the love of God and His Son” true human solidarity will not be achieved. And even Pope Benedict XVI wrote that a universal brotherhood of nations is not possible “by human effort alone;” it can only be achieved by “a transcendent vocation from God the Father, who loved us first, teaching us through the Son what fraternal charity is.”

This is the program of integralism, which seeks to preserve and perfect human bonds by ordering the temporal common good explicitly to the eternal common good. Integralism can seem wildly impractical, insofar as it seems unlikely that an electoral majority could be found for it in major Western countries. But in reality integralism is the only truly practical program, because it is the only program that is unequivocally committed to the true common good of human beings. The Kingship of Christ did not seem a very practical program at the time of the persecution of Diocletian, and yet soon the Roman emperors were to submit themselves to it.

In 1363, Countess Margaret of Tyrol, decided to bequeath Tyrol to her late son’s brother-in-law, Duke Rudolph iV of Habsburg. This was typical for the way in which the Austrian crown lands were acquired— not chiefly through the sort of wars of conquest that Hazony associates with imperialism, but through the building of networks of fealty through dynastic marriage. As a mocking proverb has it: Bella gerant alii, tu felix Austria nube. / Nam quae Mars aliis, dat tibi diva Venus. (Let others wage war, but do thou, happy Austria, marry. For what Mars gives to others is given to thee by divine Venus).

The “princely” Count of Tyrol was to become the most loyal of all the Austrian crown lands. When it was conquered by Bonaparte, a simple Tyrolean inn-keeper, Andreas Hofer, led a popular uprising. Dedicating themselves to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the Tyroleans fought for the Catholic Faith and the old Empire against the Enlightenment rationalism of Napoleon’s new world order. Against the secular ideals of liberalism , fraternity , and equality ,they set the true liberty, fraternity, and equality that come from union in the Sacred Heart, the furnace of Divine Love and Desire of the Nations.

If a politics of the love of Christ was opposed to the rationalist universalism of the French Revolution, it was equally opposed to the romantic neopagan nationalism of Hitler. A retired abbot of my monastery, Abbot Gerhard, was a teenager during the Third Reich. I once heard him recount how in the early days after the Anschluss he participated in the Catholic Youth Movement’s Christ the King celebration. At the end of the celebration they sang a hymn to Christ the King by the Silesian Jesuit theologian Erich Przywara. At the following words all the youth held out their arms with three fingers raised in a gesture of oath-taking:

Christ my great King, to thee alone
I pledge my love strong and pure,
Even to death my faithfulness.

Fidelity to the Highest King meant rejecting the totalitarian claims of the Führer. It meant having the true freedom and happiness of being ordered to the one common good of human life. That is integralist politics. That is the politics that was necessary then, is necessary now, and will continue to be necessary in the future.