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Rome ou Babel: Pour un christianisme universaliste et enraciné, Laurent Dandrieu, Artège Editions, pp. 400, $24.00


There is an apparent tension in the attitude of the Church toward the nation state and its authority. In Summi pontificatus, issued in October 1939 just after Nazi Germany invaded Poland, Pope Pius XII offered a vigorous defense of the existence of nations: “Nations, despite a difference of development due to diverse conditions of life and of culture, are not destined to break the unity of the human race, but rather to enrich and embellish it.” In response to total war, he called for a rediscovery of the law of solidarity and charity. But this acknowledgement of universal brotherhood is not hostile to the “love of traditions or the glories of one’s fatherland.” Christianity holds them both in balance, for it “teaches that in the exercise of charity we must follow a God-given order, yielding the place of honor in our affections and good works to those who are bound to us by special ties.”

Writing in October 2020 in Fratelli tutti, Pope Francis worries that national identities are threatening human unity. Detecting the rise of a “myopic, extremist, resentful, and aggressive nationalism,” he warns that “a concept of popular and national unity” creates new forms of selfishness. Reordering the human family toward “an open world” requires, among other things, an “open-ended” concept of a people. The pope writes that “each country also belongs to the foreigner.” He welcomes the diminishment of nations and calls for their being subject to “some form of world authority,” a view endorsed by most of his immediate predecessors. Meanwhile, he states that nations must accept mass immigration through a series of “indispensable steps,” which range from “increasing and simplifying the granting of visas” to guaranteeing “freedom of movement and the possibility of employment.”

The questions at issue for both popes—questions about the value of special ties to one’s countrymen, the role of nations, and the idea of global institutions—lead us to one that is more fundamental: what is the common good? As the specific policy proposals of Fratelli tutti show, support for mass immigration reveals fundamental, fierce divisions over the answer to this question, even within the Church.

Laurent Dandrieu would know. A French essayist and journalist and an astute film critic, he rose to prominence in 2017 with his book Église et immigration. During the migrant crisis of 2015, many prelates, including the pope himself, seemed aloof. In response, Dandrieu contended that churchmen were ignoring the huge difficulties of integrating migrants, the irreconcilable differences between competing cultures and religions, and the legitimate claims of Europe’s national communities. The book became a cause célèbre, with priests and cardinals criticizing Dandrieu, sometimes in ferocious terms.

In Rome ou Babel: pour un christianisme universaliste et enraciné (Rome or Babel: For a universal and rooted Christianity), Dandrieu argues for the role particular cultural and national identities must play in salvation history. The Church’s position “on the legitimacy of patriotism and the spiritual worth of national identities,” he holds, “make[s] rootedness in a particular culture a path to salvation and a way to access the universal.”

Whatever the ambiguities of the present, Dandrieu’s account of the common good still finds plausible support in Church teaching. The realization of the common good lies “in those political communities which defend and promote the good of their citizens and of intermediate groups without forgetting the universal good of the entire human family.” This definition makes clear that Christian universalism does not denounce particular identities, including cultural and national identities. It presupposes and defends them. Vatican II provides some essential signposts in this respect, for instance in Gaudium et spes, in which the Council Fathers speak of cultural particularity—forming “the definite, historical milieu which enfolds the man of every nation”—as the key mediator for coming to a “true and full humanity.” Nations are necessary communities. Whether you call it patriotism or nationalism, loving one’s own nation is virtuous when it remains open to universal charity. Catholic political thought has traditionally been able to balance this openness with respect for the attachments human beings have to their own communities.

That balance has been shattered. Special bonds of love and obligation, and defenses of natural communities, including nations, are now regarded with suspicion if not outright scorn. The theology articulated by some of the Church’s highest officials treats these attachments as impediments to salvation. Proponents of mass immigration associate the common good with a kind of progressive universalism. In the words of one prominent cleric, it is now wrong to raise questions about threats “to one’s own identity,” for the simple reason that “we live in one world, and we cannot build a world of exclusion.”

Since the mid–twentieth century, Dandrieu argues, a new teaching on the common good has developed, diminishing the importance of national communities. It begins with Pius XII himself. Whatever his other insights, Pius XII began defining the common good in terms of the satisfaction of individual rights, and in 1948 he claimed that there was a right to migration. While he limited this to cases of extreme necessity (such as fleeing war or starvation), these limitations later vanished. In 1963, John XXIII wrote in Pacem in terris that man has the “right to enter a country in which he hopes to be able to provide more fittingly for himself and his dependents. It is therefore the duty of State officials to accept such immigrants.” Moreover, while John XXIII subordinated this duty to accept such aspirational immigrants to the demands of the host community’s good, his account hinged on apprehending that good correctly. Once individual rights were made absolute, and the common good defined in terms of satisfying those rights, these changes began to inform understandings of the Church’s older definition of the common good. Nations were now assigned a minor role in the realization of the common good—mere instruments for the realization of individual rights, to which they were sometimes regarded as a threat.

This redefinition of the common good tracked with a growing post-war approbation of supranational authority. As John Paul II put it in Centesimus annus, “an individual State” cannot “direct the economy to the common good.” In this atmosphere, global institutions seemed increasingly necessary. Global economic integration demanded further global political integration. For John XXIII—whose position was reiterated by Benedict XVI in Caritas in veritate—world-wide problems “cannot be solved except by a public authority with power, organization and means co-extensive with these problems, and with a world-wide sphere of activity.” (At times, Pope Francis can come across as more moderate on these questions than his predecessors: in Evangelii gaudium he wrote that such world-wide solutions must be undertaken “with due regard for the sovereignty of each nation.”)

It is possible, of course, that globalization might have played a very different role from the one often assigned to it—shaking Western national identities out of their self-induced stupor. After all, the turn away from Christianity in favor of post-Marxian, libertarian, and egalitarian ideologies preceded the onset of mass immigration. It was the West’s cultural revolution that undermined marriage, family, and natality itself, denying sexual difference in the name of equality. Men and women were said to be “empowered” by the extent to which they participated in the workforce, and abortion was normalized in the West. This way of thinking accelerated demographic decline, providing a powerful impetus for mass immigration. Western nations now need cheap labor to maintain economic and social progress.

This is why some Western Christians believe, with good reason, that they have more in common with Muslim immigrants than they do with their secular fellow citizens. Westerners habituated to secularism have a great deal to learn from the Muslim world—e.g., social norms and laws that sustain the natural family and protect human life; the value of modesty and sexual difference; and the importance of single-sex institutions. This is not to suggest that Muslim world is above reproach in regard to the natural law: after the death of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1989, Iran pursued a “two-child” family planning policy, promoting artificial contraception, requiring birth control classes for couples engaged to be married, and cutting family benefits. These aggressive techniques that pushed Iran’s fertility rate down to British and American levels.

In any case, the West’s importation of shared Muslim and Christian attitudes toward sexual morality is not the kind of globalization on offer. Its logic is of a different kind. Writing in the Atlantic in December 1994, as Western leaders pushed globalization further, Matthew Connelly and Paul Kennedy pointed out their inconsistency. Western “techno-liberals,” as they called them, boast that they have freed all the factors of production, “capital, assembly, knowledge, management,” from national boundaries. But, “What they ignore is that one factor of production has not been similarly liberated: labor. Even the most outré proponent of free-market principles shrinks from arguing that any number of people should be free to go anywhere they like on the planet.”

One sometimes gets the sense that the Church has resolved to end this inconsistency and complete the logic of techno-liberalism. As Dandrieu writes, the vision of globalization many prelates endorse proposes a universal politico-economic order, which, “by means of immigration, gives poor people the right of requisition from the wealthy nations.” Official documents tell us that the global north is obliged to keep its borders open, whatever the costs at home, to solve the problem of economic inequality. Wealthy nations are supposed to regard this process as an unequivocal good. Only the nations and cultures of the global south are in danger of dilution or extinction, and so are the only ones whose sovereign political forms and borders must be protected.

This apparent shift is sometimes attributed to the current pontiff, but as Dandrieu observes, “the Church’s shifting vision of the common good and the value of the national identities did not originate” with Pope Francis. In Dandrieu’s account, Francis is in effect the Catholic equivalent of Tony Blair. There is no original thinking in either, but simply a restless personality who carelessly draws a range of disparate trends together.

Here his vision becomes apocalyptic. He fears the smoke of a new religion of humanity entering the Church, one that impels Christians to reject their own creed in the name of a purer universalism, and therefore a purer Christianity. This new universalism is more attentive to the potential victim status of non-Christians than to traditional Christianity. To make this point, Dandrieu cites René Girard:

Entire churches, led by their clergy, switch their allegiance and go over to the camp of “pluralism.” This pluralism is a relativism that claims it is “more Christian” than the adherence to dogma because it is “kinder” and more “tolerant” toward non-Christian religions.

It is this new universalism, this “ultra-Christianity,” as Girard describes it, that turns the migrant into the modern victim, and the basis for what Dandrieu describes as a new soteriology and a new eschatology—“Our theology is a theology of migrants,” as Francis put it in an interview in 2017. (Two years later, at the pope’s behest, a giant crucifix was installed in the Vatican in which the figure of Christ was replaced by a life vest.)

Neither soteriology nor eschatology is new. Church officials have repeatedly proclaimed that mass migration is a sign of the impending unification of the human family that prepares the way for the end times. Under Paul VI, the Synod of Bishops called migration a momentum “to unify all peoples and the whole world, in which it is easy to recognize God’s spirit.” John Paul II wrote that “amongst all human experiences, God wanted to choose that of migration to signify his plan for the redemption of man.” In 2004 Benedict XVI approved the instruction Erga migrantes caritas Christi (“The love of Christ towards migrants”), in which migration is described as a “sign of the times,” the potential source of a “renewed humanity” akin to the spirit of Pentecost; “the suffering that goes with migration” is the “birth-pangs of a new humanity.”

For Dandrieu this quasi-eschatological understanding of migration lends theological legitimacy to secular universalism, putting the Church on the side of a globalized and homogenized universal state. Yet faced with the increasing evidence of the contradictions and catastrophes this political form produces—its repudiation of any res publica outside the free market, its utopian intangibility, its increasingly totalitarian underpinnings, and its application through imperialism—Dandrieu ends with a note of cautious optimism. This universalism is not inevitable. The “miraculous balance that existed yesterday can be reborn tomorrow.”

One could argue that Dandrieu should be much more pessimistic. If he isn’t, it is because his analysis is, despite his intentions, insufficiently theological. Dandrieu offers a liberal-conservative solution to the problem of secular universalist ideology. It would be intelligible to François Furet, William F. Buckley, or Eric Voegelin. While his opponents speak in openly apocalyptic language about their capacity to read the signs of the times, Dandrieu believes that we should retrieve our awareness of history’s “ambivalence” and insist upon our inability to draw clear lessons about what constitutes progress. We should disentangle eschatology from politics and banish theological pronouncements about the end of history.

Still, this could lead us in darker directions than Dandrieu acknowledges. To borrow from the book’s title: what is Babel? According to Pope Benedict, “it is the description of a kingdom in which men had concentrated so much power that they thought they no longer needed to rely on a distant God and that they were powerful enough to be able to build a way to heaven by themselves in order to open its gates and usurp God’s place.” God’s response is not to destroy the world, as He does with the Flood and will do again at the end of time, but to eliminate Babel itself, with its overweening universalism. The men of the kingdom concentrate on building up their tower—an essentially human activity oriented toward mutual understanding—but it vanishes. The universalist project of Babel collapses into fear, aggression, and violence.

Late modernity presents us with dangers similar to those against which Benedict warns. Propelled by meliorist assumptions about the redemptive power of globalized liberal capitalism, we are also tempted to dispense with God and pursue our own ambitious schemes of improvement—to build our way toward universal economic and social progress while turning a blind eye to the increasingly unworkable problems the solutions introduce, of which the difficulties accompanying mass immigration are only one example. For Benedict, it is technological domination over nature, “almost to the point of manufacturing the very human being,” that risks the repetition of Babel. We inhabit a civilization that once chose Rome not Babel. If we continue to choose the latter, we will share in its fate.

Nathan Pinkoski is Assistant Professor of Humanities at the University of Florida and a Senior Fellow of the Edmund Burke Foundation.