“Each and every one of us has to think about how to contribute to the moral reconstruction of this world” – Pope John XXIII
Roncalli saw that linking nationalism with religion, both in the Orthodox East and in the Catholic West, would be a central problem. As a papal diplomat in Bulgaria, he began rejecting nationalism and the theological and religious expressions used to support it. He developed antibodies against the fusion between nation and religion, between Catholicism and ideology. This shaped his interpretation of the interwar period, World War II and of the beginning of the Cold War, right up to the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). Roncalli’s aversion to Churches wedded to nationalistic causes became part of the future pope’s world vision. It was starkly different from those who wished to put political ideologies at the service of the Church, something typical in much of the clerical culture during an era when authoritarianism and fascism reigned in much of Europe.
Church leaders such as Roncalli learned important lessons from that interwar period and from World War II that led to an important shift from previous thinking. In early 1959, just months after he was elected to the papacy and took the name John XXIII, he announced plans for the Second Vatican Council. It is thanks to that council and the papal teaching of the last sixty years, that the Catholic Church today is squarely on the side of internationalism and multilateralism and opposed to nationalism and xenophobia.
Today’s Church is in favor of constitutional democracies that respect human rights and religious freedom for all – as we were reminded by the very important document the International Theological Commission recently published on the topic. But among the differences that distinguish the Church in the 1920s-30s from that of today there is also growing fragmentation. When Roncalli was a papal diplomat he had to fight against the nationalism and colonialism of missionary religious orders in Bulgaria (especially Italian and French), as well as the delusional attempts to bring Eastern Europe back to Catholicism.
In an important speech on May 2 to members of the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences, the pope defended the Catholic concept of the State, including its clear rejection of nationalism. But Francis is not the only voice in the institutional Church that is openly resisting nationalism.
The Holy See’s Secretariat of State and its diplomatic corps, as well as many religious orders, are still a voice of sanity at a time that is witnessing a revival of nationalism within some Catholic intellectual circles, especially in the United States.
Luxembourg’s Archbishop Jean-Claude Hollerich SJ, who is president of the Commission of the Episcopal Conferences of the European Union (COMECE), recently took a firm stand against the resurgence of nationalism.
“A self-referential Christianity is at risk of adopting this denial of reality and is in peril of creating dynamics that will eventually devour Christianity itself,” he said in the latest issue of La Civiltà Cattolica, the Jesuit journal vetted by the Vatican.
Hollerich, who is president of an organization that includes bishops from the 28 member states of the European Union, said: “Steve Bannon and Aleksandr Dugin are the priests of these populisms that evoke a false pseudo-religious and pseudo-mystical world, denying the heart of western theology, which is God’s love and love of neighbor.”
Hollerich’s article is among the most important positions that a representative of the Catholic Church has taken on the EU in decades.
It stands in unity with Pope Francis’ attempt to revive the spiritual insight that Angelo Giuseppe Roncalli expressed in his famous Pentecost homily of 1944 as apostolic delegate to Turkey during World War II.
Prophetic words from 1944 that are as timely as ever
“We like to distinguish ourselves from those who do not profess our faith or practice our traditions and liturgies: Orthodox brethren, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, and believers or non-believers of other religions,” the future pope began.
“My dear brothers and sons, I must tell you that in the light of the Gospel and the Catholic principle, this logic is false,” he then warned.
“Jesus came to tear down walls. He died in order to proclaim universal fraternity. His central teaching is charity.
“Do you think you can barricade yourselves behind your door and say ‘I am Catholic, I think about myself, and I do not care about how others are doing’?
“We are called to live in an age of destruction and hatred, when individual egoism is overruled by nationalistic egoism, with methods that are so brutal that they dishonor the human race. Each and every one of us has to think about how to contribute to the moral reconstruction of this world,” Roncalli said.
It has become commonplace to say that the international political situation may be sliding back to a scenario similar to the 1930s.
Whether this is true or not, the current pontificate has tried to prevent the Church from repeating the mistakes of that era when fear of communism and social disorder pushed the ecclesiastical hierarchies into the arms of nationalist, authoritarian and racist political regimes.
This is why opposition to both John XXIII and Francis is not just theological, but also political. Vatican II continues to stand as the enemy of any new form of Catholic nationalism, both theologically and politically.
There is a danger of returning to the “long nineteenth century” that began with the French Revolution, in which Church teaching refused to acknowledge modernity and engage with the secular world. It was a theological and spiritual paralysis that had huge costs.
As was the case back then, the Church must again make a choice to either follow the Gospel or the current ideologies of the political, economic, and social order. It is a lesson the Roman papacy has learned better than others.