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The U.S. Bishops Travel to Rome

The bond between Rome and local churches around the world has always been crucial to the Catholic Church’s understanding of itself as universal. From the time of the Council of Trent especially, the ad limina apostolorum—the periodic visit of world bishops “at the thresholds of the Apostles” in Rome—has been one of the ways the church works to ensure the strength of this bond. In a few days, the ad limina visit of the U.S. bishops will begin, and by the time it wraps up in February, we might have a fresh sense of just what the bond between the Holy See and the American episcopate is made of.

After all, it’s not as if there isn’t controversy attending the bishops’ visit. In the course of Francis’s papacy, the dynamic between the U.S. church and Rome has grown increasingly fraught. The case of former cardinal Theodore McCarrick and the subsequent “manifestos” of former nuncio Carlo Maria Viganò brought relations between American bishops and the papacy to a new low. That two dozen bishops came out in support of Viganò, without bothering to defend the pope against his unsubstantiated claims, will long remain a stain on the U.S. church. And given that a significant number of American bishops continue to ignore or actively reject key aspects of Francis’s pastoral priorities—from “Who am I to judge?” to Amoris laetitia to Laudato si’—it’s hard to know whether a meaningful rapprochement will be achieved anytime soon.

The format of the ad limina itself might offer insights into what could transpire. It has changed over time, even just in the decades encompassing the papacies of John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Francis. Where once a national or regional contingent of bishops visited every five years, that has now become every seven or eight. Under Benedict XVI, personal one-on-one meetings between the pope and visiting bishops were dropped in favor of group sessions involving about ten bishops at a time (though some cardinals and archbishops could still get individual meetings). Benedict also departed from the style of his predecessor in favoring dialogue rather than using the ad limina as a forum for Vatican officials to lecture visiting bishops. Francis does not meet bishops individually; instead, he spends ninety minutes or more with each group, answering questions and offering advice. Nor does he deliver a formal speech—although he does provide the text of a speech. Similarly, the bishops also prepare a formal speech but only provide the text of it. No official papal transcript of the conversations is prepared, so the only accounts of what gets talked about come from the press.

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It might also be helpful to look back on the topics of conversation at the two previous ad limina visits, with John Paul II in 2004, and with Benedict XVI in 2011–2012. In 2004, the American church was already engulfed by the sexual-abuse crisis and had promulgated the Dallas Charter. Yet in the exchange between the pope and the bishops, the crisis was not treated or discussed as something that would in fact come to define for our age the perception of the church in the United States. In 2011–2012, Benedict’s speeches reflected the U.S. bishops’ new emphasis on religious freedom, as demonstrated by the formation of the Ad Hoc Committee for Religious Liberty in September 2011 and congressional testimony on the topic by American bishops in October 2011. He touched on a number of the key topics, from conscientious objection on “life issues” to same-sex marriage. But he also addressed intraecclesial issues, such as dissent from the magisterium. He also condemned the failure of Catholic colleges and universities to comply with church requirements, saying that Catholic theology teachers must “have a mandate from the competent ecclesiastical authority.” There is also some historical backdrop worth keeping in mind: at the time, U.S. women religious were the target of two investigations by the Vatican, and the new nuncio to the United States, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, had just arrived in Washington.

Might the bishops allow themselves to be subjected to an extended talk about matters more important than the fixations of the pop-philosopher Jordan Peterson?

As this ad limina gets underway, the papal representative in Washington is Archbishop Christophe Pierre. He has taken a much different approach to shaping relations with U.S. bishops than did Viganò—necessarily, given the current state of the U.S. church. It has not only become more divided; it also includes an increasingly radicalized anti-Francis fringe that has no parallel in the rest of the world. It is dealing with the challenge of accelerating secularization of American society and culture, including secularization among Latino Catholics. Four years after Pope Francis traveled to the United States, the impact of his visit seems negligible, at least on the U.S. bishops. And the unprecedented speech he gave to Congress has all but been forgotten since the debut of Donald Trump’s scandal-ridden, reality-TV presidency.

And yet Francis’s papacy has largely redefined the major issues for the public voice of the Catholic Church: recasting traditional issues (sexuality, marriage, life issues) in a larger context, and highlighting with unprecedented radicalness such issues as care for creation and the poor. On immigration, Francis and the U.S. bishops speak with a common voice, despite the political polarization within the USCCB. While some bishops seem to want to wait Francis out, others have been inspired (or forced) to reconsider their mission. There is a large part of the U.S. church that has not given up on Francis, and thus the ad limina could help reenergize the relationship. Further, the USCCB will be electing the next president and vice president at its November meeting in Baltimore, and with recent important episcopal appointments (Washington) and others still to come (Philadelphia), the timing of the ad limina seems auspicious—enough so perhaps to spur a fresh start.

So what to look for? It’s reasonable for the U.S. bishops to expect that the Vatican will validate their efforts to address clergy sexual abuse. For all the mistakes and missteps of the USCCB and individual bishops, the U.S. church has helped the global church face up to the crisis. The February 2019 sex-abuse summit at the Vatican would not have come about without pressure from the United States—not only from bishops, but also and especially from the organizations of victims and survivors, the laity, the media, and the justice system. The U.S. bishops also expect the Curia to implement the new Vatican regulations to deal with the sexual abusers and failures in oversight among the clergy—especially Vos estis—and to signal some efforts in lessening the resistance by some Curia dicasteries to the “zero tolerance” approach of the U.S. church.

On the other hand, there remains a gap between Francis and the USCCB on ecclesiology and sensus ecclesiae—not just on the hot-button issues, but on the theology and the practice of synodality. As other churches around the world begin to embrace it (Germany with its national “synodal process,” Australia with its plenary council of 2020–2021, Ireland with its local synods, and even Italy), the USCCB seems uniquely resistant to this key aspect of Francis’s pontificate. Synodality is first of all about building community. But technocratic functionalism dominates American Catholic life today—whether it’s the assembly of the U.S. bishops or faculty meetings at Catholic universities. It is striking to see the differences of style between the twice-a-year meetings of the USCCB and the January 2019 retreat of the U.S. bishops in Chicago, to which Francis “invited” the bishops after the breakdown in relations between the episcopate and Rome in the summer of 2018. What does that experience say for how the USCCB conducts its own meetings? Will it even matter? The plenary meetings of the American bishops should not be, nor even look like, the meetings of mere administrators, but of leaders of a church learning how to discern spiritually, as a community of pastors.

And then there is the matter of substance: Will the USCCB find the will to place on its meeting agendas the pontiff’s magisterial texts, such as Amoris laetitia, which has received far less attention than vaporous efforts like the “Fortnight for Freedom”? Might the bishops allow themselves to be subjected to an extended talk about matters more important than the fixations of the pop-philosopher Jordan Peterson—say, the existential threat posed by climate change, and how young people might be evangelized by the church’s concern for our common home?

In his January 2019 letter to U.S. bishops for the week-long retreat in Chicago, Francis wrote: “The loss of credibility also raises painful questions about the way we relate to one another. Clearly, a living fabric has come undone, and we, like weavers, are called to repair it.” The call to repair must also be the informing idea of the coming ad limina visit. 

Defending Celibacy

In 1828 theologians from the University of Freiburg published a document entitled Denkschrift (Memory), calling for the elimination of celibacy from the Catholic priesthood. This work was met with widespread approval, especially among the academic communities of Germany. The authors claimed mandatory celibacy was impractical and unnecessary, a medieval ideal that needed to be expunged from Christianity. Many dioceses were suffering priest shortages and some were even dealing with issues of sexual misconduct among the clergy. Supporters reasoned that if Catholicism could simply “catch up with the times” and abolish celibacy, the priesthood would become more appealing to the masses while providing an acceptable outlet for priests who struggle with disciplining their sexual desires. It seemed a logical solution to the problem. Yet there was at least one clergyman who disagreed: Fr. Johann Möhler, a twenty-seven-year-old priest from the Diocese of Rottenburg-Stuttgart. In an act of astonishing courage, this young…

Injustice at the Border

The God of the “Little Ones”

Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.  —Matthew 19:14  Upon surveying the landscape of the Gospels, it is impossible not to marvel at the sweeping drama played out by its main actors. Towering saints and hopeless sinners, cruel despots and lamentable victims, all traverse the dusty roads of the backwater of empire. And at the heart of this swarm of activity—this bustling and gritty narrative—is the central figure and single-most consequential “event” in all of human history: the Presence, the God-Man, Jesus Christ. Now, consider this. If we take account of God coming to earth in material form—if we truly reckon with this incomprehensible fact—we cannot escape the one obvious conclusion: this event is indecipherably stunning. The Incarnation is simply…

Cruelty at the Border

The first time I saw it was from the window of a bus. The rusted steel wall cuts into the side of a mountain before descending into a valley, where it winds along the course of the Rio Grande between El Paso and Ciudad Juárez. It’s one of the most militarized sites along the U.S.-Mexico border, where the Department of Homeland Security, under orders from the Trump administration, is refusing to admit refugees and asylum-seekers from Mexico and Central America. The result is that thousands of migrants are now camping along the bases of Juárez’s three international bridges, enduring squalid conditions as they wait to hear back from U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

Speaking before a group of about 325 activists, academics, journalists, students, and members of religious communities from more than seventy organizations, Msgr. Arturo Bañuelas, of the Diocese of El Paso, bluntly denounced President Trump’s border wall as “a monument to white supremacy.” Not only is the wall absolutely unnecessary for border security (there’s been a fence there for decades); it’s also a colossal waste of taxpayer money. As Hope Border Institute’s Dylan Corbett has pointed out, the millions of dollars already spent by the federal government on a small portion of replacement fencing in New Mexico would be enough to double the annual salary of every Guatemalan coffee farmer, improving their standard of living and avoiding forced migration.

But in the face of recent legal victories by its opponents—including El Paso County itself—the administration has doubled down on its “Remain in Mexico” and “metering” policies, twin anti-immigrant strategies that have effectively halted the entry of all asylum-seekers along the southern border.

Amid a haze of razor wire, concrete barricades, and armored vehicles, armed CBP agents finally allowed all fifteen migrants to cross.

I witnessed such cruelty firsthand as I crossed over the Santa Fe Bridge from El Paso to Juárez in a nonviolent, binational border action organized by the Latinx Catholic Leadership Coalition, the Coalition for Spiritual and Public Leadership, and Hope Border Institute. About half of the 325 demonstrators remained in El Paso to perform a “Jericho Walk,” recalling the story from the Book of Joshua in which God reduces Jericho’s walls to rubble. The rest walked into Juárez with rosaries, flowers, and holy water, visiting with migrants and then returning to bless the bridge, reclaiming it as both a symbol of fellowship and a centuries-old path of migration. A smaller delegation, which I joined, stayed behind in the migrant camps. There we met a group of Mexican families from the increasingly violent southern states of Oaxaca and Michoacán.

Organized in advance by other migrants and Catholic legal-aid workers, with bags packed and documents in hand, the families were prepared to cross into the United States to request immediate asylum. Our role was to simply accompany them in order to make sure their request was processed as the law requires it to be. After a tense standoff lasting about thirty minutes, it was. Amid a haze of razor wire, concrete barricades, and armored vehicles, armed CBP agents finally allowed all fifteen migrants to cross. It was a moment of relief, even hope. But the migrants we accompanied that day are still confined to a cold jail cell at the border, and they have only about a 30 percent chance of securing permanent asylum.

One activist I met calls the U.S. passport a tapete mágico, or “magic carpet,” because it grants its possessor the freedom to float back and forth across the border in peace. Since my time in El Paso, I’ve come to see my own passport in a different way: it’s not just a document that exempts me from the trauma suffered by migrants, but also one that implicates me in my government’s racist cruelty.


Discernment is Not About Choice

I was recently asked to give a talk to a group of seminarians and other young men discerning the priesthood about St. Ignatius of Loyola’s Rules of Discernment. As I prepared, the theme of the talk began to unfold – true discernment has been reduced to choosing amongst a plethora of options when in Ignatian practice it’s not about choosing at all. Instead, discernment is about discerning between what is of God and what is not – avoiding what is evil and embracing what is good. When discernment is reduced to choosing, the pressures of making the choice often paralyze people into making no choice at all. To put it another way, discernment should be about knowing your heart so well that you know when something is not as it should be. It’s like your favorite space, maybe your bedside table or your desk, or in this technological age, your phone screen or computer desktop.

Letter from Hong Kong

I arrived in Hong Kong on a Friday in mid-September, the sixteenth weekend of protests against a proposed bill in the Hong Kong Legislative Council to amend its extradition laws with China. As I live in Taiwan, a little more than an hour away by plane, I had sent a message to a friend involved in the Hong Kong Federation of Catholic Students, the main university-level Catholic student organization in the city, to see if a visit would be possible. This led to an invitation to attend the organization’s school-year convocation Mass and an opportunity to observe the city and the movement.

The Mass was not entirely insulated from the political crisis; the students’ broad support for the protests was obvious. They told me that the Catholic diocese had issued a notice prohibiting the performance of “Glory to Hong Kong,” an anthem musically resembling “The Internationale”—a rare example of a song written for a political movement that has currency among its participants. The sixty or seventy students in attendance nevertheless sang a moving rendition at the conclusion of the Mass. The organist then played an encore as the students gathered at the front of the church for a photograph behind a banner reading: “Struggle for democratic righteousness, build the Kingdom of Heaven on earth.”

Afterward, in the federation’s office beside the church, there was a casual banquet. The mood was one of joyful camaraderie, despite the seriousness with which the students spoke of their support for the protests, which was couched in terms of opposition to the influence of the People’s Republic of China on Hong Kong life. The students and priests I spoke with emphasized the splits in opinion among Catholics—particularly along generational lines—regarding the protests. It shouldn’t be forgotten, they added, that Carrie Lam, the chief executive of Hong Kong who is widely seen as pro-Beijing, is also Catholic.

The room, some combination of library and lounge and garnished with all the talismans of a Catholic school, was crowded with boxes of respirators, hard hats, and other protest gear, which the students were invited to take as needed. Both in the singing of “Glory to Hong Kong” and in the distribution of protest equipment, the students had the protection of the celebrant of the Mass, Cardinal Joseph Zen, the retired bishop of Hong Kong.

I made my way to the frontlines, and within about ten minutes police fired tear gas into the crowd.

On Saturday afternoon, a federation member led me to a bus that would take me to Tuen Mun, the location of a planned pro-government counter-demonstration that would be met by protesters. Tuen Mun—a section of Hong Kong that is geographically remote from the island, in the furthest western reaches of the city, near the border with Shenzhen—has become a contested territory in its own right. As a center of mainland immigration to Hong Kong, it is feared by some as a potential beachhead in the “mainlandization” of the city. It has been the site of three clashes between pro-government sympathizers seeking to strengthen ties with recent mainland arrivals, and anti-government protestors looking to show force in what might be considered “opposition turf.” There is marked worry among protestors, however, that in singling out Tuen Mun, the movement risks morphing from one of political resistance into national chauvinism.

The calm ride along the bay on the upper level of the red double-decker bus came to an abrupt end at a protester barricade near the Tuen Mun municipal office. It was clear when I stepped off the bus that I was deep in a protester-occupied area. Black-clad demonstrators in groups of about ten pried bricks from the sidewalk to use in building barricades. Comrades holding up umbrellas—defense against security cameras—surrounded them. Medics and journalists hustled around busily. There was a spirit of tacit coordination and organization that resembled nothing so much as a disciplined military preparation behind a makeshift front.

I made my way to the frontlines, and within about ten minutes police fired tear gas into the crowd. Almost everyone had a mask of some kind, but the frontline wasn’t defended very long; the protesters called a massive and sudden retreat, and I sprinted back with them until I found an alcove opening into a shopping mall along the street. The point seemed to be to hold a line until it was too dangerous to do so, and force the police into a guerilla-like campaign of attrition. From my position in the alcove, I could blend in with the journalists reporting on arrests and observe what might happen when the police came through. I noticed immediately that there were police infiltrators dressed as protestors, in black t-shirts, who stayed behind and chatted casually with uniformed police. There was a British commander at the head of the battalion of Hong Kong police who were pursuing the retreating protesters. The police were outfitted in full military gear.

I decided to make my way back to Mong Kok, where I was staying, but the government had shut down all public transportation. To walk it would have taken nearly seven hours. I walked to a nearby restaurant, hoping to sit and come up with a plan, but employees guarding the doors prevented anyone from entering. A man with a scholarly bearing, maybe in his mid-fifties, was among those turned away. He could tell by my black shirt and gear that I was with the protestors. After some small talk, I found out that he was a scientist and civil servant in Hong Kong sympathetic to the demonstrations, and was there to shuttle family and friends back and forth. I explained that I had come to observe and maybe write something. He offered to take me back, and that evening he hosted me and the other protesters for dinner.

The degree to which Hong Kong has become a police state was made clear on my trip back to the airport on Sunday morning. My bus was stopped, near Hong Kong Disneyland, and two police officers searched up and down the aisles, apparently looking for protesters. Members of the media waited outside the bus to report on arrests. I still had my respirator with me, as there were rumors of renewed demonstrations at the airport. The police officers on the bus left without interrogating any passengers; the rumored airport protests would not come to pass.

Making a Holy Hour? Here Are Some Reading Recommendations for Adoration

Part 4 of a 4-part series on Eucharistic Adoration Over the past three weeks we have explored various aspects of Eucharistic Adoration, including Nocturnal Adoration, why making a Holy Hour before the True Presence of Christ Jesus matters, and what to do (or, how to pray) before the Blessed Sacrament when simply “being” there feels insufficient. So it seems reasonable to end our series by recommending some books meant to help us along as we learn to become quiet and contemplative. If you’re not fully sure what the Holy Eucharist truly is, or how it becomes the Body and Blood of Christ, or if you simply want to deepen your understanding of the Eucharist and thus better grasp why our Adoration matters, Bishop Robert Barron’s Eucharist is a good place to start. You can’t go wrong with a basic Treasury of Classic Catholic Prayers, something…

Stay and Fight!

Have you read Bishop Barron’s book Letter to a Suffering Church? Did you think “Wow, every Catholic and religious news junkie needs to get their hands on it”? Well, we have something in common! I’ve been on a journey back to the Church. Something I put off doing for years. I became of this world—not just in it. Temporal things had their place with me; anything spiritual did not. I was content . . . but not really. Truth be told I wasn’t just “putting off” my spiritual exploration—I had intentionally squashed it. There were too many hard questions on the one hand, too many things that angered me on the other. The sex abuse scandal was smack among the top offenders. How could an institution that fostered sexual predators be good for anything? That train of thinking gave me an out. I could put off tackling tough questions,…

Nationalism without Idolatry

While Francis’s papacy so far has emphasized a pastoral approach to moral and political questions, there is one issue the pope has addressed principally as a critic, and that is nationalism. Francis’s pronouncements on the perils of nationalist politics have highlighted his concern about divisiveness and conflict, his worry about the future of Europe, and his alarm over how the global rise of nationalism weakens multilateralism and generates distrust in international institutions. In all these critiques, the pope has focused on the exclusionary and marginalizing effects of the recent nationalist turn. Thus, when he decried nationalisms that “impose and pursue individual national interests” to the detriment of humanity’s common destiny, he did so not only because such nationalisms threaten our planet, but also because they produce a “mindset of violence and indifference” toward the most vulnerable groups, refugees and migrants.

Francis’s rejection of nationalism is particularly meaningful at a moment in which the political rhetoric and practices shaping American public life legitimize it in its most exclusionary forms—including dangerous expressions of white nationalism. The pope’s words resonate with all American Catholics who view an “America First” preoccupation with U.S. power and interests as inimical to the pursuit of a better, more just society. But in a time haunted by violent kinds of nationalism and intolerance, it is important to probe the potential of more inclusive and more capacious narratives of national belonging. These narratives could provide a forceful response to the claims of selfish nationalism and more importantly, could do so by enabling the sense of solidarity with others both within and beyond national borders. The resources for framing such positive national narratives also lie in Catholic intellectual traditions.

The very idea of positive national narratives would seem to counter the warnings of many theologians who believe that Christians should eschew all nationalisms, not only because of their dark histories, but for deeper moral and theological reasons. The American Catholic theologian William Cavanaugh, admonishing Christians not to succumb to the nation-state as the definitive and inevitable framework of civic participation, argues persuasively that states aren’t natural creations but merely historical ones. Christians, Cavanaugh stresses, should recognize all the ways in which nationalism colonizes their imagination, reducing human personhood and identity to loyalty to the nation-state and inculcating a willingness to die and to kill for it.

To respond to the claims that nation-states make—claims that, Cavanaugh believes, obscure the identity of Christians as “members of a different body, the body of Christ”—Christians must break through the entrapments of national projects, and instead seek communities in which to form attachments to each other and construct new sites of political engagements. Only by rejecting the nation-state as the sole political model and national community as the exclusive domain of identity, Cavanaugh insists, can Christians enact their faith and fulfill their civic role; only then can they demonstrate why the ideals of common good are irreducible to one’s allegiance to a state that, as the “unitary whole,” seeks to replace the church.

Cavanaugh’s theological critique of nationalist projects as signs of “the twilight of gods” and “the age-old sin of idolatry” finds much evidence in history. Anyone familiar with the stories of predominantly Catholic countries—Spain and Ireland, Argentina and Poland—understands the grave dangers of close bonds between the church and modern nation-states, and the lasting negative implications of such bonds for the church’s character and the vibrancy of Catholic faith. And anyone who (like this author) experienced and studied violent conflicts such as those in Bosnia and Croatia knows all too well how successfully nationalist politicians co-opt Catholic symbols and traditions to justify exclusion and domination, and how quickly Catholic clergy can adopt the mantle of nationalist ideologues to formulate theologies of nationhood and legitimize violence against other national and religious groups.

The American historical perspective on the proximity between nationalism and Catholicism further illuminates Cava-naugh’s fears. Here, nationalism emerges as a problem for Catholicism not only through its corruptive effect on the commitment to universality or through the danger of Constantinianism. As my American Catholic colleagues regularly remind me, slogans such as “God, Country, Notre Dame” at the entrance of the University of Notre Dame’s basilica are more than mere symbols of Catholic immigrants’ eagerness to build America. They are warnings that all political projects of nationhood contain a powerful drive to exclude the minority religious group—once Catholics and Jews, today Muslims—coercing them to prove their loyalty and to relinquish at least some parts of their religious attachments in the name of belonging to “one nation.”

And so the reasons for distrusting nationalism and for separating Catholicism from it are significant, both theologically and historically. Yet Catholic intellectual and social traditions remind us that there exists more than one way to address the relationship between Catholic and national identities. These traditions suggest that, alongside the necessity of resistance to the power of nation-states, there is also ethical potential in Christians’ attachment to their country—the potential that arises from their careful discernment of responsibilities both within and beyond the bounds of a given nation.

One resource for constructive views in this regard is the encyclical Sapientiae christianae. Pope Leo XIII issued the encyclical at the end of the nineteenth century, a time when national movements in Europe were frequently accompanied by belligerent anticlericalism, and when nation-states often consolidated their power by diminishing the  powers of the Catholic Church. Yet even though these immediate political developments shape the backdrop of Leo’s statement, his encyclical manages to transcend its historical location and propose a more subtle approach to questions of Catholic faith, civic responsibility, and national identity. It does so by alerting us to the difference between civil obedience and a sense of belonging, while underscoring that all forms of citizenship Christians accept in this world must be bound by awareness of their place in the world to come.

Leo XIII’s thoughts on “Christians as citizens” highlight the discerning way he writes about allegiance to the state and attachment to country. To the “laws of the State,” Leo explains, one owes obedience, yet only when these laws are in accord with the laws of God. If state laws are “at variance with the divine law,” if they contradict the freedom of the church and one’s religious observance, then “to resist becomes a positive duty, to obey, a crime.” These observations on the limits of civic obedience could serve to ground arguments such as those proposed by Cavanaugh; in Leo’s own time, they could also justify the church’s worldly claims to social and political power, claims that more often than not produced the institutional and spiritual corruption of Catholicism. But just as significant as Leo’s focus on the limits of Christian compliance with the state is his attentiveness to the reality of Christians’ love for their country. He declares that we are “ love dearly” the country in which “we had birth, and in which we were brought up,”  and “whence we have received the means of enjoyment this mortal life affords.” This love is “natural,” he asserts: it is a type of affection that proceeds from “the same eternal principle” as does one’s love for the church. “God Himself,” Leo declares, is their “Author and originating Cause.”

For anyone opposed to nationalism as a matter of theological and moral principle, or focused on the immediate context in which Leo’s encyclical was written, it is easy to emphasize—as some American Catholic interpreters do—its instruction that Christians must discern when to resist the powers of worldly political communities and the institutions that embody them. Yet Leo assesses the role of Christians not only as citizens of the state, but also as individuals constituted by—and enacting—love for their country. In distinguishing between obedience and love, state and country, and calling for the evaluation of such dispositions within the postulates of faith, Leo points out that the Christian response to the modern world should not be a matter of rejecting it a priori, but of thoughtfully and responsibly engaging it. He reminds us, to paraphrase here the contemporary German social thinker Hans Joas, that religious traditions do nothing on their own, but become alive only when they are interpreted and enacted in particular times, in the individual and social lives of those who inhabit them.


Christians must frequently reexamine the injustices entailed in the boundaries of their national community—from racism and sexism to the kinds of religious and ideological intolerance that ostracize and exclude.

Read through this lens, Leo’s encyclical becomes instructive for our challenging moment in two ways. First, it suggests that obedience to the state and attachment to one’s country cannot be conflated. The former obligates Christians to duty within the civic order; the latter concerns what Leo calls “natural” affections that unite individuals into a society, affections that compel them to act in order to better their country. In this sense, Christians can disobey the state precisely out of love for their country. Second, and most important, the encyclical unambiguously posits that obedience to the state and one’s attachment to country are curbed by the Christian love for God’s law. Yes, there is in Leo’s considerations a direct link between one’s love for God’s law and one’s love for the church. There is also a definite assertion of the sovereignty of the church, as when the encyclical demands the unity of Catholics, even when their opinions differ, to defend the church against the rising power of modern states.

But if Leo’s Sapientiae christianae raises the same questions today as it did when it was written—when should Christians obey the state, and how can they bring their attachments to their country into accord with the laws of God?—the responsibility to answer those questions at the beginning of the twenty-first century, more than half a century after the Second Vatican Council, resides neither with the national councils of bishops, nor with Catholic theologians. The responsibility resides in the conscience of each individual Catholic believer, and within her multiple communities of attachments. As a consequence, the results of thoughtful discernment about faith, civic duties, and attachment to one’s country cannot be the same for everyone. For some, as Cavanaugh advocates, the answer will be the creation of religious and political communities as local and counter-communities. For others, however, that response will be, as with John Paul II, the “love of” one’s “motherland [as] the measure of human nobility” against “narrow nationalism or chauvinism;” and, as with Leo XIII, it will be one’s love for the country always within the greater Christian moral order of charity.

The second group of responses recognizes that passionate attachment to one’s national community does not necessarily obscure one’s faith, but rather can embody it; it suggests that instead of erecting walls, Christians who love their country can be the ones building bridges to other nations—and ought to be. Even Pope Francis understands this possibility: when observing on one occasion pilgrims waving their national flags, he took it as “a prophetic sign” that Catholics’ national pride can assist in shaping positively “the encounter between peoples.” Here, the plurality of national attachments emerges as both a gift and a responsibility. And Christians’ bonds with those with whom they share identity—language, culture, political institutions, and traditions—do not preclude coming together in a sense of solidarity with those who are different, within or beyond the borders of their own nation.

If there is one reason why Leo’s nineteenth-century encyclical should be read in our moment—a moment in which we are pushed relentlessly toward “either/or” positions—it is the fact that the document does not give one simple answer. Rather, it opens the door for a nuanced deliberation of civic duties and worldly loves through the lens of one’s faith commitments. From the point of view of the Catholic commitment to universality, it is clear that such deliberation must reject the sacralization of any nation. But even more important, a deliberative approach to the relationship between Catholic and national commitments carries the idea that Christians must frequently reexamine the injustices entailed in the boundaries of their national community—from racism and sexism to the kinds of religious and ideological intolerance that ostracize and exclude. Simply put, to remain truly Christian in the love of country, Christians must retain honesty about their nation’s past, and a hopeful modesty about its present and its future.