What is Patriotism?
We must begin with what is (hopefully) an uncontentious statement: that every individual is called to cultivate and practice the virtue of charity, defined by St. Thomas Aquinas as “to will the good of the other.” (I would argue that this conception is still the foundational concept for modern morality, though conceptions of “good” have come to differ so widely that the sentiment can take drastically different meanings.)
Pope Francis, in his recent apostolic exhortation Gaudate et exsultate, reminds us that, “We are called to be holy by living our lives with love and by bearing witness in everything we do, wherever we find ourselves.” This is inherently an individual call, a vocation of love and holiness for each one of us as an individual. But as Pope Francis previously stated, “We are never completely ourselves unless we belong to a people. That is why no one is saved alone, as an isolated individual.”
The people of which Pope Francis speaks is most obviously the Church, God’s holy and sanctified people. But it can, and for practicality’s sake must, be understood as extending to additional groups of people. As members in a society, we are met with societal struggles and sins which can only be addressed together, as one people. So we work together, forming charities, assisting our local communities, expanding our communities of worship to also provide acts of love and service.
In doing so, we recognize our inherent social nature, our need to be a part of a people. However, this sociological phenomena does not exhaust the definition of a people. Rather, there is yet one more aspect of human nature which must be recognized. As attested by Aristotle, Augustine, and Aquinas, humans are, by nature, political creatures, and therefore we cannot be completely ourselves unless we belong to a political people.
Of course, when I speak of a political people, I do not mean politics in the sense of partisanship. Rather, the political nature of nature of a people is connected with its Greek root, polis, the idealized city ordered towards the common good of its people. In practicality, a political people is never equivalent to the idealized polis, due to our fallen nature. Yet, as we ourselves are not perfect in love and yet orient ourselves towards perfection, so too can an imperfect political people orient itself towards better fulfilling the common good.
As such, we return to our initial premise, that each of us is called to embody the virtue of charity. It would be foolish to think that our individual call to act out the virtue of charity does not extend to the political sphere—this Aquinas argues in De regimine principum, stating that “We must make the same judgment in regard to the end of the whole community as we do of one person.”
In other words, since all the parts of political community are oriented towards charity, even if individually they are imperfect, then so too should the political community recognize perfect charity as its end. The common good which the polis is oriented to is therefore a community which facilitates and acts in perfect charity.
Before continuing, we must briefly pause to address that how such a community achieves that end is highly controversial; it is here that extreme partisanship, nationalism, and warmongering are bred. These sins of the political people are, in fact, perversions of the order which partisan politics, nationalism, and war should play in a polis; they occur when politics, nationalism, and war are viewed either as ends in themselves, or as means to the personal benefit of political or economic classes.
By contrast, when each of these are oriented towards generating (or, in the case of just war, defending) the social order and institutions which participate in charity, the polis is truly pointed towards the common good. It is pride and support of one’s nation towards this end which constitutes true patriotism.
In other words, patriotism is a love for the potential good which a political society might accomplish, a praise for the actualization of its good, and a sternness and zeal against its faults. It is also an essential part of our human experience; as avoiding the call to individual charity is against one’s nature, so too is avoiding the call to political charity.
Patriotism then, in its true and healthy sense, is something which is indispensable to us as human beings. It is, in short, a political participation in the virtue of charity, and therefore to neglect the patriotic is to not act with complete charity.
This, of course, does not mean that everyone should become a politician, or that everything we do. As the Second Vatican Council reminded us in Lumen Gentium, “all the faithful, whatever their condition or state, are called by the Lord—each in his or her own way—to that perfect holiness by which the Father himself is perfect.”
We are each called to our own path of holiness; we are each called to our own path of love; we are each called to our own path of patriotism. Yes, there are those who will act out patriotic charity through political activism; others will act it out through prayer for our country; still others will pay the greatest price in defence of the common good; “there are different forms of service, but the same Lord” (1 Cor. 5).
May God bless America.
Evan Holguin is a senior in the Program of Liberal Studies. Captain America has been his favorite superhero since 5 BCE (Before Chris Evans). You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.