In the realm of the spirit, there are few prospects more terrifying than meeting God—the Father, the Creator, the unconditioned Absolute Whose essence is His existence. Even Moses, the appointed mediator for his people, could not view God face to face; so God granted him a burning bush as an icon. God’s spirit or shadow (the Shekinah) rested upon Israel, mediating His relationship with His people, who collectively were as His bride (see Hosea). Through his participation in that people and his observance of the Law, a Jew could hope to relate to the God Who had made him.
Jesus offers Himself as the face of God made man, Whom we can gaze upon with admixed love and awe; the Church is Christ’s bride. By becoming a part of Her, we join ourselves to Him and His Father. The Church transmits the theoretically limitless demands of the God to Whom we owe everything, in the form of sacred texts and sacraments, and draws from these and from reason Her guidelines for virtuous conduct. The amorphous and overwhelming awe of the absolute Other becomes, through the human mediation of pastors and parents, a program for daily life. One’s conscience, in conversation with the mediating authority, determines the shape that life will take.
Heady stuff. What on earth does it have to do with politics, especially the bitter, vital issue of immigration?
The structures of grace mirror the natural shape of human society. The God Who knows us so well did not make something alien or antihuman as a means of saving us. Instead, He uplifted, transformed, and perfected the institutions by which we relate to our fellow men in our mortal capacity.
Each of us stands, in his merely earthly existence, before another enormous entity that gave us birth, sustains us in being, and makes potentially limitless claims upon us: the human race. By this I mean not only the six billion or so people now living, but all the human beings who have ever lived and those who may someday be born. We did not create or nurture ourselves. We did not develop tools, technology, language, science, art, social and political institutions, laws protecting property, or any of the countless things that enable and enrich human life. Facing this fact, everyone but the radical individualist, the political equivalent of an atheist, sees that each of us owes significant debts and duties to other human beings—alive or dead or yet to be born.
How do we determine the extent of those debts and discharge them? The question is really quite similar to the one that the religious man must ask: What does God demand of me, and how can I fulfill it? Where is there room left for legitimate self-love, concern for my own human flourishing and that of those whom I cherish, especially my family and friends? What institution can mediate, explain, and limit the claims of the human race upon me, the human person? Who will defend my rights? The answer is the nation, the political community that represents the person in the face of the vast and incomprehensible collective that is the human race stretched across the earth and backward and forward in history.
One person is too feeble to face the mass of humanity alone. So are the nuclear or extended family, and in most contexts the clan and even the tribe. We must negotiate with larger groups, even if what we ask is mostly to be left alone. In the city or the nation—which is merely the city writ large—we interact with those who may have little or no direct relation to us, and must recognize their full, equal humanity. That advance, the extension of empathy beyond the discernible bonds of blood, is a morally crucial step that enables us to play a responsible role in the vast, overwhelming reality that is the human family—and to demand that it honor our own human claims.
When a nation functions rightly, it represents the legitimate interests of all the people who compose it, including ethnic or religious minorities. It does not enforce a crude equality but renders each person his due, and leaves the vast bulk of life to be lived in civil society, where free citizens associate based on something other than blood and higher than money.
But money is not irrelevant, or somehow beneath our notice. It is more than a mere abstraction. As the nation represents the citizen’s given, involuntary interactions with other people, money represents what we choose to do with our time and talents. The more of our money that the nation claims, the more of our time has been nationalized—in much the way that medieval peasants were conscripted into corvée labor by feudal lords. It was not in vain that Friedrich Hayek compared socialism to serfdom.
When the institutions created by the nation to achieve fair representation fail all or part of the populace in serving this primal role, such people may alienate their affections from the nation, which appears to them as merely a regime. Colonized, subject, or occupied populations know well the stark difference between a functioning community (a nation) and a state that abuses its natural monopoly on violence. By way of competition, they turn to resistance, crime, or revolution. The insight that such resistance or rebellions can sometimes be just is the contribution of liberalism, as conceived by men like Locke and Jefferson.
Often these people misperceive their own best interests and rebel against generally benevolent regimes, replacing them with far worse, intolerant, collectivist systems of government. (See Erik von Kuenhelt-Leddihn’s magisterial Leftism Revisited.) This fact should serve as a caution both to potential rebels and to rulers, and render us deeply skeptical of claims that a given state is hopelessly incorrigible. Such constitutional skepticism is the heritage of historic conservatism, to be learned from Burke and Metternich.
As with any analogy comparing earth with heaven, the comparison between Church and nation has its limits. Christ spoke of one Church, whose membership is a mystery and whose heavenly face is spotless and perfect. There are many nation-states across the world, and the sane ones make no such claims. But within those limits this analogy sheds more light than shadow, and helps to explain why clergymen habitually misunderstand the legitimate role of the nation.
In the 19th century, too many Christians attempted to ride the wave of exploding nationalism by secularizing the spiritual, conceiving that their particular nations had some quasireligious destiny. Read Michael Burleigh’s Earthly Powers and Sacred Causes for cringeworthy accounts of churchmen rationalizing crackpot nationalist claims, and hyperpatriots who compiled “catechisms” to propound their national “faiths.” Pope Pius IX did his best to deny the idolatry of the nation by elevating and popularizing the papacy, whose claims transcended earthly maps and flags.
It wasn’t enough. We see how ineffectual 20th-century popes would prove in their desperate efforts to prevent the nationalist and ideological bloodlettings of two world wars. We can look to the body counts of those appalling conflicts, and the genocides they enabled from Armenia and Iraq to the “Bloodlands” of East-Central Europe (see Timothy Snyder’s powerful book of that name), to find the roots of churchmen’s suspicion of nation-states. How many millions were unjustly thrust outside the national community, and thus deprived of every basic right? How many were simply murdered? R.J. Rummel in Death by Government estimated that more than 170 million civilians were culpably killed by states in the 20th century, not including casualties of war.
Christians could be forgiven for overcorrecting, placing an unbalanced emphasis on the rights of migrants, minorities, impoverished groups, and others in need—to the point of undermining at times the very fabric of nations. In fact, it was the failure of states to act as genuine nations, protecting all their citizens equally, that made such genocides possible. It is telling that many of the victims—Jews, Gypsies, and others—were declared “stateless” by their governments as a prelude to persecution. The fate of the person outside the nation is rarely a happy one.
But the worst abuse cannot delegitimize an institution that is necessary to human flourishing. The nation has its claims as part of human nature, which the Church can no more deny or retract than She could rightly impose universal poverty, celibacy, or obedience—making all the world a monastery, a temptation against which St. Josemaría Escrivá warned. That hasn’t stopped churchmen from trying. In fact, one can view many of the moralizing statements in recent decades as the Church’s pushback against the state, both for its abuses of the innocent, and for the relentless secularization of civil society encouraged by modern states.
Care for the poor, the education of the young, jurisdiction over marriage, and countless other functions once performed by civil society largely through the Church have fallen into the grasping hands of states. Following initial resistance, in most cases churchmen accepted these losses of influence. Today, we see Christian leaders around the world embrace and endorse the nationalization of even the corporal works of mercy—a fact attested by Timothy Cardinal Dolan of New York, who boasted that only the contraception mandate kept the Catholic Church from becoming the “biggest cheerleader” for ObamaCare.
But the clerics have had their revenge. In Catholic circles, leading churchmen step up and deprive the nation of crucial rights and functions that had been recognized as its own since apostolic times. The right to administer the death penalty in the interests of justice was denied by John Paul II, in his encyclical Evangelium vitae and his revision of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The same pope once opined on visiting the United States that her citizens should welcome the immigrant at her doors as they welcome the child who waits to be born—conflating prudential decisions over which and how many migrants are in the national interest with the fundamental right of preborn babies not to be murdered. Even the wise and learned Pope Benedict XVI was moved by his traumatic experience of hypernationalism to posit in an encyclical the need for a global “political authority,” on the theory that this would prevent deadly strife among nations or cruel oppression within them—not examining the more likely scenario that fallen men ruling a global state with a monopoly of power over the planet would make of it a dystopian tyranny from which there could be no earthly escape. Pope Francis’s statements about the “right” of mostly Muslim refugees to enter Europe and enjoy its social benefits are too well known to need rehearsing here.
What could be more fundamental to the proper, God-given use of the “sword of the state” than a nation’s right to execute murderers and traitors, or control which people join its national community? Here’s something: the right of nations to use deadly force in their own defense. But increasingly pacifist statements by clerics of many churches have thrown this right into question.
Finally, a basic duty of nations is to safeguard the savings that citizens have accumulated (despite heavy taxes) by the sweat of their brows. Countless declarations by bishops’ conferences have undermined property rights, implying that inequalities of wealth among nations are almost solely the “unjust” fruit of “exploitation,” rather than the result of different economic, political, and social institutions. A Manichaean split between the “holy” poor of the developing world and the “greedy” or selfish “consumers” of prosperous countries has been proposed, most odiously in statements like those of papal insider Oscar Andrés Cardinal Rodríguez Maradiaga, who cited in October 2013 the notorious Castro apologist Jean Ziegler in support of his plan of “globalizing solidarity”—that is, confiscating and transferring wealth from north to south, and transferring impoverished populations northward, with or without the receiving nations’ consent.
Fifty years of massive foreign aid have proved that transfer payments from government to government, or NGO to NGO, do little to empower the citizens of poor countries to join the world economy, gain private property, or raise their productivity. Even within a society, state-imposed wealth redistribution does little but lock the poor into tame dependence. Socialism is a luxury good, which can be enjoyed for a few decades by wealthy, homogenous nations with strong cultural work ethics and strict border controls.
Mass immigration is a profoundly inefficient, regressive way to transfer wealth; in America, as George Borjas has shown, the influx of unskilled labor strongly suppresses the wages of the native-born working class, while padding the portfolios of the nation’s largest investors.
But mass immigration serves the interests of envious leftists in two key ways: The influx of poor people who are likely to rely on social programs provides millions of votes for parties that lavishly fund those programs; and the arrival of many millions who feel no ancestral connection with the social institutions of the receiving country helps to fragment civil society and pave the way for the government to agglomerate more power. Thus, the state can grow by eating up the substance of the nation.
A nation is always changed by mass immigration. Its mores, culture, and system of government can be infused with new vitality—or thrown into disorder. Its native citizens can benefit from the influx of labor and talent, or they can be subjugated and finally replaced. John Paul II himself recognized this in his last book, Memory and Identity. Remembering the vast and politically divisive colonization of Poland by German settlers, which helped pave the way for that country’s partition, he spoke of the “right of the nation to the foundation of its culture and its future.” Likewise, “sending” nations can suffer greatly from the “brain drain” and disruptions of family life caused by a mass exodus. In 1973, Liberia boasted 137 physicians with a population of 1.7 million. By 2008, there were only 51 physicians serving almost four million people. As the Wall Street Journal has reported, countless Guatemalan families are fatherless, living on remissions from the United States.
All human beings have the same incalculable dignity, value, and fundamental rights; they are not identical or interchangeable. Differences of culture, habit, values, and history are precisely what make the existence of so many nations around the world a delight and a blessing. They also make a nation’s decisions on which newcomers to admit, from which societies and in what numbers, grave and consequential.
A million Ulster Protestant immigrants would have a different effect on America than a million post-Christian Dutchmen, or a million Salafi Egyptians. To admit that is not to succumb to racism; to deny it is to trivialize both culture and religion—as if the only important consideration in governing a nation were maximizing GDP in the short run. In the long run, as Robert Whitaker argued in “Societal Property Rights” (The New Right Papers), even a country’s economic health depends on its culture. Does a particular people respect property rights, encourage thrift, and shun those who lie or violate contracts? Or does that nation wink at venality and nepotism, and sneer at the bourgeois virtues?
If a country’s culture over the course of centuries generates a certain kind of nation, its emigrants will tend to replicate those same strengths and weaknesses elsewhere—barring massive pressure to assimilate. Between 1865 and 1928, the United States enjoyed an overweening, nearly messianic self-image and potent engines of assimilation that heated our melting pot. Those engines have sputtered, and our pot has cooled. The same is true of most of Western Europe. If inundated Western states are to continue their vital service as nations, they must reassert their basic rights and functions; it would only be just and charitable for the Church to support them, while reclaiming Her own liberties and role in civil society.