Patriotism: Virtue or Vice?
Patriotism is, in Fact, a Virtue
A virtue is a habitual and firm disposition to the good. Our rights from and responsibilities to our country derive from the virtue of piety. The virtue of piety pertains to the broader virtue of justice. Patriotism is the balanced application of piety, and therefore justice, in a habitual and firm way to the good of the country. Therefore, patriotism is a virtue.
The Virtue of Justice
Justice exists between beings that can act morally towards one another. As a virtue, it regulates the way that human beings operate and interact. Justice moves the will of the individual from within and without to seek the good for each and all. This interaction of seeking justice can take place between individuals or between an individual and his greater community. Generally, all people of good will, motivated by justice, seek the common good of every person. This common good is not subjective but pertains to the highest good which is God. So, the idea of seeking justice apart from an objective morality rooted in the Creator is unintelligible.
The great Catholic St. Thomas Aquinas defines justice in this way, “the proper act of justice is nothing else than to render to each one his own (ST II-II, q. 58, a. 11).”
Justice requires that all persons are treated with equal respect and dignity, but not necessarily that each person is treated exactly equally. Each human person, regardless of circumstance, sex, race, nationality, culture, or any other characteristic, is made in the image and likeness of Almighty God. Though we are all sinners and fall short of seeking the good as efficiently and perfectly as we could, t he fundamental ordering of justice is due to all human persons and this reality must be upheld.
The Virtue of Piety
Piety is the virtue of justice which is ordered towards responsibility to family and nation. In the Christian Tradition, the gift of the Holy Spirit of piety is the recognition of total reliance on God and to come before His majesty with humility, trust, and love. The virtue of piety works in tandem with this gift. St. Thomas Aquinas refers to the Roman statesman Cicero’s definition of piety: “it is by piety that we do our duty towards our kindred and well-wishers of our country and render them faithful service (ST II-II, q. 101, a. 1).”
Piety recognizes that God is the primary source of both life and government. We enter the world by way of the family into a society that is governed. Therefore, we know that God sustains the propagation of humanity, but we also see that the rightful authorities, permitted by God, that require our just obedience. After God, we chiefly owe our lives and well-being to our parents and our country. Piety means giving honor to our parents and, by extension, our entire family, and to give honor to our country which includes our fellow-citizens and allies of our country.
The Virtue of Patriotism
If we drill deeper into justice and then into piety, we see two main branches: 1) our extended family and local community and 2) our fellow countrymen and friends of our country. Of course, these cannot be separated. They are inexorably linked. No man is an island unto himself.
If we focus on the second of these two, we finally arrive at the virtue of patriotism. The power of the State is granted by God, but this power does not allow the State to make or enforce laws and orders that violate the natural rights of its subjects. If the State is not infringing upon these natural freedoms, then the citizenry is obliged to act in obedience to the legitimate authority.
It is impossible to be a patriot without freedom. Civil allegiance is the virtue of patriotism combined with the virtue of obedience. Allegiance requires that the citizen be free to give his service to the State. Otherwise, he is no patriot at all, but is living under oppression.
Patriotism means having a reasonable love and esteem for one’s own country. This is externalized by showing honor and respect to the rulers of the State, whoever they may be. To be sure, it is possible and even healthy to honor and respect a leader while also disagreeing on key policies and ideas.
Patriotism means to observe which laws of the State are in accord with Catholic social teaching and the doctrines of faith and morals and to oppose those which are against the truth and the Catholic Faith. Citizens are not compelled by patriotism to follow unjust laws. Rather, it is the patriotic thing to correct error and bring the laws into accord with the fullness of the truth in Jesus Christ, through persuasive argument and example.
Patriotism means a willingness to lay down one’s life for their country. Of course, this literally takes flesh when we understand that the virtue of piety, and therefore justice, refers to our entire family, our friends, and our fellow countrymen and allies. Some pay the greatest price by dying in the service of their country in the military. Others lay down their lives for their country day by day in the normal service of their duty to their family, their work, their community, and the poor and marginalized.
Patriotism has a just consciousness of the past and a balanced pride in national identity. However, we must not conflate the virtue of patriotism with a blind, senseless, and unreasonable form of nationalism. There are those who see their country as having no past sins. This view is unreasonable because the only perfect society is the Church Triumphant in Heaven. However, we must also not go to the other extreme of historical revisionism which seeks to emphasize the injustice of the past while forgetting the good.
Growing in the Virtue of Patriotism
I will leave you with two brief suggestions to grow in the virtue of patriotism.
The next time a national holiday comes around, learn about it. Do not take for granted that you know what is being celebrated. Really dive into the day. When did it begin and why? Is it really what everyone thinks it is? Is it worth remembering? Is it worth celebrating? Know the answers to these questions.
Practice the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. Seek to serve your fellow countrymen, to the greater glory of God. Christianity and patriotism go hand in hand when it comes to serving our neighbor in love.