James P. Pinkerton is an author and contributing editor at The American Conservative. He served as a White House policy aide to both Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
Pope Francis’s Battle Against the Nation-State
Pope Francis is at it again. He’s meddling in the internal affairs of nations.
Of course, popes have been meddling for 2,000 years. So while the names and the specific issues might change, the tension between the Roman Catholic Church, claiming international dominion, and national governments, claiming territorial sovereignty, seems destined to endure.
Indeed, the church is hardly unique in its geopolitical ambitions. Today, plenty of international organizations claim their own jurisdiction over much or all of the earth—and they, too, are getting plenty of pushback. So if we study the history of the church and how its international reach has seesawed back and forth, we can gain insight into the basic dynamic of the universal versus the parochial.
These days, migration is at the top of the pope’s political agenda. On January 17, the Vatican announced a new website that included a thick document, Light on the Ways of Hope, which pulls together Francis’s teachings on immigration. As the website says of migrants, “We should welcome and protect them…we should promote and integrate them.” In a more overt statement of political intent, the site also includes suggestions for “policies to advocate in your country and at the U.N. level.”
Such outright immigration advocacy has, of course, been a staple of Francis’s pontificate. In 2017, on the “World Day of Migrants,” the pope went so far as to declare that migration is more important even than national security. As he put it, “The principle of the centrality of the human person…obliges us to always prioritize personal safety over national security.”
And he has been nothing if not steady on this issue. In his 2018 Christmas message, for instance, Francis exhorted, “Our differences, then, are not a detriment or a danger; they are a source of richness. As when an artist is about to make a mosaic: it is better to have tiles of many colors available, rather than just a few!”
We might note that the permanent title of that annual holiday message, urbi et orbi, speaks to the Vatican’s global vision—the city and the world. And on January 6, reacting to news that yet another boatload of refugees had been stopped in Mediterranean, Francis implored officials to let them in. “I make a heartfelt appeal to European leaders to show concrete solidarity for these people, as they are seeking a safe port where they can disembark,” he said.
In the meantime, others in the Catholic hierarchy are even more outspoken, to the point of belligerence. For instance, in a recent interview, Father Rocco D’Ambrosio, professor of political philosophy at Pontifical Gregorian University, took aim at populist-nationalist leaders, including in Italy, who oppose open borders. “Populism is an ancient malady,” D’Ambrosio said, adding that populist leaders are “new Caesars…immature, corrupt.”
A cynic might suggest that it’s, uh, convenient for the Vatican to be taking such a lefty and loud stance on migration—as well as other issues such as climate change and the death penalty—at a time when it’s been embroiled in endless revelations of sexual abuse.
Yet it’s also worth noting that popes have long sought to intervene in political matters. And we might further note that within the church, Francis’s own order, the Jesuits, have been the most energetic: Jesuits are not known as “God’s Marines” for nothing.
Yet of course, with energy comes counter-energy, and that’s been the story of the church, and the Jesuits too. To illustrate, we might look to the contentious history of France. The nadir of church-state relations in that country was, of course, the French Revolution. And yet even before that, popes and kings were often at odds—and the political repercussions were profound. As detailed by Peter R. Campbell in his 2003 book Power and Politics in Old Regime France, 1720-1745, even the Catholic Bourbon kings were often hostile to clerical power.
In early 18th-century France, the struggle was over the power of the pope to control the church in that country, including clerical appointments. The French government, increasingly feeling its oats as a nation state, sought the same power, and interestingly, it was joined by the Jansenists, an unofficial movement within the church. Named for Cornelius Jansen, a Dutch Catholic bishop in the early 17th century—that is, in the middle of the Reformation and the European Wars of Religion—the Jansenists were a reform faction within the church. They emphasized greater piety and even a kind of proto-nationalism. This stance came at the expense of the church’s traditional ultramontanism—that is, papal authority everywhere, regardless of borders. In this way, the Jansenists hoped to co-opt, and preempt, the piety and national feeling of the Protestants.
In France, the Jansenists were often more overtly loyal to the king in Paris than to the pope in Rome. Not surprisingly, the Roman church wasn’t fond of the Jansenists. In 1713, Pope Clement XI issued a bull anathematizing the views of one Jansenist as
false, captious, ill-sounding, offensive to pious ears, scandalous, pernicious, rash, injurious to the Church and its practices, contumelious to Church and State, seditious, impious, blasphemous, suspected and savoring of heresy, favoring heretics, heresy, and schism, erroneous, bordering on heresy, often condemned, heretical, and reviving various heresies, especially those contained in the famous propositions of Jansenius.
Thus an odd kind of political struggle raged—made all the odder, as Campbell points out, by France’s lack of representative political mechanisms. That is, in the absence of pluralistic give-and-take, disputes were carried out by other means, in elaborate documents to be read and discussed in the cloisters of church and court.
Yet even so, some of the results were explosive. In 1764, King Louis XV ordered the expulsion from France of the Jesuit order—a direct slap at the pope and his church. (At around the same time, other European countries and empires, each with its own grievance, also expelled the Jesuits.)
And in France, as historian Campbell explains, the Jansenists took the lead against the Jesuits:
It was the Jansenists who organized the attack on their arch-enemies the Jesuits which culminated in the trial and banning of the Order…. The group, the parti janséniste as it was known to contemporaries, possessed a closely organized inner corps and operated as a highly effective pressure group in politics.
So we can see: long before the events of 1789, nascent French nationalism was pushing back on papal authority. In fact, the general trend since the Reformation has been the rising of the nation-state and the diminishing of Catholicism’s international political power.
Yet even so, the trend has not been entirely one way; sometimes the sacred still gets the better of the secular. For instance, Pope John Paul II’s June 1979 visit to Poland, then yoked under communism, evoked an enormous popular reaction among the Poles. It’s certainly possible to argue that John Paul’s visit was the spark in a chain reaction that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall, the liberation of captive nations, and the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Indeed, echoes of old dynamics still resound in Poland. Today’s Polish Catholic church could be described as neo-Jansenistic; it is well to the right of Pope Francis on piety—on issues such as abortion and gay rights—and politically it is closer to Warsaw than to Rome.
In response, Francis’s global church has, as we have seen, moved left on political issues. On migration, the church is now with international organizations such as the European Union—or maybe even further to the left, in the company of, say, George Soros’s Open Society foundations. This sort of shift, of course, is familiar: mainline Protestantism long ago threw in with internationalism, even with world federalism.
In fact, it seems that world governance bodies, avowedly secular though they might be, nevertheless manage to fill, in the minds of their adherents, some of the psychic space once occupied by religious institutions. By this reckoning, Brussels is the new Rome.
Today, the EU is another protagonist in the long power struggle between church and state. Here at TAC, Will Collins described the new era, as nation-states jostle for power with both Brussels and Rome:
Just as Eastern European nationalism is a necessary constraint on an overly ambitious European Union, the revival of distinctly national religious traditions may prove a useful corrective to theological overreach. Pious Polish Catholics are under no obligation to embrace Pope Francis’s vision of a Europe without borders.
That vision would take us back to the days before nationalism, before Jansenism, before the Reformation, before even the Great Schism with Orthodox Christians in the 11th century. Yes, the continent has always had its squabbles and wars, but back then, at least in theory, Europeans were united in Christendom—and under papal authority.
As we know, this vision of European unity is forever attractive, even seductive, to many, and for them to achieve it, no sacrifice seems too great. Of course, in the future, if a reunified Europe were ever to happen—or even, who knows, a unified world—it would likely not be Catholic, or even Christian.
Surely Francis knows all this. Yet surely he recalls from history that his church has been strongest when nation states were weakest. Indeed, perhaps he is animated by a newer vision of mankind’s salvation. Perhaps he is looking to build a new structure with new beliefs.
And again, nobody can say that it would have to be Christian.