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Roman Catholicism and Political Romanticism

Rome ou Babel proposes a less romantic Catholicism.

St Peter's Square, Rome, 20th century.
(Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

Rome ou Babel: Pour un christianisme universaliste et enracinéby Laurent Dandrieu, Artege, 400 pages.

Discussions on the American right embrace a wide range of issues. From geopolitics to industrial policy, from criticism of Big Tech monopolies to questions of higher education, to an outside observer the variety of topics covered is striking. Debates on the French right, however, are dominated by two themes: immigration and multiculturalism. And one cannot help but recognize that Catholic voices on the conservative side of this discourse have thus far been either unheard or timid. With his latest book, Rome ou Babel: Pour un christianisme universaliste et enraciné, the essayist Laurent Dandrieu is trying to change that.


Dandrieu is one of the few Catholic intellectuals in France who looks at Pope Francis's pontificate with an unequivocally critical eye. Most conservative French Catholics have tried to avoid addressing elements of the pope's message that appear problematic to them. They emphasize the ecological aspect of Francis's teachings as expressed in the encyclical Laudato si’, and couple it with ideas of degrowth or conservation. This side of the pope's worldview has been accentuated by young Catholics gathered around the Revue Limite magazine, and also by law professor Frédéric Rouvillois, who in his book La clameur de la terre tries to marry the pope’s integral ecology with a critique of modernity and a call for the restoration of monarchy. The issues of immigration, European heritage, and national cultures, meanwhile—often present in Pope Francis’s speeches—are left out of the conversation.

According to Dandrieu, the 2015 migrant crisis exposed a deep fracture among Catholics. When confronted with a "global humanitarian crisis," many of Europe’s Catholics could not believe that at the beginning of the 21st century it was still acceptable to invoke national interest or to speak of European civilization. Francis’s pontificate has highlighted this division running through the Roman Church: between those who see it as a vehicle for a certain kind of globalism and those who remain attached to rooted universalism.

The pope has turned the issue of immigration into a moral core of Catholicism. While his encyclicals contain some ambiguity, his media statements and gestures leave no doubt about his stance. Dandrieu recalls how Francis compared refugee camps to "concentration camps" during his April 22, 2017, homily, or how he argued on the occasion of his February 17, 2017, meetings with students in Rome that "Europe was made from invasions, migrants."

Rome ou Babel not only demonstrates the centrality of the topic of immigration to Francis’s teachings, but also draws attention to a fundamental new development of the pontificate: theology of migration. In conversations with French sociologist Dominique Wolton, which make up the book Politique et société, Francis said that “Our theology is a theology of migrants.” As its redemptive figure is the migrant, this new theology ceases to be Christocentric and becomes “migrantocentric.”

Pope Francis, Dandrieu notes, seems intent on severing the bond between Catholicism and European civilization. In a speech at the European Parliament in 2014, he called Europe a “grandmother” that, no longer capable of renewing itself, should acquiesce to being regenerated by populations from other continents. At the same time, the head of the Catholic Church is wary of referring to Europe’s “Christian roots.” In an interview with the Catholic daily La Croix, he admitted to avoiding the phrase, whose tone can be “vengeful” or “triumphalist” and therefore “colonialist.”


The author of Rome ou Babel rightly points out the absurdity of accusations of colonialism against Europeans when they speak of the Christian sources of their own civilization. The Argentine displays here what demographer Eric Kauffmann has called “asymmetrical multiculturalism.” According to Francis, there are cultures that are allowed to care about their identities—the cultures of migrants coming to Europe—and those, like Europeans, whose concern for their own identity amounts to a sin.

Dandrieu shows that this immigrationist turn did not begin with Francis. The consideration of the issue exclusively from the point of view of migrants, without taking into account the societies that receive them, can already be seen in Pius XII's apostolic constitution, Exsul Familia. The questions of how the scale of migration or cultural background of the newcomers affects host societies are absent in it.

Catholicism's globalist turn begins in earnest in the 1960s. John XXIII saw mass immigration as a sign of a new era, and in his encyclical Pacem in terris argues that the current evolution of the world requires global institutions to govern the world. Despite the fact that he developed his own theology of nations, John Paul II also regarded mass migration as a process that, as he proclaimed on the occasion of World Day of Migrants in 1987, would create “a new world… founded on truth and justice.”

The late Benedict XVI defended Catholicism's European roots, but also associated it with certain messianism, as on World Day of Migrants in 2011, when he claimed that migration is “the prefiguration of an undivided City of God.” In his encyclical Caritas in veritate, as Dandrieu reminds us, he expressed one of the basic globalist tenets: the belief in the necessity of global institutions that would attend to the common good of all mankind and implement its unity.

Dandrieu argues that Catholicism is succumbing to the temptation of Babel that Benedict XVI—whose message was more multifaceted than Francis’s globalist messianism—warned against. The author illustrates this “babelism” with the words of William T. Cavanaugh, an American Catholic theologian. In an interview with the magazine La Vie, when asked whether nationalism and Catholicism could be reconciled, the American replied that "‘Catholic’ means universal, and the Catholic Church is the first truly global organization, so any segmentation is a violation inflicted on the Catholic nature of the Church."

Yet this “segmentation” was unquestioned by Leo XIII, who argued in Sapientiae Christianae that we owe special fidelity and love to the homeland into which we were born. Pius X did not hesitate to put it more bluntly: “If Catholicism were an enemy of the homeland, it would not be a divine religion.” The globalist unity of the Tower of Babel, Dandrieu claims, should be countered by Catholicism's rooted universalism: the spiritual unity of nations anchored in their cultures.

Looking for the sources of this “contamination” of true Catholic universalism by globalism, Dandrieu points to personalism. This intellectual current has detached Catholicism from the notion of the common good, shifting the focus to the individual. While the ideas of Jacques Maritain and his disciples sought to criticize liberalism, they inadvertently led to its triumph within the church. In a personalist vein, John XXIII defined the common good as “safeguarding the rights and duties of the human person,” thus disregarding its inherently communal dimension, central to St. Thomas’s thought and to the whole classical Catholic tradition. Absent an anchor in the common good, personalism has degenerated into subjectivism, providing the intellectual and moral conditions for the utopian pipe dream of a united humanity. 

I remain of the view that after 1945, the Catholic Church began to drift into political romanticism. Carl Schmitt argued that the latter boils down to the abolition of the concrete world in the name of an imagined reality: “Their romantic function is the negation of here and now.” Pierre Lasserre, another critic of romanticism, maintained that what romantics seek in politics is primarily moral "intoxication.” Dandrieu, for his part, writes that Catholic globalism “turns its back on reality...breaks with the concrete world and natural communities, replacing the concrete relationship with the world with a purely ideological, abstract one.”

The Catholic Church's attitude toward immigration, especially under the pontificate of Francis, seems purely romantic. It takes into account neither any real limitations of states nor of national communities called to absorb all “the wretched of the Earth.” It provides moral "intoxication” to the faithful and hierarchy, denies the constraints of the “here and now,” and represents, in essence, a rupture within the tradition of Catholic doctrine, undermining one of the most crucial rights to which nations are entitled—the right to continuity.

The French essayist recommends a return to St. Thomas’s realism. While the great philosopher cannot tell us what political institutions we should build, explains Dandrieu, he allows us to see through the aberrations of contemporary political ideals. One has to agree that a sharp turn toward realism is an urgent task for the Catholic Church. It would serve as an antidote to what is most pernicious in its current romantic predicament: disdain for definite problems and reliance on emotions when dealing with matters of gravest importance.

It is about time to restore Catholicism to its authentic form: Roman, not Romantic. Rome ou Babel paves the way for this restoration.


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