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Patriotism as a Virtue

July 4, 2009

I love my country, the United States, and today I celebrate with many of you the birth of that nation. But all love most be ordered and measured lest it mutate into inordinate affection.

I, for one, take patriotism to be a virtue, not least of all because of the word’s etymological roots in the Latin patria, which means “fatherland” (the related Latin word for “father” is pater). When we consider our patria, the notion of “patrimony” ought to follow closely. Our patria, in its broad diversity and wide scope, instills in us values, spiritual principles, and cultural identity. Even when we reflexively critique these values, prinicples, and identity, they nevertheless serve to orient and provide us with a basis for such a critique. In a very real sense, a criticism of one’s national heritage is a mode of revering that heritage.  The reverence we hold for our patria is, as the Latin roots suggest, in some way analogous to the reverence we hold for our pater (father) and mater (mother).  Notwithstanding his stance on civil disobedience, Socrates, I think, puts this well when he considers what a nation might say to one of its ungrateful inhabitants:

Come now, what accusation do you bring against us and the city, that you should try to destroy us?  Did we not, first, bring you to birth, and was it not through us that your father married your mother and begat you?

We have given you birth, nutured you, educated you, we have given you and all other citizens a share of all the good things we could.  (Plato, Crito, 50d, 51c-d)

Before looking closer at this notion of reverence for patria, it is important to note that the patrimony its bequeaths to its children is in no way monolithic or static. The values, principles, and identity given to us by our patria vary by locale, sub-society and even family (consider a wealthy Mexican-American woman from Houston in relation to a poor white man from Appalacia) . Though varying, they nonetheless remain emanations from the same patria. Because the patria is a common good of all its citizens, a serious duty to revere, in whichever manner or whatever measure, is leveled. This reverence gives rise to the virtue of patriotism.

I find Pope John Paul II’s soaring description of the “moral value of patriotism” worth quoting:

Patriotism is a love for everything to do with our native land: its history, its traditions, its language, its natural features. It is a love which extends also to the works of our compatriots and the fruits of their genius. Every danger that threatens the overall good of our native land becomes an occasion to demonstrate this love…I belive that the same could be said of every country and every nation in Europe and throughout the world. (Memory and Identity, 65-66)

It is important to note that patria and even “nation” (from the Latin natus meaning “born”) are not coextensive or synonymous with the concept of State. Hence, John Paul II can love Poland and I can love the United States without embracing the historic totality of governmental and legal structures that are generated by, and subsequent to, the patria, and perhaps more significantly, the family. The connection between pater and patria emerges even more markedly when we consider the manner in which the family is a basic unit of the very society that receives its national patrimony. The family and the nation are natural societies, and no political paradigm of the State, be it liberal democracy or socialism, can replace or supplant them. This is why a citizen may resist certain political structures, which are subsequent to, and dependent on, the nation, without foregoing the moral virtue of patriotism. Patriotism, precisely as reverence for the common property that is the patria, is a deep concern for the common good.

John Paul II admonishes us to be wary of allowing our patriotism to morph into the vice of nationalism:

The cultural and historical identity of any society is preserved and nourished by all that is contained within this concept of nation. Clearly, one thing must be avoided at all costs: the risk of allowing the essential function of the nation to lead to an unhealthy nationalism. (Memory and Identity, 67)

On the essential and moral difference between patriotism and nationalism, John Paul II writes:

Whereas nationalism involves recognizing and pursuing the good of one’s own nation alone, without regard for the rights of others, patriotism, on the other hand, is a love for one’s native land that accords rights to all other nations equal to those claimed for one’s own. Patriotism, in other words, leads to a properly ordered social love. (Memory and Identity, 67)

Reflecting on the manner in which nationalism in pre-World War Europe tore the continent to pieces, Pope Benedict XVI outlines the healthy balance between national identity and recognition of the community of all nations:

In response to the divisive nationalisms and the hegemonistic ideologies that had given the old hostilities a radical form in the Second World War, it was intended that the common cultural, moral, and religious inheritence of Europe should shape the awareness of its nations. This common identity…was to open up a path to peace, a path into the future that all could take together. The search was for a European identity that would not extinguish or deny the individual national identities but would bind them together in a higher fellowship to form one single community of peoples. (Values in a Time of Upheaval, 152)

Patriotism is a moral virtue. Nationalism, in its various modes, never is.  At least, that’s what St. Josemaria Escrivá, a man who loved his land of Spain, submits:

Love your own country: it is a Christian virtue to be patriotic. But if patriotism becomes nationalism, which leads you to look at other people, at other countries, with indifference, with scorn, without Christian charity and justice, then it is a sin. (Furrow, 315)

Happy Fourth of July to all my American brethern!

Josemaría Escrivá, Furrow (New York: Scepter Publishers)
Plato, Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1997)
Pope Benedict XVI, Values in a Time of Upheaval (New York: Crossroads, 2006)
Pope John Paul II, Memory and Identity (New York: Rizzoli, 2005)

  1. July 4, 2009 5:05 pm

    A clear, concise, and effective post, M.J. Andrew.

  2. July 5, 2009 4:06 am

    Excellent post.

  3. M.J. Andrew permalink*
    July 6, 2009 3:28 am

    Thanks, guys.

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