Nationalistic Saints

Saints such as Joan of Arc and Thomas More demonstrate that being holy does not mean being disengaged from public service.

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How Christian is Christian Nationalism?” asked a New Yorker piece last yearMany Christians would argue “not at all”—believing that Christians should not even engage in public service, as the faithful are called to be a people set apart. Other Christian traditions—among them Anabaptists such as the Mennonites and the Bruderhof Communities, Holiness Pacifists, Seventh-day Adventists, and even some Catholics such as Dorothy Day—argue that military service can compromise one’s faith.

When presented with arguments regarding the Christian’s role as it relates to the state, government service, or war, our inclination—of course not without merit—is to appeal to Scripture. We might argue that Jesus Himself was a Jew and a devoted member of the Jewish people, and thus patriotism is to be encouraged. We might cite Man’a-en, “a member of the court of Herod the tetrarch,” mentioned in Acts 13:1, as proof that followers of Christ can serve in positions of political authority. Or we might note that when Jesus healed the centurion’s servant in Matthew 8:5-13, our Lord never told the Roman he had to abandon his soldiering. 

Of course, one can’t go wrong in citing Scripture, especially when debating those who share a high regard for the Bible as an ultimate authority. Yet, as many of us have discovered after years of study and debate, Holy Scripture is complicated and complex, with verses and stories that can serve as proof texts for divergent opinions on just about every debated theological issue. Those who refute nationalism or patriotism might appeal to Christ calling all the nations to worship together (Matthew 25:32); or reject public service on the grounds of the separateness of the early Christian community in Acts; or reject war based on Christ’s call to peace at the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5) or His warning to Peter in Gethsemane (Matthew 26:52).

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This is where the saints come in. For the saints’ lives and words carry a default approbation that often serves to definitively answer questions regarding many of the most contested debates of our day. When struggling to determine the correct position on some contentious issue, querying the saints can be a powerful appeal to appreciating the Church’s position on that topic. When struggling to determine the correct position on some contentious issue, querying the saints can be a powerful appeal to appreciating the Church’s position on that topic.Tweet This

Consider the subject of nationalism or patriotism, one which has attracted quite a bit of recent attention given condemnations of “Christian nationalism” as something equivalent to fascism. And yet there is St. Joan of Arc. The fifteenth-century French saint was urged by God Himself to lead an army to save France from the aggression of the English and Burgundians. Before a French campaign against the English, Joan urged the King of England to withdraw his troops from French soil. She supported Charles VII in his coronation as King of France. Though she was condemned and executed as a heretic by her English captors, Pope Callixtus III permitted a rehabilitation trial, which, in 1456, declared her original trial to be unjust and dishonest.

If nationalism or patriotism are immoral and divinely censured, it sure is odd that God would call a French peasant woman to lead an army of French soldiers into battle for the sake of a particular nation. Indeed, Joan’s devotion to France was not a peripheral or dispensable part of her saintly identity but central. Joan was called to save France, a people and a nation who would achieve great glories on behalf of Christ and His Church in the centuries after her death and produce many fine saints who would follow in Joan’s footsteps.

We also have strong Catholic examples when it comes to public service. One such person is St. Thomas More, who was elected to the English Parliament in 1504. He later served as an undersheriff of the City of London, a Commissioner for Sewers, a Master of Requests, Privy Counsellor, under-treasurer of the Exchequer, and eventually Lord Chancellor, the highest official in the English realm. Strident in his submission to the pope in the face of King Henry VIII’s rebellion, More, in 1532, resigned his position as Lord Chancellor. In 1534, he was accused and convicted of treason for his refusal to sign the Oath of Succession, which rejected the authority of the pope. Though still “the king’s servant,” More was executed in 1535.

Granted, More is not a saint because he was an exemplary bureaucrat, though he undoubtedly was one. More is a saint because he died refusing to betray the Church and its ecclesial and moral authority and is thus a martyr. Yet the Church has always lauded More not only for his unequivocal support for the pope but for his saintly life and moral rectitude over decades of public service to the English crown. Public service, it seems, is an acceptable, even commendable vocation, and virtuous participation in politics can be an objective good to which we are called as Christians.

What of military service? Besides Joan of Arc, one might also cite Louis IX, King of France, who spent many years of his reign supporting crusades in the Holy Land, aiming to curb the growth of Islam and reclaim the ancient lands of Christendom. The Seventh and Eighth Crusades, though tactical disasters, were tremendous undertakings that engrossed Louis for years and cost the French crown massive sums of money. Louis was front and center during both crusades, leading his men and suffering alongside them—so much so that he was captured (and later ransomed) in Egypt. Ever the soldier, he died in north Africa during the Eighth Crusade. His last words were, reportedly, “Jerusalem! Jerusalem!” 

The stories of Louis’ personal sanctity are many: he wore a hairshirt, prayed constantly, and even had the Divine Office read to him while in the saddle and in prison. Yet he is, above all, known for his military efforts on behalf of Christ, including both campaigning and strengthening the defenses of various crusader fortifications in the Holy Land. If God categorically rejects military service, it is a strange thing for the Church to beatify a man who spent his life at war.

In these examples, we are only touching the surface of what the saints can teach us about Christian doctrine. We might cite St. Faustina Kowalska’s writings and visions as reason to believe that Hell—a place denied even by many contemporary Catholics —is indeed real. We could note St. Junípero Serra, that great missionary to the Indians of California, as evidence that the evangelization, catechesis, and even “civilizing” of indigenous peoples is endorsed by Catholic teaching. Or we could refer to St. Oscar Romero—murdered by neo-fascists in El Salvador—as an exemplar of resistance to government corruption and oppression.

So, the next time you’re unsure of how best to respond to questions of what the Church teaches on some doctrine, consider not only the Bible or magisterial teaching, but consider, also, the lives of the saints. For often it is stories, rather than even the most airtight arguments, that persuade hearts.


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