The Virtue of Piety: The Catholic Response to the Alt-Right

Last week, in the pages of Crisis, Jerry Salyer diagnosed the pagan roots of the growing movement known as the “Alternative” or “Alt-Right” in the writings of French political theorist Alain de Benoist. Salyer’s implication that Catholics should avoid the Alt-Right because of its paganism and innate hostility to Christianity is correct. Moreover, his call upon Catholics to formulate a sober Christian response to the Alt-Right is apropos especially given the need to discourage Catholics from becoming alienated from the Faith. As Salyer also rightly implied, the current leadership of the Church presents a demeanor that can best be called “goofy” and superficial and thus only fuels the fire of the Alt-Right’s criticism of modern Christianity as effeminate and self-destructive.

However, Salyer failed to discuss the strongest appeal of the Alt-Right for Catholics. The most persuasive case that the Alt-Right makes against the Church is that many bishops at least appear to call for unrestricted immigration from developing nations into the West—even immigration from non-Christian countries. The Catholic Church, in this logic, cares more about the interest of immigrant or refugee communities from far-flung parts of the world, than the welfare of the people who already live in the recipient countries.

This Alt-Right criticism seems to be supported by comments from Church leaders on immigration in recent years. While making some overture to obeying the law, most bishops seem to argue that members of developing nations have the right to move into any Western nation they choose, and Western Catholics are obligated to welcome them with open arms. The recent press release by the USCCB critical of President Trump’s immigration executive order is a poignant example. In the release, Bishop Vásquez of Austin, Texas, chairman of the Committee on Migration, writes that the bishops, “strongly disagree” with President Trump’s executive order restricting immigration from seven Middle Eastern and African countries. Bishop Vásquez continues, arguing that “welcoming newcomers and refugees is an act of love and hope” and says that the bishops “will work vigorously to ensure that refugees are humanely welcomed in collaboration with Catholic Charities without sacrificing our security or our core values as Americans, and to ensure that families may be reunified with their loved ones.”

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Perhaps the greatest and most bitter irony in Bishop Vásquez’s statements is that President Trump’s executive order only sought to limit immigration from some Islamic countries that have strong ties to terrorist organizations: Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. Indeed, this list was composed by the Homeland Security Department of the previous administration and in no way reflects a bias against all Muslims since dozens of majority-Muslim countries are not affected by the order. Trump, by all accounts (as is demonstrated by the president’s recent successful visit to Saudi Arabia), has very close ties to many in the Islamic world and, by no means should he be lumped in with groups that have expressed racial animus toward foreign populations. However, despite his inept reading of the president’s policies, there is another nagging error in Bishop Vásquez’s statements on immigration, and this error is the missing piece in the Catholic discussion of immigration, which is, unfortunately, being exploited by some in the Alt-Right.

While he pays lip service to those who defend the right of Americans to “security” and to protect their “core values,” Bishop Vásquez says absolutely nothing about the right of Americans to preserve their culture or the obligations that Americans have toward their own families and communities, and herein lies the rub. Americans and other Westerners are worried about the wellbeing of their families, communities, and cultures, even aside from the threat of terrorism. This is the worry that the Alt-Right can exploit with slogans such as “We Will Not Be Replaced,” which adorned banners at an Alt-Right torch-lit march in Charlottesville, Virginia to protest the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee. The response to both the Alt-Right and to liberal bishops who do not seem very concerned with the rights and just demands of Americans can be found in the simple and humble common sense of St. Thomas Aquinas.

The Thomistic Defense of Piety
Piety is a virtue often forgotten in the contemporary world; but while having its roots in paganism, it is transformed and perfected in Christianity. St. Thomas Aquinas explains this Christian virtue throughout his writings. In his commentary on the 6th commandment, and referencing St. Augustine of Hippo, the Angelic Doctor writes of the practical necessity of giving preference to doing good to those who are closest to us: “we must also know that to avoid evil is in our power; but we are incapable of doing good to everyone. Thus, St. Augustine says that we should love all, but we are not bound to do good to all. But among those to whom we are bound to do good are those in some way united to us.” Thus, in this logic, for example, the people of Livingston, Montana have an obligation to help those in need in their own community before giving aid to foreigners.

St. Thomas continues, quoting from Timothy, “if any man does not take care of his own, especially of those of his house, he has denied the faith” (1 Tim 5:8). St. Thomas clearly states that he is writing of our blood relatives (and thus not anyone in need), for he states, “Now, amongst all our relatives there are none closer than our father and mother.” So the phrase “his own” in St. Thomas Aquinas’s reading of Holy Scripture refers those who are related to one by kinship, not an arbitrary, humanistic fellow feeling or modern understanding of “personhood” or “citizenship” in which the bounds of kinship and culture are dismissed. This is the point at which many in and outside the Church confuse Christianity with humanism: Christianity recognizes and cherishes the bounds of kinship among every human community and imposes a duty on members of families and communities to help those closest to them first.

In the Summa Theologica, St. Thomas continues, writing further on the virtue of piety, “The worship due to our parents includes the worship given to all our kindred, since our kinsfolk are those who descend from the same parents, according to the Philosopher (Ethic. viii, 12). The worship given to our country includes homage to all our fellow-citizens and to all the friends of our country. Therefore piety extends chiefly to these.” Obviously, there is an infelicitous translation in here with the term, “worship,” but even if we choose a milder word, such as “reverence,” St. Thomas is arguing that we owe a deep reverence to not only our immediate family, but to those members of our extended family and tribe as well as our own country. Thus, again, a human being has a deep moral duty to revere, respect, and seek the good of those related to him or her before any other obligations to strangers.

St. Thomas further notes that piety is a type of justice, which is giving what is due; however, piety is a special, more refined and graver version of justice as St. Thomas writes, “Now a thing is indebted in a special way to that which is its connatural principle of being and government. And piety regards this principle, inasmuch as it pays duty and homage to our parents and country, and to those who are related thereto.” Thus, again, true social justice is giving preference to and seeking the support of one’s kinsman, country, and members of one’s own family before outsides.

Piety is an American Virtue
The writings of St. Thomas, like much of the material of the Middle Ages, may appear to some Americans, filled with a Mark Twainesque suspicion of anything produced before the Enlightenment, a bit spooky and outdated. However, we often forget the echoes of the Angelic Doctor’s thought that resonate in the principles of natural law buttressing our Constitution and Declaration of Independence. On the one hand, we should exercise some caution in appropriating the “Whig Thomism” thesis of the late theologian and economist Michael Novak presented in his This Hemisphere of Liberty (1990) and echoed in his more recent On Two Wings: Humble Faith and Common Sense at the American Founding (2003), which suggest that American classical liberalism and traditional Thomism are (almost) identical. Nonetheless, St. Thomas’s wisdom does echo, albeit in variant form, in much written by our founding fathers.

Imbued with a deep (and dare we say Thomistic) sense of piety, John Jay famously wrote in The Federalist Papers that the American colonies initially were united as one people, and “… Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people—a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs, and who, by their joint counsels, arms, and efforts, fighting side by side throughout a long and bloody war, have nobly established general liberty and independence.” This passage sounds a little bit like WASP chauvinism, but like much of what the founding fathers wrote and said, it is, in principle, still eminently true and eminently applicable to our contemporary American political situation. Americans must recognize that the unity of the country is predicated upon a shared heritage and plurality of cultures that are interwoven into one fabric, and, tutored by St. Thomas Aquinas, American Catholics especially are obligated to exercise a pious devotion to our homeland.

Patriotism and reverence for God in the form of piety go hand and hand, and the dissipation of both plagues contemporary America. St. Thomas’s teaching on piety is consonant with much of the Church’s philosophia perennis on the loyalty we have to our own local community and heritage before others. It is also very much a part of common sense Anglo-American conservatism that need not be replaced by some alternative Right. If the bishops in America do not come to grips with the reality that all people have not only a right, but a duty and obligation to cherish their heritage and work for their own families and communities first, they will continue to alienate patriotic Americans who are leaving the Church out of frustration and disgust. The virtue of piety, which always presupposes a true charity and genuine love of all the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve, is the Catholic response to the Alt-Right.


  • Jesse B. Russell

    Jesse B. Russell writes for a variety of Catholic publications.

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