I am an Englishman, who sounds like an Englishman, and who indeed speaks English as God intended it to be spoken, and as it is spoken in heaven, as some of you will be lucky enough to discover. However, I look like an Irishman, I have an Irish name, I have two European passports, and I am a permanent resident of the United States, so, of course, I am taxed but not represented, a bit like all U.S. citizens these days, in fact. I speak a smattering of some European languages, although I’m more like the character in Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, who was said to speak “all languages and none.” I am a Catholic, and, moreover, I am a Catholic priest, which is why I am wearing the soutane, I’m not an extra from The Matrix, or a Keanu Reeves body double.
I am deeply English, my soul is English—but am I an English Catholic, or a Catholic Englishman? This might seem like semantics, but it is at the very heart of this talk, and it is a critical part of the development of this movement we call “National Conservatism.” I am particularly grateful to Yoram Hazony for inviting me, and I know that one of the reasons, apart from the accent, was because there are those who are contending, some nicely, with robust and intelligent debate, and some not so pleasantly, with invective and ill-considered opinion, that Catholicism and National Conservatism are somehow incompatible, or are a match not made in heaven, an odd couple.
My job is to present, from the perspective of a member of a family, a nation, and the Church, why it is perfectly possible, and I would dare to say natural, for a Catholic to be a national conservative. It is important to say as a priest, that I am not a member of any political party, and from the pulpit my job is not to promote any particular party, but it is to help faithful Catholics exercise their voting rights in accordance with the solemn teaching of the Church on critical issues, for example the sanctity of human life from conception to natural death, the sanctity of marriage, and God’s plan for humanity made in the image of God, male and female.
My vote is private, however, I will let you into a little secret, I will never, unless there is a radical change, ever vote for the Conservative Party in England, because there is nothing that even approximates anything we could call conservative about it—and that especially applies to the new prime minister. Conservatives are social conservatives, or they are not conservative.
“Nationalism is the consciousness of nationality,” so wrote G.K. Chesterton, a Englishman, and a Catholic, and someone worth quoting all the time. “Nationalism is the consciousness of nationality,” not morally wrong, not problematic, just as one’s name is the consciousness of being part of a particular family. In a marvelous book, published in 1933, and edited by Maisie Ward, Chesterton’s biographer, called The English Way, separate chapters were written on different saints and English Catholic figures from our long history, by the cream of English Catholicism at the time, apart from Chesterton, people like Belloc, Christopher Dawson, and others. It is both in Maisie Ward’s introduction, and a few words in the chapter on Alfred the Great by Hilaire Belloc, that I think the case can be clearly made that there is no incompatibility between Catholicism and nationalism, rightly understood.
Ward says in her introduction the key to it all:
[Catholicism,] because it is universal, it is in every country, but because it is sacramental, it is intensely local, found in each country in a special and unique fashion, not a spirit only, but a spirit clothed in material form.
Do not tell me that Spanish Catholicism is anything like English Catholicism, or Austrian Catholicism, because they are local and clothed in their unique fashion and material form. This sacramental quality, which imbues each country with its intensely local form, is because we Catholics and indeed all sacramental Christians believe in the truth of the Incarnation: “The Word became flesh and dwelt amongst us.”
The love of nation, and the celebration of its customs, at once both conservative and radical to the very roots, are as Sir Roger Scruton—our hero—once wrote, because the “soul of man is a local product, rooted in the soil.” If this is the case, it is undeniably conservative, not in any party political way, but in the true desire to conserve and cherish. But is nationalism wrong—a sin even?
Karol Wojtyla— St. John Paul the Great, was a proud son of Poland, and, I would contend, embodied the highest ideal of national conservatism. He certainly lived both Chesterton’s definition of nationalism and the dictionary definition: “loyalty and devotion to a nation, especially a sense of national consciousness.” He loved his country, its history and culture—all that was good and local and, in particular, its clothing of Catholicism in material form. He wrote, “patriotism is a love of everything to do with our native land.” Once again, nationalism, properly understood, is the same.
The strange things, Chesterton said, are “cosmopolitan, the common things are national and peculiar.” That is why people travel—to see the shops, the clothes, the culture, the ‘peculiar’ things of another country. The love of all those things of one’s native space is not sinful, but necessary. The things that bind a people together, including the shared national memory that we call a nation’s history, to take pride and pleasure in them, to seek to preserve them, is not ‘alt-right, racist, neo-Nazi.’ It is beautiful and inspiring. That includes national boundaries and borders, without which democracy is imperiled. As Scruton has written, “democracy needs boundaries, and boundaries need the nation state.” The right of a nation to have borders, and to enforce them, and to require those who wish to enter to do so legally, is neither contrary to the Christian faith, nor uncharitable or inhumane.
So if nationalism—national consciousness—engenders a sense of loyalty and devotion as it did in the case of John Paul II, it might be worth asking, to whom (or what) are those who have no sense of loyalty or devotion to their nation, devoted? Here again, I think we touch on the sense of sacramentality and locality clothed in material form. In secular terms, it is what has been described by David Goodhart as being “somewhere people,” or “anywhere people.” Catholics are, without a shadow of doubt, “somewhere people,” and yes, we know only too well who the “anywhere” people are: the ones running our global institutions, academia, much of the media. So-called “citizens of the world,” they are unencumbered by the tired old concepts of nationality, common culture, history and, of course, worst of all, religion. How colonial, how 19th century, how passé, to celebrate the idea of loyalty and devotion to one’s country—a bit like traveling around in a horse and carriage, a relic of the past (although we might all be traveling around in horse-drawn buggies fairly soon).
Dana Gioia, the poet, writing of literature, could just as easily be speaking of the difference between “somewhere and anywhere” people when he wrote of the growing “homogeneity of writers … educated with no deep connection to a particular region, history or tradition.”
And yet, there is still a tightrope we must walk, a paradox which must be acknowledged and somehow successfully lived: with our love of nation, locality, conservatism, and the fact that, as Christians, we have no abiding city. “For men are homesick in their homes/ And strangers under the sun,” wrote Chesterton in one of his poems. But we also love our homes, our families, our people, despite being strangers and sojourners. Where nationalism can go wrong, St. John Paul said, is if the “good of one’s own nation alone,” is pursued, without “regard for the rights of others.”
Roger Scruton would also argue that nationalism as an ideology is dangerous, if it “occupies the space vacated by religion.” Nationalism can never be “my country right or wrong”—that inevitably leads to despotism. Perhaps, once as again, as he so often did, Chesterton gives us both the definition of a true nationalist, and a patriot. “That essential madness,” he said, “is the idea that the good patriot is the man who feels at ease about his country.” That, he said, is not a patriot, but a “courtier, an upholder of present conditions.” A patriot, Chesterton said, or we could say a true national conservative, is “a discontented man.” If “we boast of our best, we must repent of our worst.”
I would add a third factor we should gently avoid, the internecine warfare between all of us who claim to be conservatives. It really doesn’t matter how many integralists can dance on the head of a pin, and before we build Catholic nation states, let’s actually have some practicing Catholics! Without channelling my inner Jon Snow, it is too late to be fighting among ourselves, the “Army of the Dead” is on the march, led by the original “White Walker” himself, George Soros, and his sidekick Mr. Schwab.
The “deep things, which inhabit the native soul,” wrote Belloc, are “immemorial; the English imagination, the English humor, the English Englishry.” Maisie Ward said it is those “deep things,” those immemorial things, English, Irish, French, American, Polish, which gives each nation its own special “way” of being. Those things can be, and in many cases, are, both national, conservative, and Catholic.
This essay is an abridged version of remarks given by Fr. Benedict Kiely at the National Conservatism Conference in Miami on September 12, 2022.