Catholic Americans seem to revel in polarization. Our country’s two-party political system, which siphons the electorate into severely limited options, certainly doesn’t help. But there’s an accompanying divisive insistence, particularly among Catholics, that one secular party or the other holds exclusive claim to virtue and love for our homeland.
What we overlook in these claims of virtuous patriotism are integral components of piety and charity. In the words of St. Thomas Aquinas, “piety is a protestation of the charity we bear towards our parents and country.”
Imagine if our children spoke to us with the same tone we exercise in online political comment feeds. Has your 8-year-old ever passive aggressively expressed concern for your eternal damnation? How effective would that be in furthering parent-child dialogue?
Comparing filial dialogues to patriotic ones is not far-fetched: the Catechism addresses patriotism in its exegesis on the Fourth Commandment—“Honor your father and mother”—as an expression of filial piety to our fatherland. This means, as in a family, our interactions are meant for charity and the common good of all members, leading to growth in reverence toward our parents and, by extension, our fellow citizens and homeland (and ultimately, God).
Endless online pseudo-dialogue only compounds our poor practice of patriotism. Pope Francis addresses this failure of social networks to facilitate meaningful conversation in his most recent encyclical, Fratelli Tutti:
“Dialogue is often confused with something quite different: the feverish exchange of opinions on social networks, frequently based on media information that is not always reliable. These exchanges are merely parallel monologues. They may attract some attention by their sharp and aggressive tone. But monologues engage no one, and their content is frequently self-serving and contradictory.”
Why are Catholic comboxes some of the most vicious places on the Internet when it comes to politics? We miss countless opportunities to contemplatively turn issues under the light of church teaching when we compulsively pitch them left or right instead. Truly patriotic conversations should wander calmly and easily through secular political constructs of Republican, Democrat, liberal, or conservative. But too often in our online interactions, we aim for a dropped mic rather than a shared mic.
Political polarization among Catholics isn’t unique to America. In a spontaneous address to Cuban youth in 2015, Pope Francis emphasized accompaniment as a tenet of love for one’s country and neighbor:
“Cuban young people, though you think differently from each other, though you have your own points of view, I want you to go along accompanying each other, together, seeking hope, seeking the future and the nobility of your homeland … even though we think differently, even though we feel differently, but there is something bigger than us, which is the greatness of our people, which is the greatness of our homeland.”
As Americans, a good first step toward virtuous patriotism might be acknowledging that the people on the other side of the political aisle just might love this country as much as we do. For some reason, rather than appreciate the inherent complexity of applying 2,000 years of Church teaching to 200 years of a constitutional republic, we often choose, instead, to clamor up imagined moral high grounds of dueling political bonfires and burn it all down. While this approach proves more entertaining than good-faith dialogue, the resultant, inevitable communication breakdowns only confirm that, once again, we’ve failed to act as a family, and we’ve missed our call to piety.
In Populorum Progressio, Pope St. Paul VI warned that an emphasis on pride over charity leads to disunity:
“It is also quite natural for nations with a long-standing cultural tradition to be proud of their traditional heritage. But this commendable attitude should be further ennobled by love, a love for the whole family of man. Haughty pride in one’s own nation disunites nations and poses obstacles to their true welfare.”
Twenty eight years later, in an address to the United Nations, Pope St. John Paul II shared additional concerns about unhealthy imitations of patriotism, such as nationalism:
“We need to clarify the essential difference between an unhealthy form of nationalism, which teaches contempt for other nations or cultures, and patriotism, which is a proper love of one’s country. True patriotism never seeks to advance the well-being of one’s own nation at the expense of others. For in the end this would harm one’s own nation as well: doing wrong damages both aggressor and victim. Nationalism, particularly in its most radical forms, is thus the antithesis of true patriotism.”
So how can we grow in the virtue of patriotism, loving our country and pursuing the universal common good with piety and charity? What if Catholics excelled at dialogue, de-escalation, unity, and compassion, especially in social media interactions, instead of automatically questioning the faith of any friend, stranger, acquaintance, or family member who disagrees with us?
You’d never know it from our current state of political interchange, but the church allows, and even encourages, open conversation around questions of faithful citizenship, such as: Under what conditions is civil disobedience patriotic? At what point is a law unjust or a policy inhumane, and how can we best advocate against it? Does hindsight provide any additional moral insight into our country’s past actions? How can we respectfully submit to legitimate authority while also holding that authority accountable?
There are also questions of practical application, to which the virtue of patriotism offers generous guidance without definitive answers: Should Catholics always stand for the national anthem? Is it immoral to burn the American flag as protest? What if someone has reservations about reciting the pledge of allegiance? Should Americans fly a dissident flag or question military action or criticize our government leaders?
Patriotism can lead Catholics along different routes of political participation. As noted in Forming Consciences For Faithful Citizenship, the practice of piety toward one’s country “does not easily fit ideologies of ‘right’ or ‘left,’ ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative,’ or the platform of any political party.” Our bishops recommend political engagement be “shaped by the moral convictions of well-formed consciences… guided more by our moral convictions than by our attachment to a political party or interest group,” emphasizing, “Catholics may choose different ways to respond to compelling social problems.”
Summarily, our church allows for broad responses in pursuit of the common good, and the virtue of patriotism supports this intersectional work. Perhaps we could better achieve the piety and charity necessary for true patriotism if we excised any theme of “my way or the highway” from our online commentary. Surely our ambulance chasing after social-media martyrdom doesn’t honor our incarnate God who literally sweat blood in his passionate prayer for Christian unity.
Patriotism is not as simple as posting national symbols or publicly declaring our love for America. Like any virtue, it requires legitimate human effort and must be “animated and inspired by charity.” How can I love my country if I hate or disdain half my countrymen? For Catholic Americans to be truly virtuous in patriotism, we’ve got a lot of work to do.
 Aquinas, Thomas. “Summa Theologiae: Piety (Secunda Secundae Partis, Q. 101).” New Advent, www.newadvent.org/summa/3101.htm?fbclid=IwAR2fioELZRtpbfx2HnLyKv0tLk5wOmp-Wpcs0YPOc1WfFcFLcF2Zvhc9BGY. Accessed 26 Oct. 2020.
 Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed., par. 2197-2257, http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p3s2c2a4.htm. Accessed 25 Oct. 2020.
 Francis. “Fratelli Tutti.” The Holy See, 3 Oct. 2020, par. 200, http://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/encyclicals/documents/papa-francesco_20201003_enciclica-fratelli-tutti.html. Accessed 25 Oct. 2020.
 “Pope In Cuba: Final Unscripted Address to Youth in Havana,” Salt and Light Media,
20 Sept. 2015, https://saltandlighttv.org/blogfeed/getpost.php?id=65830. Accessed 25 Oct. 2020.
 Paul VI. “Populorum Progressio.” The Holy See. 26 Mar. 1967, par. 62, http://www.vatican.va/content/paul-vi/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-vi_enc_26031967_populorum.html. Accessed 25 Oct. 2020.
 John Paul II. “To the United Nations Organization.” The Holy See, 5 Oct. 1995, par. 11, www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/speeches/1995/october/documents/hf_jp-ii_spe_05101995_address-to-uno.html. Accessed 26 Oct. 2020.
 USCCB. Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship: A Call to Political Responsibility from the Catholic Bishops of the United States with New Introductory Letter. Feb. 2020 ed., par. 55, https://www.usccb.org/issues-and-action/faithful-citizenship/upload/forming-consciences-for-faithful-citizenship.pdf. Accessed 25 Oct. 2020.
 Ibid, par. 14.
 Ibid, par. 20.
 Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd ed., par. 1803-1829, http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p3s1c1a7.htm. Accessed 25 Oct. 2020.