In early February, U.S., European, and Israeli proponents of what is being called national conservatism gathered in Rome for two days of presentations organized around a provocative theme: “God, Honor, Country: President Ronald Reagan, Pope John Paul II, and the Freedom of Nations.” The stated intention, expressed at the outset, was to make the case that the leaders of today’s populist right are the natural heirs to President Reagan and St. John Paul because of their supposedly common objective—freeing peoples all over the world, but especially on both sides of the Atlantic, from oppression and loss of their national identities.
One might be tempted to excuse, or at least ignore, the sidling up to Reagan. It is hard to fathom the 40th president being comfortable with the most imitated populist on the world stage today—his successor Donald Trump. The 45th U.S. president’s disruptive protectionism, anti-immigration rhetoric, dangerous deference to Vladimir Putin’s machinations, and purposeful weakening of alliances that advanced freedom for seventy years are at odds with the Reagan record. But a few of the advocates for national conservatism worked for, or strongly supported, Reagan while he was president, and if they want to make the unconvincing argument that the conservative icon of U.S. politics would be one of their fellow travelers today, perhaps they have earned the right to try.
Invoking John Paul II is another story.
It is not that the former pontiff—now a canonized saint—needs defending. His 26-year tenure leading the Catholic Church was so consequential—with profound effects on theology, church governance, global politics, cultural development, and much more—that its full impact on human history will unfold over decades and centuries rather than years.
But John Paul was not a politician, and should not be treated as if he were. He was a religious leader, and his views—reflected in an extensive library of official documents, formal speeches, and remarks delivered in thousands of settings—do not fit neatly into any political category. He skillfully provided the moral leadership the West needed to prevail over totalitarian communism, and in that effort he did indeed collaborate closely with Reagan and U.K. prime minister Margaret Thatcher. His admiration for President Reagan was especially apparent from their many direct interactions. But while these great leaders formed a strong alliance, the pope never signed up for Reagan’s or Thatcher’s full agendas for either domestic or international politics.
Moreover, it is abundantly clear that John Paul would not have wanted to be associated with national conservatism, if that term is meant to describe the governing priorities of President Trump or the current leaders of today’s populist movements in Europe. The former pope was a deft and capable head of state, and would have handled his interactions with today’s populists diplomatically, but it is utterly implausible that he would have allowed his name to be attached to their political project, with its inward-looking orientation and its discomfort with, and sometimes open hostility towards, minority cultures and peoples.
The Rome conference was part of an ongoing effort by the national conservatism movement—both the American variant and its European counterparts—to define its political program in a manner that makes it less unacceptable to traditional conservatives, and thus more legitimately a contender for actual power. For the most part, those who spoke at the conference were careful to steer away from the issues and themes that, until recently, have left the various movements and parties they represent on the outer fringes of politics in their countries.
Conference speakers focused their rhetorical fire mainly on what was described repeatedly as the suffocating secularist cultures that dominate the media and elite institutions in their countries and the European Union bureaucracy. They also made the case that their movement is, at bottom, an effort to provide true freedom to their fellow citizens by throwing off this oppression and making it legitimate once again to express views that liberal elites have tried to expunge from public discourse.
The most notable speaker at the conference, Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán, was very explicit that he saw his political adversaries today as essentially no different from the Communists he battled when, as a young activist in the 1980s, he worked to end Soviet dominance of his country. He also expressed the view, as did others, that cultivating a strong national identity is foundational to successful countries. The three examples he cited in this regard—China, Russia, and Turkey—do not provide much comfort to those worried about the commitment to democratic principles among national conservatives.
Marion Maréchal—a prominent political activist in France and a scion of Le Pen family associated with French nationalist politics—ventured into realms that are plainly at odds with the vision of Pope John Paul. She was explicit in expressing the view that a major problem in the world today, particularly for the environment, is what she described as explosive population growth in poorer countries, which she connected to the other main problem she highlighted—the admission of large numbers of migrants into Europe. She stated that a primary aim of her political movement is to protect Europe’s traditional ethnic identity by dramatically limiting immigration from other countries, especially those with a dominant Muslim culture. She argued that parts of France today are under the control of “Islamists.” And she stipulated that France should erect even stronger protectionist barriers against global commerce to limit the import of products that would be disruptive to agriculture and other industries she deemed vital to the nation’s identity.
Those attending the Rome conference seem to be under the impression that because they argue for protection of national “sovereignty,” a principle that is indeed found within the Catholic tradition, and are battling “secularists,” that somehow they have captured in their political program the governing principles supported by Pope John Paull II. But from both the substance and tone of the remarks at the conference, it is clear that the national conservatives do not fully accept, or perhaps even grasp, the essence of the saint’s message.
In papal documents and numerous speeches, John Paul promulgated a vision of world affairs predicated on both the rights and the responsibilities of nations. And he very specifically warned of the dangers of unbridled nationalism, of which he had much direct experience.
Like his predecessors and successors, he supported the United Nations and praised its role in bringing together countries in a setting of equality and open discourse. He cited the crucial importance of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights in both of his speeches before the General Assembly. In his October 1979 U.N. address, he described the declaration, which enumerates a series of individual rights that all nations should respect, as “a real milestone on the path of the moral progress of humanity.” Sovereignty provides no justification for violating these universal norms, which transcend specific forms of political organization.
In his 1995 U.N. address, he spoke directly to the topic of the “rights of nations.” Examining the trend toward globalization, he observed, presciently, that it was leading to a “powerful re-emergence of a certain ethnic and cultural consciousness, as it were an explosive need for identity and survival, a sort of counterweight to the tendency toward uniformity.” He went on:
This tension between the particular and the universal can be considered immanent in human beings. By virtue of sharing in the same human nature, people automatically feel that they are members of one great family, as is in fact the case. But as a result of the concrete historical conditioning of this same nature, they are necessarily bound in a more intense way to particular human groups, beginning with the family and going on to the various groups to which they belong and up to the whole of their ethnic and cultural group, which is called, not by accident, a “nation,” from the Latin word “nasci”: “to be born.” . . . The human condition thus finds itself between these two poles—universality and particularity—with a vital tension between them; an inevitable tension, but singularly fruitful if they are lived in a calm and balanced way. [Italics in original.]
These reflections led the pope to forcefully condemn any effort to stamp out the rights of nations to exist. Here he was clearly influenced by Poland’s experience of surviving both German and Soviet subjugation. Poland remained a nation throughout those dark years because its people preserved their unique culture, and thus also their sense of identity as a community worthy of self-governance.
However, John Paul did not view sovereignty, as exercised by states, as an absolute that is coincident with all nations. Under some historical circumstances, nations could give up some of their sovereignty in order to participate in federations or other multinational organizations that are beneficial to their well-being. Such organizations might be able to serve the interests of participating countries in certain spheres more ably than could be achieved if the countries chose to govern themselves without restriction.
The European Union is one such organization. In 1988, John Paul addressed the European Parliament and expressed his support for what the EU was trying to achieve through its gradual evolution in the post-war period:
A common political structure, the product of the free will of European citizens, far from endangering the identity of the peoples in the Community, will be able to guarantee more equitably the rights, in particular the cultural rights, of all its regions. These united European peoples will not accept the domination of one nation or culture over the others, but they will uphold the equal right of all to enrich others with their difference.
While defending the rights of nations, John Paul frequently condemned excessive nationalism and intolerance of cultural differences. As he put it in his 1995 U.N. speech:
From bitter experience, then, we know that the fear of “difference,” especially when it expresses itself in a narrow and exclusive nationalism which denies any rights to “the other,” can lead to a true nightmare of violence and terror. . . .
In this context, 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. [Italics in original.]
John Paul also very specifically called on Europe to avoid the temptation to ignore the needs and rights of other nations. From his 1988 address:
It is unimaginable for a united Europe to close itself up in its egoism. Speaking with one single voice, joining forces, it will be able, even more than in the past, to dedicate new resources and energies to the great task of the development of countries in the Third World, especially those that have traditional bonds with Europe.
The pope understood that the nation-state is an important component of the order of human affairs and fits within the church’s understanding of subsidiarity—the doctrine calling for respecting the appropriate levels of societal organization so that they can fulfill their roles without interference or usurpation by those that exist above it. In a global context, that means that nation-states should not be prevented by international bodies from protecting and preserving their unique cultures, traditions, and identities.
He was especially insistent that powerful Western nations had no right to impose their pervasive secularism on poorer countries with more traditional cultures and mores. This conflict came to a head in the famous United Nations Population and Development conference held in Cairo in 1994. John Paul successfully opposed an effort by the Clinton administration and many international organizations to elevate a secular view of human reproduction and population planning (including promotion of the unrestricted use of abortion to end pregnancies) as a violation of the rights of countries with different understandings of these fundamental questions.
Subsidiarity, however, does not exist in isolation from the other key principles of Catholic social doctrine. In particular, as John Paul also emphasized consistently throughout his pontificate, societal laws, norms, and structures must respect human dignity, and especially the centrality of the family. No nation has a right to violate this dignity with laws that undermine the integrity of family life, or by oppressing minorities or restricting legitimate religious freedom.
On religious freedom and Europe’s Christian roots, John Paul argued that the continent must avoid confusion over the what belongs to the realm of the state as opposed to that of the church. He believed Europe would never be true to itself if it tried to erase its historic roots in Christianity. At the same time, he argued against “integralism” in which the state and the church essentially become one. As he put it to the European Parliament:
Our European history clearly shows how often the dividing line between “what is Caesar’s” and “what is God’s” has been crossed in both directions. Medieval Latin Christendom, to mention only one example, while theoretically elaborating the natural concept of the State, taking up the great tradition of Aristotle, did not always avoid the integralist temptation of excluding from the temporal community those who did not profess the true faith. Religious integralism, which makes no distinction between the proper spheres of faith and civil life, which is still practiced in other parts of the world, seems to be incompatible with the very spirit of Europe, as it has been shaped by the Christian message.
Beyond protecting human dignity and a person’s right to pursue the meaning of his or her life through religious practice (or perhaps no religion at all), nations also have a solemn responsibility to foster a spirit of solidarity, both within their borders by emphasizing policies that are good for the entire society and not just certain segments of it, and by prioritizing concern for the larger community of nations (“global solidarity”) over strictly narrower interests. In both domestic and international policy, John Paul continuously stressed the importance of placing the needs of the poor and vulnerable ahead of other considerations when making governance decisions.
It is on this question of solidarity with other nations that the national conservatives are particularly out of step with John Paul. As Adam K. Butman documented in an insightful 2007 article, the pope believed a spirit of solidarity with other nations imposed an obligation on rich developed countries—including those of Europe and, of course, the United States—to support institutional arrangements and rules that serve the common interests of all nations. Most especially, he saw an urgent need for the high-income West to provide opportunities for poorer countries to participate in global commerce.
The pope’s views on trade fit within his larger understanding of the role of economic questions in human affairs, which he presented most comprehensively in his seminal social encyclical Centesimus Annus (“One Hundred Years”), issued in 1991. In that document, he defended market economies as best suited to meeting the material needs of human society, and for providing workers with the freedom to use their skills and creativity to contribute to the good of society as well as to provide for their families.
But his endorsement of market economics was not unqualified. Consistent with both his predecessors and successors, he argued that markets must be supervised to ensure they serve human dignity, the family, and the common good, and that economic questions should not be seen as the sum and substance of human life. Thus, market principles should not be viewed as ends in themselves that are inviolable even when producing unsatisfactory results. In particular, governments should ensure that markets do not leave whole segments of a national community with less opportunities than those who have wealth and political power. He believed extreme inequality would lead to disruptions in social harmony.
He also understood that free markets and global trade were an opportunity for poorer countries to move up the development ladder. As he put it in Centesimus Annus:
Even in recent years, it was thought that the poorest countries would develop by isolating themselves from the world market and by depending only on their own resources. Recent experience has shown that countries which did this have suffered stagnation and recession, while the countries which experienced development were those which succeeded in taking part in the general interrelated economic activities at the international level. It seems therefore that the chief problem is that of gaining fair access to the international market, based not on the unilateral principle of the exploitation of the natural resources of these countries but on the proper use of human resources.
John Paul believed the imperative of creating a world trading system that is fair and open to developing countries required rich countries to submit to uniform international rules, struck in multilateral agreements. Again, in Centesimus Annus:
Today we are facing the so-called “globalization” of the economy, a phenomenon which is not to be dismissed, since it can create unusual opportunities for greater prosperity. There is a growing feeling, however, that this increasing internationalization of the economy ought to be accompanied by effective international agencies, which will oversee and direct the economy to the common good, something that an individual state, even if it were the most powerful on earth, would not be in a position to do.
In the ensuring years, the pope supported the creation of the World Trade Organization (WTO) for the reasons he articulated in the earlier encyclical. He believed a strong, rules-based multilateral trade framework provided the best opportunity for ensuring that developing countries would gain access for their exports in the markets of powerful Western democracies, and thus enter into the cycle of exchange that would allow them to develop.
After the WTO began supervising international trade agreements, the pope continued to urge reforms that would open up markets to the goods produced in the developing world, even if that meant some dislocation in the economies of high-income nations. As the Holy See put it in a document issued in 2003 as part of a WTO conference, “It is particularly poorer countries and their peoples who are in need of an equitable, rules-based system in which they can participate in global trade on the basis of the highest achievable equality of opportunity.”
In 2017, top White House aides H.R. McMaster and Gary Cohn penned an opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal on the occasion of President Trump’s first international trip. Their aim was to explain the foreign policy logic behind the president’s America First mantra, which is held up as a model to be followed by the national conservatives:
The president embarked on his first foreign trip with a clear-eyed outlook that the world is not a “global community” but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage. We bring to this forum unmatched military, political, economic, cultural and moral strength. Rather than deny this elemental nature of international affairs, we embrace it.
In other words, might makes right. It is hard to imagine a statement more in contradiction with John Paul’s vision of appropriate relationships among nations.
Critics of the pope would say he was naïve and unrealistic. But is that really so? The current era is characterized by U.S. belligerence toward allies and adversaries alike. The result is more global instability than has existed in decades, with high risks for setbacks on matters that are important to U.S. interests. Among other things, the global COVID-19 pandemic has exposed wide deficiencies in U.S. preparedness for the virus. Global cooperation might make it easier for goods and supplies to flow as needed to areas of greatest need, including to the United States. But the administration’s strident unilateralism has made that kind of cooperation much less likely, which endangers patients both here and abroad.
U.S. leaders used to understand that the nation’s power came in large part from its willingness to provide global leadership on human rights, democratic norms, and fairness toward less powerful nations in matters of global trade. Indeed, it was the United States that built a world order around these principles, to the great benefit of the American people as well to citizens in all corners of the globe. As the country steps back from its leadership role on these questions, in the name of pursuing its self-interest as recommended by the national conservatives, it will lose its ability to assume a leadership role on matters that require global cooperation, to the detriment of American interests.
John Paul II understood the important role the nation-state plays in human affairs. He defended its rights, and saw firsthand the human despair that occurs when some nations try to impose their wills on others through force and raw power.
But he also argued that all nations have responsibilities as well as rights. Among them is the duty to live in solidarity with citizens from other countries and to foster a culture that is open, not closed, and is tolerant of diversity. As such, he would not have wanted to be associated with a political movement that defines itself in large part through its lack of interest in the concerns of “outsiders,” both those who have emigrated to Western countries and those living in other parts of the world.
The next time national conservatives convene for a conference, it must be hoped that its planners will have come to understand that St. John Paul is not their patron.