Volume > Issue > On the Need for a Papal Encyclical Condemning the Heresy of Nationalism

On the Need for a Papal Encyclical Condemning the Heresy of Nationalism


By Gordon C. Zahn | December 1992
Gordon C. Zahn is Professor Emeritus of Sociology at the University of Massachusetts at Boston and a Contributing Editor of the NOR. His books include In Solitary Witness: The Life and Death of Franz Jaegerstaetter and German Catholics and Hitler's Wars.

As a member of a panel at the University of San Francisco’s 1991 Rerum Novarum anni­versary conference, I stated that we need a papal encyclical condemning Nationalism. I reminded the audience that this was not a new or wild idea, that already in the 1930s an international conference of theologians meeting in Switzerland had described Nationalism as “the characteristic heresy of the day.” Their judgment, I suggested, had found confirmation in the tragedy of World War II and the virtual­ly unbroken succession of “little” or regional wars the world has suffered since.

Thus my proposal read in part:

Today we witness a plague of na­tionalist/separatist movements in Europe that threatens to recreate the situation prevailing when the shots were fired at Sarajevo. Asia, Africa, Latin America are infected, and we seem to be entering upon a critical stage of the affliction in the United States.

The “shots at Sarajevo” reference was to the assassination of the Austrian Archduke and his wife which set off the horrors of World War I.

A year after the conference, that figure of speech became the harsh reality of blood flow­ing again in the streets of that fateful city. There is one difference, of course: The royal victims of 1914 have been replaced by the bodies of thousands of ordinary citizens killed in their homes or slaughtered in the mar­ketplace. But the underlying cause is the same, and the pattern will be repeated generation after generation as long as ethnic and national identity are given precedence over other values.

I did not expect my call for a papal con­demnation of the nationalist heresy to stir much response one way or the other. I certain­ly was not prepared to be vehemently chal­lenged, as I was, by a scholar I greatly admire and with whom I had shared many common efforts relating to peace. My critic held forth with great fervor in defense of a nation’s right to determine its own form of governance; to uphold and preserve its special interests, economic and otherwise; and to exercise its sovereignty by restricting and controlling ac­cess to its territory, establishing customs regu­lations, and the like. All of which I was ready and willing to concede.

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