Patriotism is a great virtue. To be a patriot is to love one’s fatherland. This means that it is to love the land of the people that sired you. Patriotism is a natural overflow of the virtue of piety — that is, the virtue of the home. As piety would have us rendering what is due in justice to parents and other family members, patriotism would have us render the same to our nation, its government, and our fellow citizens. Both of these are a matter of justice, for the virtues of piety and patriotism are parts of that cardinal virtue. Over and above justice is the theological virtue of charity, which also enters into a consideration of Catholic piety and patriotism. After God, we love our neighbors, that is, those who are “nigh” to us, meaning near us. Those most near to us are our parents and our siblings.
Our charity, as well as the just demands of piety and patriotism, spread out in broadening concentric circles from the family home to the neighborhood, to the town or city, to the state, to the region, to the nation (or empire), of which we are a resident, citizen, or subject. If we see our country as “our people” — something much more possible in homogeneous, non-pluralistic societies — it is much easier to see how piety quite naturally becomes patriotism. In such societies, people are not only united by a common culture; they are also closer to each other in the gene pool.
Thus patriotism is a rootedness in the land and its people.
Many Americans, I believe, lack this Catholic and “organic” notion of patriotism. For them, patriotism is the love of loosely comprehended abstractions — “freedom,” “pluralism,” “democracy,” “our way of life,” “national greatness,” etc. Or it may be a love of a document — the Constitution. None of these are worthy of true patriotism. They are not persons, or groups of persons. And as ideas, many of them are unworthy. Pluralism in religious matters, for instance, is the equating of God’s truth with Satan’s lie and man’s distortion. It is not our national strength; it is our bane. As for freedom, the greatest freedom is “the liberty of the glory of the children of God” (Rom. 8:21) that we each receive by grace, and that broader “freedom and exultation of Holy Mother Church” that we daily pray for after every Low Mass in the traditional liturgy. As often as not, the “freedom” extolled in the civic religion of America may be reduced to freedom for sin, which is a nonsensical concept, an oxymoron in Catholic terms, since sin enslaves us. (The “ordered liberty” spoken of by many constitutionalist conservatives could be a good thing, depending on what it is ordered to. To the degree that it is ordered to God’s Eternal Law, it is good; to the degree that it is not, it is evil.)
Patriotism is not a lot of things that are passed off under its name:
For patriotism to be genuine in a nation as large as the United States — which is a good size for an empire — we have to recover the value of the family, the local and regional, of the intermediate institutions that stand between the individual and the State, and that common thread running throughout all these, the principle of subsidiarity. These are the wholesome organic ingredients of a true patriotism.
What I said in Tradition is an Affirmation about the character of Catholic tradition may also be said of patriotism:
We receive the Faith locally. We live it in our families. We utter it in our own tongues. We practice it in this church building, with people from this community. (The Italian notion of campanilismo and the [Spanish] Carlist conception of fueros are cultural and political expressions of this.) The living out of the true Faith is what produces a Catholic culture, and that culture is what ought to impress itself on our young, forming their convictions, eliciting their actions, commanding their reactions. An identity — a genuine one, anyway — is forged in this organic fashion. We don’t put them on and take them off as an indecisive college student does his major. That is what the rootless, restless modern man does, and this is one cause of his insanity.
The patriot loves his family, his neighbors, his backyard, those local institutions that nurtured and formed him, which he visits if he has moved abroad, and whose memory he cherishes. And he detests the petty politicians, oligarchs, commercialists, and aggressive ideologues who would destroy these precious things.1 Love of these things justifies his going to war when his country and its people are attacked. Big government, monied interests, vague notions of “progress,” “spreading our way of life,” or “making the world safe for democracy,” are causes utterly unworthy of the blood of an American warrior — of any warrior.
Those who would like a fuller treatment of patriotism might consult the old Catholic Encyclopedia article on Civil Allegiance.