Oui/Non campaign signs dominated the Quebec landscape in 1995. The referendum resulted in a narrow victory for nationalists. Photo from Wikipedia

A.A.J. DeVille: Questions to ask about nationalism

By  A.A.J. DeVille
  • October 10, 2019

A recent exchange of letters between the U.S. publications Commonweal and First Things on the topic of Christian nationalism might seem in Canada to be yet another internal squabble among American Catholics. 

We could smugly feel we have no role to play here. After all — or so I endlessly heard growing up — Canadians don’t really “do” nationalism in the ostentatious way Americans do. 

And yet, what if Canada does have an important contribution to make? The letters exchanged in the above-noted journals by Catholic writers and scholars are striking for their neglect of some important interventions on the topic of nationalism. Two of the most useful of those interventions came from the bishops of Quebec. 

They were writing in the aftermath of nationalist movements in the late 1960s, when Quebec nationalism heated up, and then very nearly boiled over with the referendum of 1995.   

Growing up in Quebec, I grew sick of the self-congratulation which claimed that uncouth nationalism was the exclusive province of Americans. Those saying this in the 1990s had obviously tried to forget the violence in the 1970s, when Quebec nationalism brought the bombing of federal institutions, the kidnapping and killing of a government minister (Pierre Laporte) and the kidnapping but later release of the British diplomat James Cross. 

Nationalists changed tactics and held a referendum in 1980, but Quebecers voted 60/40 against leaving. The nationalists persisted, however, leading to another referendum in 1995. This time, a razor-thin majority of less than one per cent voted to remain in Canada. 

Seared into my memory is watching events live that night on television at my friend’s apartment just blocks from Parliament Hill. We listened, mouths agape, when Jacques Parizeau got up after the results were announced and, with Gallic hauteur that went too far, announced that the reason the nationalists lost was because of “l’argent et des votes ethnique.” For me, that appalling comment about ethnic voters sealed an image Quebec nationalism as a masquerade for anti-Semitism and racism. 

Recently, however, I was forced to rethink my position on nationalism when asked to give a lecture at Seton Hall University on Ukrainian Catholics and nationalism in that country. 

This led me to ask whether nationalism always and everywhere has to be a dangerous delusion leading to violence and xenophobia or whether Catholics can support certain nationalist ideas.

The best treatment of such questions comes from Jesuit scholar Dorian Llywelyn in his 2010 book, Toward a Catholic Theology of Nationality. Llywelyn lays out very carefully the relevant factors Catholics need to think about. He wrote his useful book in part because “I was perplexed by the absence of any significant Catholic theological reflection upon the nation and the comparative silence of the Church’s magisterium on the subject.” 

As Llywelyn notes, magisterial silence has not been total. Catholic bishops in Quebec had helpful things to say after 1970 in order to steer Quebec Catholics towards a nationalism shorn of its intolerance, violence and idolatry. They offered four key criteria that I have re-phrased here as open-ended questions Christians should be asking themselves:

• Will there be a more just and open society as a result of this nationalist movement? 

• Will there be protection of minorities?

• Will there be peaceful co-existence with other nations?

• Will there be the disciplined refusal to claim that God is on your side? 

To these, I would add a fifth, inspired by the work of Vamik Volkan of the University of Virginia who has spent his life studying situations of religious and political conflict: Will there be an honest reckoning with our history, confessing faults and seeking reconciliation while refusing to deny or downplay atrocities in order to create a yet more glorious and triumphal national identity today? 

These are questions that Catholics, concerned about rising nationalism in Donald Trump’s America and Boris Johnson’s Britain, and to a notably lesser extent in Canada with Maxime Bernier’s People’s Party, will want to keep close at hand to evaluate the rhetoric and proposals emanating from our leaders. Whatever conclusions we draw, we must never collapse the tension of being resident aliens who “have here no lasting city but seek the city yet to come.”

(DeVille, an associate professor and director of humanities at the University of Saint Francis, Ft. Wayne, Ind., is the author of Everything Hidden Shall Be Revealed: Ridding the Church of Abuses of Sex and Power.)

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