Nation, State, Nation-State and the Doctrine of the Catholic Church

Archbishop Roland Minnerath | PASS Academician

Nation, State, Nation-State and the Doctrine of the Catholic Church

Conflicts between nations are as old as historical records. An in-depth inquiry into the reasons why nations are enemies in principle is therefore necessary.

There is no commonly accepted definition of a “nation”. The United Nations is made up of 197 independent states, 193 of which are member states (but not always recognized as such by all other members states) with 4 non-members. Unofficial statistics claim that there are 324 national entities based on cultural identity. The criterion of an independent territory does not take into account the claims of these self-conscious nations which seek independence, since they are living under the rule of a dominant state.

Nations cannot be apprehended only through the legal category of the state. So it seems correct to admit that nations and states do not necessarily overlap, even though the current language merges both into “nation-states”.

A people as a given reality

1. For a correct analysis it seems proper to start from the emergence of human groups that distinguished themselves from other groups. In the 5th century B.C. Herodotus inquired into about one hundred ethnè in the Ancient World. An ethnos can be described as a people. A people is a natural grouping of human beings characterized by common features: religion, customs, language, an economic and political system, a territory and a mythical narrative of their origin. So peoples are a given reality. Peoples could be constituted in tribes like the Germans and the Celts (génè) or organized in cities like the Greeks. We could rely on Herodotus’ assumption that a people tends to be autonomous and to govern itself, as distinct from other peoples. Today, indigenous populations can count on the UN Declaration of 2007 to protects their identity. They represent the ethnic conception of a people.

The Romans considered themselves a populus, a political body with a constitution, whereas the surrounding peoples were natural ethnic peoples. The Roman populus was made up of various neighbouring peoples. The city is a res publica shared by all citizens. The Roman Empire grew by integrating conquered peoples into Roman citizenship. At the end of the 18th century the American and the French Revolutions picked up this political notion of people as opposed to the natural ethnic meaning of people.

The other well-known example is Israel in the Old Testament. The chosen people called themselves ham, laos, as distinct from the goim, ethnè, the nations. When the Bible speaks of the event of Babel, it mentions the division of humanity into 70 “ethnè or nations” (Gn 10, 32), each one with its own language.

A people is not a static, closed reality. Over the years a people formed on an ethnic basis may integrate individuals or groups from other origins that are willing to share the saga of the adopted people. Throughout history some peoples have disappeared, while others have imposed their domination by assimilating the oppressed. As early as the 4th century BC, Isocrates said that being a Greek no longer meant a common ethnic origin but a common culture, paideia. So being a people entails the vision of a trans-ethnical community.

When is a nation born?

When does a people become a nation? Or are peoples always synonymous with nations? The world “nation” refers to the place where you were born. It is also a given reality. A nation is the result of the willingness of a people to live together, to share the same institutions, to refer to common roots in history. So a nation may be made up of various peoples, or of members coming from various peoples. In modern times we have an example with the USA. Most nations are composed of peoples with different origins. So what characterizes a nation is the voluntary moral bond of citizens who wish to share a common destiny.

It is important to note how foreigners are perceived by self-conscious nations. A well-known example is Ancient Greece, where the surrounding peoples were seen as “barbarians”, which means people speaking incomprehensible languages. Current hostility between nations is still fuelled with irrational feelings of contempt and fear of others.

Criteria such as language, religion, way of life and culture are not conclusive to make up a nation. Around 6000 languages exist in the world. Pakistan was created on a criterion of religion. Indonesia has hundreds of ethnic groups and languages. The Russian Federation claims to be a multinational state. Bolivia is a multinational state with 37 official languages. The Kurds are a divided nation under the domination of four neighbouring states. China recognizes 56 nationalities, all belonging to the Chinese nation, with the Han people as a majority, shaping Chinese identity.

The native land

The concept of fatherland, patria, evokes the land of one’s ancestors, where one feels at home. It can also mean the place where one has chosen to live as a new “homeland”. A homeland is always a territory. A feeling of belonging forges deep links with one’s fatherland. This feeling may take on gradual degrees of belongingness to the village, the region, the nation as a whole. Cicero said he had two patrias, his home city of Tusculum and his great Roman patria. The first was contained in the latter.[1] At the end of the Roman Empire a poet worshipped Rome as having brought many nations together into a single fatherland.[2]

The state

The state is the organized legal structure of a people, a nation or, in some cases, of several nations. The state is an abstract entity. Up to the 16th century the abstract concept of the state was not used. Political power was seen as identified with the person of the ruler. In modern times the state appeared as the bearer of sovereignty in a specific territory. In political science, the notion of societas preceded the notion of the state. A societas is an ordered human group with recognized institutions, laws and administrative structure. Luigi Taparelli d’Azeglio (+1862) elaborated the concept of “primary legal order” which is not derived from a higher legal order and is not subject to another organized society.[3] These “perfect societies” that live according to their own original juridical institutions are sovereign societies. This means that they have achieved the category of a state, but not necessarily of a territorial state.

History witnesses a large number of types of states: states covering a single people are rare. Most states are constituted by either voluntary nations or even by several nations enjoying a large autonomy, such as the Austrian-Hungarian Empire in the 19th century. I know at least one state without a people or a nation. This is the Vatican City State.

States may pre-exist nations, as in Africa or the Middle East, where colonial powers artificially delimited territories, cutting off tribes and combining populations with different traditions and languages. States tried to create nations, at the expense of neighbouring states, which used the same divided nations to build up their own sense of belonging.

All states are constructs, not given realities. Very often states include national minorities coming from immigrant groups who do not belong to the main national group. They may either be assimilated, integrated or kept apart (apartheid).

The monarchical absolute sovereign state

The crucial concept is the concept of sovereignty. Sovereignty is paramount in understanding the relation between nation and state. Until modern times the ruler was considered as endowed with maiestas or imperium. His power was generally considered to originate in a divine mandate, which means it was inscribed in a natural order, even by devolution through the people. According to medieval thought, God, who is the source of all authority, does not promote any specific mode of exercise of it. Political power had to be regulated by reason.

In modern times the bearer of political power shifted from the individual monarch to the permanent monarch, according to the distinction of the two bodies of the king, illustrated by Kantorovich. So the state was born as an abstract expression of the permanent supreme authority regulating a community.

The modern state was born in the context of monarchical absolutism, not as a request of the nation. According to Machiavelli (1527) the absolute monarch was gradually disconnected from the order in which he had to play his role. He became absolute in himself. Sovereignty rested in his person. So sovereignty became the attribute of the permanent monarch, of the state.

However two doctrines of sovereignty appeared which are still relevant today. The first was expounded by Jean-Baptiste Bodin (+1596). Sovereignty means the highest level of power whatsoever. It is conceived as “unique and indivisible”, virtually unlimited and affecting all aspects of life. Peoples and nations are not bearers of sovereignty. Sovereignty is exercised over them, even without seeking their consent. Sovereignty became strictly associated with a territory. Bodin theorized the centralized monarchical state, which could only have competitive relations with other sovereign states.

In the Protestant area, the German Johannes Althusius (+1637) developed another concept of sovereignty starting from below, from the consent of the people, and giving local and regional communities a share in sovereignty according to the principle of subsidiarity. He fostered the idea of federalism instead of centralization, and not without a reference to the Holy Roman Empire of his time.

From the Westphalia treaties (1648) to the creation of the Society of Nations (1920), Europe would have only independent sovereign states. In the meantime, the bearer of sovereignty shifted from the monarch to the nation. This new step brings us to the present understanding of the nation and nation-state.

The nation as an expression of the people’s sovereignty

After the monarchical absolute sovereign state came the sovereign nation-state. The American and the French Revolutions imposed the idea of the nation as resulting from the conquest of sovereignty by the people. “We the People” says the Constitution of the United States. The French Revolution transferred to the “nation” the sovereignty exercised by the monarch. In the official discourse, the “nation” liberated itself from the former regime. The nation thus appears as a unity not of different peoples but of individuals enjoying equal rights and claiming political independence. The nation is a voluntary community of citizens sharing the same institutions, like the populus romanus of ancient times.

It is interesting to note that the first French constitution of 1791 indicates that “sovereignty belongs to the Nation”. In the constitution of 1793 it is said that “sovereignty rests with the French people”. In the constitution of 1795 “sovereignty resides in the universality of citizens”. So the Nation was in danger of forming a conceptual entity in itself, without a precise connection to real people in their diversity. This vision of a nation was associated with state sovereignty. It can even be said that the state played the major role in defining the nation. The state used the idea of the nation as a legitimization of its claim for sovereignty inside its territory and towards neighbour states. The liberal nation identified itself with the Republican state. Locke and Rousseau were its theorists.

The second conception of the nation was linked with the emerging national feeling in Europe. It started in the 18th century in the form of a strong revival of ancestral cultures as a reaction against the French-speaking elites. So the Celts discovered the roots of their peoples prior to the Roman conquest as did the Slavic peoples prior to German or Turkish domination. Languages and national epics were literally invented. The Germans, who were always divided into many states, considered themselves united by their language.

After the Napoleonic wars, national feeling was boosted by the Romanticism movement and a strong desire for nations to gain back more autonomy within multinational empires like Austria, Russia or the Ottoman Empire. The nation was viewed as an organic body, with given elements like the same language, the same culture, and the same shared history. This position was defended in the German arena by poets and philosophers like Herder, Fichte, and Schleiermacher around the concept of Volk, evoking the idea of a culturally homogeneous people.

The two visions had many things on common, in particular the idealization of one’s own nation. So historians like Michelet and Lavisse wrote histories of France which were taught in school somewhat like a national romance, in which the nation appeared as a collective entity existing prior to its members and which went from victory to victory, with a clear negative appraisal of the deeds of other nations. The nation as political body and the nation-Volk both tended to consider themselves as the ultimate horizon of collective life.

Today the nation is the only legitimation of the sovereign state. Yet the association of the sovereign and the nation-state is a construct of post-Westphalian, post-1848 Revolution times. It is remarkable that Taparelli d’Azeglio’s theory of perfect societies stressed that the Catholic Church fulfils the criteria of an independent sovereign society endowed with a primary original legal system called canon law. In the concordats signed between the Holy See and many states in the last thirty years, the “sovereignty, independence and autonomy” of both the Church and the State are strongly stressed. The sovereignty of the Church refers to the sphere of her own competence. So there can be a form of sovereignty that goes beyond the sphere of territorial states.

The state under the rule of law

The nation became the only legitimate reference for creating new independent states. The end of the multinational empires, after World War I, resulted in the creation of new state borders that did not always coincide with their people’s territories.

With the United Nations (1945) and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1946) a new concept of the national state emerged as being governed by the rule of law. This was the end of the absolute state closed in on itself. On the one hand, the state limited itself by recognising the rights and freedoms of its citizens and, on the other hand, by its involvement in a web of rights and duties in relations with other nation-states. New perspectives were opened up with respect to the distinction between the nation and the state. Sovereignty does not only rest with the state. Each person enjoys a sphere of freedom from state intervention. Human groups within the state also have a native right to live according to their cultural standards.

II. The Social Doctrine of the Church (SDC)

Where the Church draws her inspiration

The SDC takes its inspiration from the Christian faith which opens up new horizons of meaning. So, in terms of peoples, nations and states, the New Testament brings something radically new. Pentecost is the exact counterpart to Babel. Humanity was divided and dispersed as a result of its pretention to equal God. Now, a process of return to the lost unity is launched. The Church constitutes a universal community of believers transcending national, cultural and state borders into something totally new and unknown elsewhere.

The Christian Church rapidly grew in the framework of a multinational empire. The Fathers of the Church praised the coincidence of a world empire which brought settled peace to rival peoples and nations and a world religion organizing itself on a transnational basis.[4] The spread of the new faith meant the end of city-based religions and ethnic religions. A new bond could unite individuals without distinction of social condition, ethnic origin or cultural background. The Christian Church enjoyed the benefits of dealing with the Roman Empire, which was also potentially universal.

At the same time, Christianity was adopted very early as a national religion by Armenia, the kingdom of Osroene, Georgia, and Ethiopia. In these contexts, Christianity took on strong national features. It seems obvious that the evaluation of the nation and the nation-state will be different from the point of view of a national Church or a universal Church.

Our postmodern society no longer has “great narratives” as there were in Romantic times, supplying individuals and nations with a deep sense of belonging, and seeking to place the history of one’s nation in accordance with the history of the world. In the Church we have such a “great narrative”, namely the history of salvation. In a word: the Church has the duty to recompose the unity of all humanity. The final goal of history is to bring back “tribes, tongues and nations” into the alliance with God. Christ in his body “has broken down the dividing wall” between the laos and the ethnè, between the ham and the goim. “He might create of the two a single new humanity” (Ep 2 14-15). So the Church is the new universal people in which all discrimination is abolished, as an invitation to all nations to overcome enmity and develop an awareness of fundamental unity.

Christ disrupted the wall of iniquity which separated Israel and the “nations”. The Church is called to anticipate the reconciliation of all by putting an end to the discrimination “between Greeks and Jews, slaves and freemen, men and women”.[5]

Why ethical principles are needed

The present situation can be sketched as follows:

- Conflicts between competing nation-states continue to threaten world peace.

- There is dissatisfaction within nation-states as to the rights and duties of minorities.

- International cooperation does not meet all the requirements for a safe and well-ordered coexistence of nation-states.

- Nationalism fuelled by populism is playing an increasing role in many nations, attributing all problems to multilateralism and propagating a hostile image of others.

The Social Doctrine of the Church builds its vision on the human person as a member of a people, a nation and a state. This vision inspires her discourse on these topics, a discourse based on rational thinking to be shared with all. Along with the priority of the human person as the centre of the whole social construction, the SDC calls on two other principles, namely the fundamental unity of humanity and subsidiarity.

a) A people as a given reality and the state as a construct

The teaching of St John Paul II developed the concept of the nation on the basis of its natural given elements: language, history, and “ethnical and cultural group”. He expressed the wish for a charter of the rights of nations to be adopted. For him the Second World War was a violation of the rights of weaker nations. After the war the rights of nations were not respected within their borders, due to the imposition of a foreign totalitarian power and absorption into the Soviet Empire. But nations are not always demographically homogeneous. St John Paul II recognized that a nation cannot always claim state sovereignty. He spoke of the sovereignty of the nation as a right to keep its language and culture, even in the form of regional autonomy or as a federal member state. He was thinking of Poland, which survived as a nation despite three partitions in the 18th century and its disappearance as a state until 1918. All nations have a right to live according to their customs and have duties of solidarity to others. Pope John Paul II praised patriotism and condemned nationalism. His message is: a nation is sovereign by its culture.

St John Paul II’s teaching reflects the situation of Poland, a nation-state which became more homogeneous with the reshaping of its borders after WW2. Recently a French philosopher, François Jullien, challenged this view, maintaining that there is no such thing as cultural identity. The concept of identity, which is static, should be replaced by the idea of cultural resources (mutual enrichment) and the difference between cultures by a gap, which means the possibility of interaction and dialogue. So the need to preserve humanity’s rich cultural diversity does not mean freezing differences and fostering closed communitarianism, but searching for the universal values which link people together. Culture means openness to the universal. Nobody lives only from what they have received from their nation. Knowledge has no borders. And what is true is true everywhere.

The SDC observes that the natural process of building a nation has often been interfered with through political ambition, the result of wars or international treatises, where winners imposed state borders on losers. When a nation becomes a state or when a state uses a nation to cover its policy, we enter into an area of potential conflict with other nation-states. The SDC relies on the principle of subsidiarity as for the inner organization of a nation-state and for its relation to other states.


The principle of subsidiarity respects the human person in all its dimensions: as a member of a family, a city, a cultural group, a nation. The juridical shaping of the state must take these consistent dimensions into account. Destruction of cultural minorities by the main group should not be accepted. A minority group may be as loyal to the nation as the dominant group if its specificity is recognized.

Nation-states are not absolute entities. Human persons belong to humanity, even if they also keep a strong sense of belonging to their respective nations. Beyond the nation we belong to the human species. In many cases nation-states are no longer in a position to be truly sovereign. Economic and social systems are intertwined. Nation-states are interdependent even for their own survival. This is particularly the case in Europe. By joining the European Union, nation-states do not put aside their identity but try to adapt themselves to the real conditions of international competition.

c) Local and regional autonomies inside nation-states

The international system is based on the assumption that all nations enjoy equal state sovereignty. International conventions bind nations according to commonly agreed rules. This system may appear as rather unrealistic. In fact, superpowers and big economic organizations impose their views on the weakest nation-states. Most nations have become interdependent.

International cooperation may eventually lead to supranational cooperation, which was first explored as early as the 16th century by jurists like Vitoria, Suarez or Grotius, who founded the “law of nations”, the ius gentium, as a reaction to the self-sufficient absolute state. The idea was centred on the notion of a universal common good. The ius gentium is a reference to natural law as inherent to all social groups searching for their common good. So Humanity as such has needs to be fulfilled. At any level where a common good is to be reached, a corresponding authority must be able to take action in view of this goal. The Catholic Church on many occasions has stressed the need for the United Nations to find appropriate ways to set up such an authority to be in charge of providing goods, such as fair trade rules, that isolated nations can no longer provide for their citizens.

The central state that imposes restrictions on the free expression of local and regional specificities does not act subsidiarily. Centralization, which eliminates inner cultural and historic data and is not ready to share a part of its sovereignty with others, does not move realistically towards the future. The nation-state that is closed in on itself belongs to the past. We need responsible people who understand that by putting aside nationalism and sharing sovereignty they prepare a better future for all.

d) Supra-nationality

Supra-nationality is increasingly sought as a means both for preserving national identity and for safeguarding sovereignty. Supra-nationality means shared sovereignty with partner states. The European Union is one example. From the very beginning the SDC encouraged the transfer of sovereignty to decision-making bodies on specific items. Thus came the Coal and Steel Community, where the six European founder states abandoned their sovereignty in favour of a commission making decisions by majority votes.

The European Union shows that the nation-state can no longer be considered as the final authority for promoting the common good. The reason is that a European common good has clearly emerged over the last fifty years. In the European treatises the competence of the Union is clearly settled according to the principle of subsidiarity. The Union should take care of those competences which the single nation-states are no longer in a position to defend alone: defence and security, regulation of economic and financial policy, the environment, migrations, and foreign policy.

The principle of subsidiarity is not a threat but a guarantee for the survival of nation-states. Closed in on themselves, they would be helpless in the face of new world powers. United in what is necessary, they will be able to make their voice heard. Subsidiarity means that a higher level of organization does not deprive a lower one of its autonomy, but only intervenes when the latter can no longer help itself. Subsidiarity means democratic participation. When a higher constitutional authority is needed, it does not annihilate the given reality of a historic nation. The nation is not what is jeopardized, but rather the unrealistic idea of state sovereignty. Where the exercise of real sovereignty is no longer possible, shared sovereignty plays the same role of safeguarding a nation’s culture and specificity. Federal states observe the principle of subsidiarity with respect to their member states, provinces or regions. So nation-states may join a federal structure according to the same principle.

The question of immigration

The crucial question of immigration has to do with our understanding of the nation and the state. When immigrants from different cultural backgrounds and traditions flow into a constituted nation, in a sense they modify the self-understanding of this nation. Immigration is a permanent phenomenon. No people remain exempt from foreign input. Old nations will try to integrate their immigrants and, in the long run, will assimilate them to the dominant culture. In the New World, nations were created by massive successive flows of immigrants. They were integrated in reference to the same institutions and by adopting a common language. Nations which insist on their political unity will be less reluctant to accept immigrants than nations which insist on their cultural identity. In each case the question remains open whether immigrants are willing to adapt to the cultural patterns of their new homeland or whether they will strongly defend their customs. Complying with state laws must not jeopardize the respect due to cultural rights within a multicultural nation.

State and nation as distinct

In his masterwork of 1923, Pan-Europa, Coudenhove-Kalergi called for a separation between state and nation, on the model of the separation between Church and state. It seems that the distinction between the nation as a historical fact and the territorial sovereign state leads to interesting perspectives.

Human beings are members of the human family. They enjoy the same dignity and the same rights and duties proclaimed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. So no state is absolute any longer. All states are at the service of the human person and cannot take measures alienating these universal rights. Human persons tend to find a dimension for their identity in the people into which they were born or in the nation they have elected as their homeland.

It is impossible to change the current self-understanding of people as nations. A nation-state would be reluctant to recognize specific cultural groups in its realm as “nations”. We may think of Catalonia or Corsica which claim to be recognized as “nations” inside Spain and France, respectively, but have been refused this title. Nation-states which adopt a decentralized form of government may grant more autonomy to regions which claim recognition for their specific cultural and legal traditions. Catalonia, like other Spanish provinces, enjoys large political and cultural “autonomy” with regional assemblies. The Spanish constitution mentions the “peoples of Spain” and includes 17 autonomous communities. A people exists through its culture, whether it enjoys territorial sovereignty or not. This should meet the demand for recognition.

According to the principle of subsidiarity, nation-states should strive to meet the legitimate demands for regional autonomy when requested. The concept of sovereignty can no longer be restricted to the nation-state. It should be associated with all levels where a responsible authority is needed to regulate processes which are common to several nations. So the concept of the state gradually becomes disconnected from the concept of exclusive territorial sovereignty.

To avoid clashes of civilizations and clashes of cultures, a double movement should be fostered:

  • Where requested, more autonomy should be given to regional or provincial entities inside nation-states.
  • Forms of sovereignty should be recognized to regional bodies or historic cultural groups according to specific needs and regarding specific items.
  • Nation-states which are no longer able to meet the needs for their common good should cooperate in shared sovereignty in those tasks which they are no longer able to fulfil alone.
  • Education worldwide should instil the rejection of nationalism and populism as a mortal deviation of the legitimate love of one’s own fatherland.
  • Nations should be invited to give up the spirit of hegemony which prevails in our times and find their self-realisation in creative cooperation with others.



[1] Cicero, De legibus I, 24: “haec in ea continetur”.
[2] Rutilius Namatianus, De reditu I, 52, 63-66:“Fecisti patriam diversis gentibus unam”.
[3] Luigi Taparelli d’Azeglio, Saggio teoretico di diritto naturale appoggiato sul fatto, Palermo, Muratori, 1840-43.
[4] Origen, Against Celsus II, 30; Hippolytus of Rome, On Daniel IV 9, 2-3; Eusebius of Caesarea, Demonstratio evangelica III 7, 30-33.35.
[5] Cfr. Ga 3,28; 1 Co 12, 13; Rm 10, 12; Col 3,11.