I have been asked to speak on the topic of patriotism and to do so with reference to Europe’s Christian heritage.

The first thing I should do is describe what I understand by “patriotism”.

 I understand it to be 

” a sense of national pride and a feeling of love, devotion, and sense of attachment to a homeland and alliance with other citizens who share the same sentiment. This attachment can be a combination of many different feelings relating to one’s own homeland, including ethnic, cultural, political or historical aspects.”

It is not necessarily tied to a particular geographic boundary, ethnicity or language group. 

People can speak different languages but share the same patriotic feelings. For example patriotic citizens of the Republic of India speak many different languages.

 One can share patriotic feeling with people, without necessarily wanting to be part of the same state or share the same citizenship as they do. For example some people in Northern Ireland consider themselves to patriotic Irish people, but do not necessarily want to be part of the Irish state, while others do.

Many consider it is possible to have more than one patriotic loyalty, which can co exist. For example one could be simultaneously a patriotic Catalan, a patriotic Spaniard and a patriotic citizen of the European Union.

In  my past work seeking to build peace in Ireland, I have found it helpful to acknowledge that people can have multiple and overlapping patriotisms, and to design political structures that acknowledge this diversity.

 The structures of the Good Friday Agreement  acknowledge that 

  + some people in Northern Ireland consider themselves to patriotic Irish people, but do not necessarily want to be part of the Irish state,  

  + others feel an exclusive  patriotic attachment to the United Kingdom, 

  + others an exclusive attachment to Ireland, and

  +  yet others can feel both attachments depending on the context. 

Those who favour European unity have long argued that one can have patriotic feelings towards one’s own state, as well as towards the European Union.

 For example, Winston Churchill, when urging support for a United States of Europe in 1946, envisaged

“an enlarged sense of patriotism and common citizenship” 

among Europeans.

As Pope Francis said in his latest Encyclical;

“ For a healthy relationship between love of one’s native land and a sound sense of belonging to our larger human family, it is helpful to keep in mind that global society is not the sum total of different communities but the communion that exists between them”

In this same Encylical, he warns against

 “hyperbole, extremism and polarisation”

 becoming political tools. Wedge issues in other words.

 He warns against the

 “temptation to build a culture of walls-walls in the heart and walls in the mind”


Patriotism and “nationalism” are not quite the same thing.

 Nationalism is defined as loyalty to a state whose citizens share the same culture, whereas patriotism does not insist on that, as the examples I have cited illustrate.


“Sovereignty” is another concept again. It is a concept developed in the context of the English Parliament wishing to assert absolute power over legislation, originally against the King and more recently against international bodies. 

Sovereignty is about power and its exercise, patriotism is about people and their shared feelings.

I have also been asked to relate this to Europe and its Christian heritage.


 It is fair to say that it is impossible to understand Europe’s heritage without understanding Christianity. From 330 AD up to 1520 AD the political history of Europe was inextricably linked up with its ecclesiastical infrastructure and with the teaching of the Catholic Church.

 Since 1520, that has changed gradually.

 But Christian thinking still influences the shared categories of thought, the shared intellectual and moral framework, through which Europeans, whether believers or not, approach their common problems.

 Without these shared categories of thought, Europeans would have found it much harder to work together, or to have achieved as much as they have achieved together so far, especially in the last 70 years.

The root of this shared European heritage starts in Faith. 

 Faith is a commitment. It is a basis for self respect and respect for others.

The late Pope, John Paul II, in an Apostolic Exhortation in 2003, said he hopeful about many things, praising the openness of European peoples to one another, the growth of a European consciousness and the growing unity of Europe at the time.

 He said 

“There is no doubt that, in Europe’s history, Christianity has been a central and defining element….the Christian faith has shaped the culture of the continent”.

He said

“Europe must recognize and reclaim, with creative fidelity, those fundamental values, acquired through Christianity, of the affirmation of the transcendent dignity of each person, the value of reason, freedom, democracy, the constitutional state and the distinction between political life and religion”.


He wanted Catholics, and Christians generally, to get involved with European institutions to help shape a European Social order, respectful of the human dignity of each man and woman, and thus in accordance with the common good.

Without a reference to its religious heritage, he argued, Europe is disconnected from the source of most of its deeply held shared values, shared values that can give it confidence and courage

 It is for the same reason that  I argued , when I was involved in drafting what became the Lisbon Treaty,  that there should have been a reference to God in the EU Treaty.

 It would have been a reminder of a belief in God shared by Christians, Jews  and Muslims in Europe.


Ladies and Gentlemen, at times, it seems as if relativism has become the real religion of modern man.

 We incline to see no evil, so we don’t have to become involved. 

We think everyone has their own truth and there is nothing that is true for everybody. 

 So we are afraid to say what we believe is right, in case it might give offence. 

I believe that Faith in something that transcends this world is important for the maintenance of social peace.

 It is a basis for standards that can guide our lives, and help us to live peaceably with others.

Morality helps us make a distinction between good and bad, but also, at the margin, between better and worse.

On what basis do we make those distinctions?  

What criteria do we use?  Values are what help us to weigh up our choices, as individuals and in politics, between good and bad, between better and worse.

 All choices involve  a moral element, all choices are an expression of our values.

What relative weight do we put on competing needs and aspirations?

Do we rely on a materialistic interpretation of history, as Leninists did?

Or do we rely on a nationalistic interpretation of what is important, which might oblige us to put our own nation first, whenever a choice has to be made? 

Or do we act in the interests of all mankind, either because we believe that that is a duty imposed upon us by our faith, by God, or because we have simply come to that view ourselves without the aid of religious belief?

Pope Benedict argued strongly that we should draw on our religious heritage in building social consensus, and warned against mere relativism, and against a retreat by believers into the private sphere.

He said;

With our own lack of conviction, we take away from society what objectively speaking is indispensable for it, the spiritual foundation of humanity and its freedom”.

Under the guise of tolerance, relativism leaves the interpretation of moral values to those in power, or to those who hold the temporary majority .

 Religious beliefs provide a basis for respecting other people on an enduring basis.

 They enable us to make good judgements, and if citizens cannot make good judgements, democratic systems will not survive.


I remember an Irish politician, responding to a criticism of his position on a particular issue from a Christian leader, by saying that, as a politician, his book is not the bible, but the constitution.

 A fair statement as far as it went.

 But what values inspire the constitution, and inspire those whose job it is to interpret it?  

Constitutions are verbal formulations, full of competing aspirations, and can be interpreted in various ways.

 A sense of right and wrong, of better and worse, will inevitably influence how the words in any constitution are interpreted, or the weight that will be given to different parts of a constitution.

 Adherence to a constitution does not, therefore and of itself, remove the necessity to make moral choices. Thus there can never be a complete separation between the work of a state and the religious convictions of its citizens.


 There is, I believe, a need for faith in every one of us, even in those who have never believed in God, or who have ceased to do so.

People do not stop wanting God, because they stop believing in Him.  The enduring hunger for meaning is there still. 

And in the absence of answers, there follows anxiety, depression and a deep sense of being alone.

Of course people have doubts, all people of faith can have doubts 

But as an Irish Archbishop told pilgrims two years ago;

“Faith is not primarily concerned with pinning down certitudes, but rather being open to a sense of wonder and awe, which will cut through our conservative certitudes and our liberal self righteousness”.

Faith challenges both of them….. it challenges conservative certitudes, and it challenges  liberal self righteousness.

 Faith asks us to look beyond our settled opinions.

 It asks us to abandon our lazy relativism, asks us to have the confidence and the courage to distinguish between what is  true and untrue, right and wrong, to recognise that some rights are more important than others and that choices have to be made.


Faith is a gift.

 But it is also a decision. A decision that each one of is free to make, the decision to accept the gift….or not to do so. 

 We must respect the right of others not to believe, or to believe differently to us, but we are entitled to ask respect for our faith too. 

Freedom of speech does not remove the obligation to respect religious symbols that others hold dear. Secularism is not a licence for iconoclasm.


 As I said earlier, Europeans should realize that democracy needs a value system.

 Church and state should be separate, but a democratic state still needs guiding values.

  Without well understood guiding values, majoritarian democracy can easily over reach itself, and descend into tyranny.

As Alexis de Tocqueville, writing about American Democracy in the nineteenth century, said

“Despotism may govern without faith, but liberty cannot” do so.

As Relativism becomes the generally accepted way of thinking, it tends towards intolerance, becoming a new dogmatism.

Because relativism is not subject to some higher order of values, like the doctrine of a religion based on faith, it has no generally accepted basis for distinguishing between the greater and the lesser good, or between the greater and the lesser evil, except by temporary majorities. 

 And majorities can become tyrannical. Intolerant. Myopic.


Let me take the example of human rights……

Is the right to life superior to the right to property?  Is the right to life superior to the right to work?

In other words,is there any hierarchy among rights?

Who is human, and what is the priority among the rights that humans ought to enjoy?

Is a child human before it is born? 

If so, ought that child enjoy any human rights?

Relativism and secularism do not answer those questions for us. 

Religious thinking and teaching does offers clear, sustainable,  logical, and often uncomfortable , answers to deep and difficult questions like these. 

 As we have seen recently, democracy, based on relativism, does  not answer all the questions which society  will have to answer from time to time. 

All it can do is suggestions for the PROCESS of decision making…and offer citizens assemblies and the like, but it does not answer substantial questions, like whether a right to life ought to have priority over other rights.

 So it often just avoids the question.

The argument descends to the level of pure pragmatism at best, and to emotionalism at worst.


To conclude, how can one hope to convince young Europeans of the modern value of their Christian heritage? 

Perhaps we might invite them to ask themselves why so many tourists visit ancient  cathedrals, while they are on holiday, even though they might not go near a church for the rest of the year.

 What draws people to these cathedrals? 

Is it just a sophisticated aesthetic sense, or an appreciation of mediaeval art? That might be true of some of the visitors, but not of all of them.

For a very large number of these tourists, there is something else, unacknowledged but more profound, in the back of their minds, when they visit a Christian cathedral in Europe.

 They want to gain a window into the value system of their ancestors….. a window into the frame of mind of the builders….a window to something that transcends time….that speaks to us about our past and our future.

 Many of them will want understand why, a previous  generation of Europeans, much poorer and  much less numerous than the present one, might have started building a cathedral, that would have taken 100 years to build,  and  that would never see finished in their generation’s  lifetime.  Why?

There is a five letter word that explains that….FAITH.

Faith in God.  

Faith in something greater than today.

Faith in something beyond their own lives, or even beyond the lives of their own great grandchildren. 

Faith in eternal life.

Address by John Bruton, former Taoiseach of Ireland, at a Digital Summit organised by the Danube Institute of Budapest , Hungary on the  subject “Patriotism-the Key to Success in a Globalised Era”.

On 17 November 2020

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