A Church Without Borders

In a recently published book-length interview with Pope Francis, French sociologist, Dominique Wolton, questions the Holy Father about his repeated references to the borders of nations, wall-building, the plight of refugees, and the like.1.

The Pope responds that it is not borders that he commonly refers to but rather bridges—building bridges between nations, between peoples, between cultures. The Pope goes on to explain that bridge-building in today’s world is one of the most important responsibilities of the Church, and of Christians everywhere.

In an age in which strong centripetal forces are at work, it is more necessary than ever that peacemakers, mediators, and those committed to unity, work against the various forces that are tearing humanity apart.

These words, which are based in the Beatitudes—“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the children of God”—was one of the dominant themes of the Second Vatican Council. The Council, convened in the wake of two World Wars, the advent of Marxist Communism, and the sometimes bloody, wars of national independence, was highly cognizant of the fact that humanity, in the middle of the 20th century, was at a crossroads in history. On the one hand, modern technology, and the contact established between peoples and nations, created a truly “global” humanity, in which nations separated by great distances, nevertheless were able to share and transmit physical resources and information due to the invention of modern transportation, radio, television, and other means of communication. On the other hand, as our knowledge grew, so did our awareness of the evils that plagued peoples in far-off places, and our appreciation of the increased interdependence among nations.

Thus, the document, Gaudium et Spes (GS), or the “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World,” promulgated by the Council in 1965, became a kind of Magna Carta of the Church’s attitude to these new developments. Basing itself on traditional Church teaching, the document set down basic criteria that Catholics, layman, and clergy alike, were to use when approaching the many issues and challenges that faced modern day man in the political, economic, and social realms.

These norms emphasized the “oneness” of the human family—a dogmatic fact based on our common ancestor, represented in Adam and Eve. All men, therefore, share a kind of brotherhood, regardless of our race, nationality, ethnicity, or religion. In another Vatican II document, Lumen Gentium, the Church speaks of herself as the “universal sacrament of salvation” for all of humanity, thus emphasizing both her uniqueness, as well as her universal and transcendent mission. These dogmatic bases show the Church to truly be a society “without borders”. It is precisely because she is not identified with any particular political system or ideology that she is able to serve the whole of humanity, and bring people of various tongues, citizenship, and opinions within one society based on truth and love.

What does it mean do be a Church without borders, a Church that builds bridges and not walls? This question is as relevant today as it was fifty years ago. Not only do certain nations and governments around the world strive to fence themselves off from others, but some actually resort to erecting physical obstructions along their borders, or at least propose to do so. During the Cold War, the so-called “iron curtain” was poignantly symbolized by the Berlin Wall, built by the Communist government in East Germany to keep its citizens from crossing over to the free world. Today, the walls erected are not to keep people from leaving a country, but to keep others out. The motivations are different, but the essential problems are the same—walls between people—an exaggerated emphasis on “us” versus “them,” and a breakdown of that brotherly unity and solidarity that is such an important aspect of the Christian life.

During the Cold War, the ideological systems which divided the world were along largely class warfare lines: Capitalists versus the Proletariat, the Free Market System versus the Communist System. Although other identifying factors such as nationhood, ethnicity, or religion (or the lack thereof) did play a part in isolating various members of the human family, none cut through quite as drastically as between those places under Soviet control and influence, and those under American control or influence. This of course was the milieu in which the Second Vatican Council was convened.

However, still fresh in the minds of the Council Fathers was a time when nationalism was the ideology of the day. That epoch of human history saw the rise of new nation-states, such as Germany (along with its unfortunate development into the Kulturkampf under Bismarck, and Nazism under Hitler), the fomenting of national independence movements among smaller-sized ethnic groups, and a narrow nationalism, or isolationism, that began to be in evidence in other countries, such as France, the United Kingdom, and the United States. This nationalist movement, which had its roots in the 19th century, preceded that of Marxist Communism, and was a driving force in redrawing maps, and giving rise to countless wars, in the one hundred and fifty years preceding the Council. Although not every war for independence during this period was to be condemned, the Church often fought against excessive nationalistic tendencies. On the other hand, it cannot be denied that at other times, certain members of the Church, both laymen and clerics, were complicit in supporting or propagating harmful nationalistic ideologies, and at times seemed to put their allegiance of country before allegiance to Christ and His Church.

One conspicuous example of this was what came to be known as “Action Française”—a French movement started, ironically, by the atheist writer, Charles Maurras. This movement initially attracted a number of Catholics, including the philosopher, Jacques Maritain, and the author, Georges Bernanos, who admired its message of restoring France to its Christian roots, and traditional customs. This movement, however, had more Gallicanism to it than Catholicism. Maurras stated once that “a true nationalist places his country above everything.” The Holy See condemned the movement in 1926. Maritain and Bernanos, both loyal Catholics, abandoned the movement.

But the fact that such an ultra-nationalist movement could prove so tempting, even to relatively moderate Catholics at that time, shows the various forces that were at play during this tumultuous period: on the one hand, a desire to rebuild one’s country on strong, religious, traditional roots and morality; but on the other hand, the fear that international communism would undermine this project and steal from men the traditions and history of his beloved homeland, a sense that the only way to build up a nation was to undermine others, and a certain lack of sense of the universal message of the Catholic religion and the Gospel.

This is, of course, simplifying things a bit for the sake of argument, but the main point is that the Church had experienced the lure of nationalism, and the centripetal forces at work in the world, prior to Vatican II. Time and again, the Council Fathers of Vatican II called on Catholics, and all men of good will, to think above and beyond the needs of their own country. Following are some of the more straightforward and poignant excerpts from Gaudium et Spes on this subject:

  • “Christians should collaborate willingly and wholeheartedly in establishing an international order involving genuine respect for all freedoms and amicable brotherhood between all men.” GS 88
  • “Today…most certainly demands that [leaders] extend their thoughts and their spirit beyond the confines of their own nation, that they put aside national selfishness and ambition to dominate other nations, and that they nourish a profound reverence for the whole of humanity, which is already making its way so laboriously toward greater unity.” GS 82
  • “Citizens should develop a generous and loyal devotion to their country, but without any narrowing of mind. In other words, they must always look simultaneously to the welfare of the whole human family, which is tied together by the manifold bonds linking races, peoples, and nations.” GS 75

These mandates were not just idealistic thinking on the part of the Council. They were a realistic appraisal of the world, viewed through the lens of faith, and through the difficult, but not impossible, demands of the Gospel. To say that such an achievement is impossible is to underestimate both man, and the grace of God. To say that such an achievement can be attained simply by implementing the right systems, institutions, or forms of government is naïve, and does not take into sufficient consideration the power that evil holds over the world, and particularly the evil in men’s hearts. The Council is both hopeful and realistic in its assessment of world politics. It does not believe that a universal peace is on the near horizon, but neither does it believe that we can turn the clock back on our globalized world, or on the interdependence of nations. It marks a decisive and irrevocable move away from thinking of nations simply as sovereign, self-sufficient, units, supreme in themselves, and standing in a kind of splendid isolation from the rest of the world community.

“This is a hard teaching, who can accept it?”—this is the response of many Christians today who are molded in a somewhat older way of thinking, and who believe that the first and most important job of a ruler, or a government, is to pursue the common good of its own citizens. This understandable mode of thought, however, lacks a lively awareness that we belong to a single human family, and that we cannot anymore distinguish simply between the good of “our” people, and those “others” who live in other countries. Before we are Americans, or French, or Indians, or Korean, we are human beings, made in the image of God, and endowed with an inviolable dignity. The tragic death or suffering of one person, no matter where in the world it occurs, should affect us all, and should stir in the world community a desire to assist, protect, and ennoble. A refugee or an immigrant, regardless of their national origin, religion, or customs, is the concern of all, and is particularly the responsibility of those nations that are better off economically, and who are thus in a better position to provide emergency assistance.

When we espouse as a motto “My Country First,” we not only betray the demands of the Gospel and the social doctrine of the Church, but we also—perhaps without realizing it—imperil the peace of our own country, and create a dangerous ideology which in the end can do nothing other than threaten our own stability and prosperity. If each country were to simply seek its own interest, without taking into consideration the well-being of other peoples, we would have a kind of “survival of the fittest” mentality—a war of interests based upon selfishness, a “Lord of the Flies” on an global level, which would inevitably lead to chaos, suffering, and injustice.

It is absolutely essential that we learn today how to transcend borders, and to “build bridges.” Does that mean a world without borders? No. The nation-state will remain the fundamental basis upon which political decisions are based and executed. In order for cooperation on an international level to occur effectively, there must be an orderly and realistic way of accomplishing the goals before it. But the nation-state must also, always and everywhere, open itself to serving the common good of the international community, especially when the stakes continue to grow with the passing of years. Environmental accords, arms control, nuclear disarmament, and the care for refugees are just a few examples of issues in which a courage to cooperate, and a magnanimous spirit, are necessary on the part of various governments. None of the global problems that vex the world today can be solved without effective international cooperation.

Why does it appear that having made some progress over the past fifty years, we are again, in many parts of the world, slipping back into a certain provincialism, or national isolationism? The reasons, undoubtedly, are many and complex. I proffer just a few observations here.

First of all, there has been a weakening of the Christian spirit over the last sixty years. The Christian faith is practiced by fewer and fewer people in precisely those countries that hold the greatest power and wealth, and thus, the ability to foster real and lasting solutions to certain global problems have been weakened.

When the Christian faith wanes, the demands of the Gospel appear unrealistic, outdated, or are misinterpreted. It is not without reason that the Second Vatican Council, while addressing many secular and temporal concerns, grounded its doctrine and motivation in the belief that Christ is the Lord and Center of human history, and that His Church continues His work on earth.

The eclipse of faith is, therefore, undoubtedly one of the decisive factors giving rise to populism and nationalism throughout the world, although ironically it is often the leaders of these movements who attempt to use the Christian faith, often in a debased and adulterated form, to support their own ideas. Again, refer to the phenomena of “Action Française” above, in which an atheist was able to use Christianity, for a time, to lure decent Catholics under his sphere of influence.

With an eclipse of faith, comes a darkening of the sense of our universal brotherhood. The Biblical account of creation, and in particular the creation of man, is of greater importance here than may seem. Although the exegetical interpretation of the creation account is still developing, the Catholic faith holds, as an immutable truth, the oneness of the human race, united as it is in a common ancestor, and a common primeval experience. It may surprise some, but this is not a universal belief among the world religions! But for Christians, it is a kind of lodestone that ought to influence our thinking and conduct when it comes to political matters, especially those that affect persons outside our own borders. As this oneness was present at the beginning of human history, so it ought to be our goal. The Church, which as stated before, is the “universal sacrament of salvation” and in which “all the nations of the earth will be gathered” is the supernatural reality of this oneness—a oneness with diversity—as is so splendidly exemplified in the Scriptural account of Pentecost, in which the many nations, under the unifying power of the Holy Spirit, hear the Gospel being preached in their own tongue. Although the temporal order is distinct from the supernatural order, the universality of the Church both exemplifies, and encourages, that natural oneness which is a fundamental characteristic of the human race.

In addition to the eclipse of faith, as mentioned above, another reason accounting for the crisis of populism and nationalism, which we are experiencing today, is a certain disconnect between the leaders of nations, and their citizens. This is something alluded to in the document, Gaudium et Spes:

“For government officials, who must simultaneously guarantee the good of their own people and promote the universal good, depend on public opinion and feeling to the greatest possible extent. It does them no good to work at building peace so long as feelings of hostility, contempt and distrust, as well as racial hatred and unbending ideologies, continue to divide men and place them in opposing camps.” GS 82.

When the average citizen—the laborer, the farmer, the businessman, the student—fails to receive an education that is able to present cogent and convincing arguments as to the necessity of global cooperation, and the brotherhood of all humanity, there will arise stronger and stronger resentment toward the international community, and a narrowing of vision of contemporary man. It is not an easy task to show someone that they should care about the welfare of a man, woman, or child in a country far away. But one of the goals of modern education, and in particular of Christian education, ought to be the opening of these new vistas, and instilling a greater appreciation that we are more alike in our human dignity, and likeness in the image of God, than we are different.

“Hence arises a surpassing need for renewed education of attitudes and for new inspiration in the area of public opinion.” GS 82

As the Council itself states, education is the key to overcoming a number of the destructive forces at work in the world today. Reflecting upon the words of the Council, I agree that much needs to be done in the field of education, and especially education of the young, in order to widen their horizons, and to try and keep up with the rapid pace of internationalization and globalization. This will help prevent future generations from falling into the traps of nationalism and populism. This can be done through a plethora of means. I will make just a few modest suggestions here.

An increased emphasis on thoroughly learning a foreign language and culture can go far in helping overcome certain nationalistic tendencies. By leaving the comfort zone of one’s linguistic and cultural sphere, and entering into that of an entirely different civilization, gives one a certain scope and depth which will help them better understand the universality of the human family in its many splendid differences. Secondly, an increased understanding of history, not just of one’s own country, but the histories of other countries, as well, can offer greater perspective to our world’s problems, and its possible solutions. Finally, much could be done by today’s media to expand the horizons of the populace by reporting newsworthy stories, not just of events that happen in one’s own backyard or country, but also in other parts of the world, including those of cultural, political, or religious importance. In this regard, it is sometimes perplexing that the same media outlets that condemn populism and nationalism will themselves get bogged down in petty gossip, or provincial ideological concerns, as if nothing more important were happening in other parts of the world.

Through proper education, part of the disconnect that occurs between the representatives, and the represented, can be overcome. It is a duty of the first order—and the Catholic Church can take the lead here, as she is, indeed, a Church without borders. In her extensive parochial school system, in her universities and colleges, and in her many media outlets, she has manifold opportunities to teach more extensively her social doctrine. In the pulpit she has ample means to set forth the Gospel message, the universality of the human family, the dignity of the human person, and the need of charity for all, whatever their background. Much of this work must happen from the ground up, because the centripetal forces of nationalism and populism, so rampant today, cannot be underestimated, and the demands which the Gospel places on Christians—self-sacrifice, love, overcoming prejudices, etc.— can only be truly overcome with the help of God’s grace, and through an intense sacramental life. But as the leaven in the dough of the world, the Church can continue to carry out her mission as a “bridge-builder,” and truly help her children become the “light for the world.”

  1. Pappe François and Wolton, Dominique. Rencontres avec Dominique Wolton. Politique et société. Un dialogue inédit. (Paris: Éditions de l’Observatoire/Humensis, 2017)
Nicholas Zinos About Nicholas Zinos

Nicholas Zinos is an attorney and antiquarian books seller, as well as a freelance writer. He holds a Master of Arts Degree in Catholic Studies from the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. He lives in St. Paul with his wife and seven children.


  1. Avatar CATHERINE MASAK says:

    Taking the food from your neigbor to give to a stranger invading your land is not the story of the Good Samaritan taught by Jesus. But thats what democrats in my country do. Personally Jesus and his teaching make sense to me.. Help the stranger yourself with your resources and then go about your business. You do not allow the person to become a parasite. I disagree with the distortion of Christianity and the distortion of who Jesus is.

  2. If you start with the premise that we build bridges and not walls, we do not embark upon a path that leads to unification of all peoples of different faiths, and backgrounds, with different ideologies and world views, if the premise is from the offset compromised. For example, the second Vatican council broke with Vatican I . Pope John XXIII brought about the change of ecumenism. He invited Lutherans and other non-Catholic Christian communities to the council to bridge the gap of disunity that existed for four centuries between Catholics and the Anglican Church. This all sounds good and plausible except he went against the teaching of Pope Pius XII, and his advice against joining other Faith denominations in order to bring about unity. Pope John XXIII also went against Our Lady of Fatima’s peace plan and the means to true peace and unity as outlined in her directives to sister Lucia.

    Pope John XXIII came up with his own plan for unity which turned out to be disasterous. The reason being that the beliefs of non-Catholic denominations were very different from those of Catholics.There was no common ground on which to begin to truly unite. Apart from the fact that The Catholic faithful were not substantiated in their faith. They were not prepared to be in dialogue with other faith denominations because they were not only not properly formed in their Catholic faith, but they had little or no knowledge of other faith backgrounds of non-Catholics denominations.

    The result of disobedience on the path of Pope John XXIII was, and still is, the reason that the Church is in disarray today. We speak of unity and building bridges with non-Catholic denominations, and we cannot even unite with members of our own Roman Catholic faith.

    The resolution to true unity and peace lies with each one of us fulfilling our vocation to live a true Christian life in accordance with the teachings of Christ, outlined in Jesus’ sermon on the mount, and the Ten Commandments. Unity does come from man-made ideologies, philosophies, sociologists, and human conceptions of a Christian worldview, other than that laid down by Jesus Christ and His apostles.

  3. Avatar Ted Heywood says:

    It is perfectly in keeping with Catholic philosophy and teaching that an independent nation can establish reasonable rules and regulations that control the migration of non-citizens to citizenship in that nation. Appropriate laws established by a nation to inure to the benefit of that nation may be enforced and upheld.

  4. Avatar Tom McGuire says:

    I appreciate your comments on the role of the Church in challenging the populism and nationalism of the past two centuries. Certainly, as you point out it is still with us. Glad you mentioned some among us support such movements. Building bridges between all people of good will, to move from human ideologies to finding ways to identify the interdependence of all creation as a means “to sum up all things in Christ” is our mission.

    “In him we have redemption by his blood, the forgiveness of transgressions, in accord with the riches of his grace that he lavished upon us. In all wisdom and insight, he has made known to us the mystery of his will in accord with his favor that he set forth in him as a plan for the fullness of times, to sum up all things in Christ, in heaven and on earth. Inheritance Through the Spirit. In him we were also chosen, destined in accord with the purpose of the One who accomplishes all things according to the intention of his will, Ep 1: 8-11