In the midst of the statue iconoclasm sweeping the US and other countries around the world, a semi-official Vatican journal has extolled the virtues of “national repentance”.

– Echoes of Lincoln’s call for “patriots” to confess nation’s political “sins and transgressions”

La Civiltà Cattolica, a Jesuit publication whose contents are reviewed by the Vatican before publication, made reference to the idea that countries and their citizens should undergo a profound examination of conscience on their historical legacies in an article published online June 23 and entitled “Against Religious Nationalism”.

The author of the journal article – Jesuit Father Joseph Lobo of St. Joseph’s College in Bangalore, India – wrote that “true national repentance should supplant the nationalist spirit”.

That much in a moment in which race and anti-colonial protesters and government officials in many countries are sharply divided over the fate of statues of individuals accused of complicity in oppressive structures and systemic injustice.

Though he did not mention the statue iconoclasm directly, Lobo put forward as an example of “true national repentance” former US president Abraham Lincoln’s call in his 1863 Thanksgiving Day proclamation – at the height of the US Civil War – for “good citizens” and “patriots” to “confess their [political] sins and transgressions”.

“Those affected by blind nationalism would not tolerate such an appeal; rather, they would brand such prophets as ‘anti-citizens’, inciting the crowd to kill them”, Lobo wrote.

That read like a direct reference to President Donald Trump’s threat to punish those engaged in statue iconoclasm, even retroactively, with up to 10 years’ jail time.

And against the objection that a black-armband view and teaching of national history not blind to a country’s sins only debases patriotism and depresses the national spirit, Lobo doubled-down.

The Jesuit insisted teaching and living national repentance “is necessary to prevent nationalist discourse from spreading and becoming ‘common sense’ in everyday life, thus shaping social intelligibility in terms of an exclusivist religious-cultural ideology, and making the institutions of democracy lose their democratic character”.

– Historical justice and gospel message both at stake in national repentance

In terms of spreading a national repentance movement Lobo pointed out that “there is a need for cultural interventions capable of creating critical awareness in individuals and groups through a multiplicity of ways”, not only in schools but also in “all channels of communication aimed at creating a critical and inventive mass consciousness”.

At stake, the Jesuit wrote, is not only historical justice but also the release of “the fundamental liberating principles of religions” in those places in which faiths have been co-opted into the nationalist cause: not only Christianity in the US but also Islam in countries in the Middle East and Africa or Hinduism in India, for example.

In the case, for instance, of the US – where nationalists have cloaked the country in a “religious” guise “with a kind of divinization of the founding fathers and a narrative centered on the special role and favor given by God to that people” – it is necessary to restate and live out again and again the parable of the Good Samaritan, Lobo wrote.

“Before a true and living neighbor, nationalism and hypocritical patriotism end up in oblivion and the concrete truth of every human being created in the image and likeness of God emerges”, the Jesuit said.

Only in the true “love of the other” that is love for one’s neighbour – as opposed to the “narcissistic self-love” of nationalism – can the “oppressive” religiosity of religious-cultural nationalism be overcome, Lobo wrote.

And that much by making space for “the Christian idea of a plan for the fullness of time”, which far from universalizing particular identities as cultural nationalism does actually sees “different identities… transcend themselves and reach a new collective identity, transformed as redeemed children of God”.

Background to the statue iconoclasm, on Novena:

White Jesus images should be cancelled as “tools of white supremacy”, BLM figurehead says

Viewpoint: Is Antifa the answer to today’s fascism?

Opinion: “How can we not see the relationship between how we treat others, the violence of our consumption and our colonial heritage?”

Orthodox Church condemns Christian nationalism: “There could be no greater contradiction of the Gospel”


PhD in ancient Jewish/Christian history and philosophy. University ethics lecturer with 4 years' experience in religion journalism.