Sunday, May 30, 2004

Weigel's call for a revitalization of "international Catholic relations"

The May 2004 issue of First Things has an excellent article by George Weigel: "World Order: What Catholics Forgot" in which he contends that "the difficult period [between the United States and the Vatican during the Iraq war] was itself a by-product of a forty-year 'time of forgetting' -- a forgetting of the distinctive way Catholics have thought about world politics for centuries." It's a lengthy article, and worth reading in full if you have the time, but I'll attempt to summarize its key points. 1

Weigel describes Catholic international relations theory as forged by Augustine & Aquinas, refined by s Francisco de Vitoria and Francisco Suárez in the Counter-Reformation, and further developed during the pontificates of Pius XII and John XXIII. This Catholic "tradition of moral realism" was marked by three key insights:

  1. The insistence that politics is an area of rationality and moral responsibility -- precisely because politics is a human activity, and moral judgement a defining characteristic of the human person. Furthermore, says Weigel, this recognition was grounded in the Catholic theological conviction that: "mankind is not "totally depraved," as some Reformation traditions taught; that society is a natural reality; that governance has a positive, not merely punitive or coercive, function; that political community is a good in its own right, an expression of the sociability that is part of the God-given texture of the human condition."

  2. The classical understanding of power as "the capacity to achieve a corporate purpose for the common good") -- that is to say, politics cannot be "reduced, or traduced, to violence"; nor is politics the antinomy of peace; rather, politics has a positive dimension, its proper exercise a form of human creativity:
    The Catholic question was never, should power be exercised? Rather, the Catholic question was, how is power to be exercised? To what ends, by what authority, through what means? Power, in this understanding, is not the antinomy of peace (which is one of the goods to be sought by public authority); power, rightly understood, is a means to the achievement of the good of peace.

  3. A distinctive understanding of peace -- not the peace of the human individual achieved by a right relationship with God, nor "the eschatalogical peace of a conflict-free world," but rather the peace of political community, "in which order, law, freedom, and just structures of governance advance the common good."
Catholic international relations theory stressed international legal and political institutions as a remedy for the threat of modern war and as the natural evolution of human political development -- the highlight of which was John XXIII's 1963 encyclical Pacem in Terris. Unfortunately, charges Weigel, this distinctively Catholic "international relations theory" has not had significant influence among Catholic moral theologians and international relations specialists since the mid 1960's. This neglect of Catholic international relations theory is particularly regretful given two developments in the Church's involvement with world politics during John Paul II's pontificate which "call for a development of Catholic international relations theory -- and precisely at the level of theory.

The first development is John Paul II's insistence that human rights are the moral core of the "universal common good" and that religious freedom is the first human right to which institutions of international public life must attend. This is "a function of the Pope's teaching that all thinking about society, even international society, must begin with an adequate philosophical anthropology, which recognizes in the human quest for transcendent truth and love the defining characteristic of our humanity."

The second is "the emergence of the Papacy as a global moral witness, with real effect within and among nation-states." Weigel cites several examples, such as the Pope's role in the collapse of European communism 2; the Pope's support for democratic movements in the Phillipines and Latin American nations; and the Vatican's role in organizing effective international opposition to the Clinton Administration's efforts to have abortion-on-demand declared a fundamental human right in the 1994 Cairo World Conference on Population and Development.

Weigel sees a tension in the fact that the Pope carries his moral witness directly to the people (of individual states or the world in general), in many cases circumventing governments or relevant international organizations, while the various congregations of the Holy See continues diplomatic relations through normal channels ("of bilateral relations and multilateral institutions"). This tension was made explicit in the Church's role in the debate over the U.S. war with Iraq:

John Paul II has been a moral witness speaking truth to power in world politics; his diplomatic representatives, by definition, must be "players" according to the established rules of the game. Sometimes those roles can get confused. Some would argue that this happened during the debate prior to the recent Iraq War, when the prudential judgments of Vatican diplomats and agency heads were often reported (and perceived) as if they were decisive moral judgments by the man the world has come to recognize as its foremost moral authority -- Pope John Paul II. Then there is the question of how the Holy See, which is not a state, is to function in international fora in which every other actor of consequence is a state. How is it possible for the Holy See to function like a state without being a state and without damaging the Catholic Church's moral witness? To take one pressing issue here: Can the Holy See, without damaging the moral witness of the Catholic Church, form practical alliances for purposes of defending the family and the inalienable right to life with Muslim states whose policy and practice deny what the Catholic Church claims is the moral core of the universal common good—religious freedom?
Weigel does not believe this ambiguity and tension can be resolved -- more importantly, "nor should it be prematurely resolved in either direction (i.e., by muting the moral witness of the Office of Peter, or by the Holy See's withdrawal from bilateral and multilateral diplomacy)." In the face of utiliatarianism ("the default position in international politics"), the Church must continue to assert the dignity of the human person. In the face of militant Islamic fundamentalism, the Church must demonstrate that religion is not necessarily violent or aggressive. If this comes at a cost of ambiguity and tension, says Weigel, so be it.

That said, Weigel believes we must "reconvene a conversation that has lapsed for almost forty years", developing Catholic international relations theory to counter "realpolitik that has corrupted Western European thinking about world politics." This development must address the current realities of international public life:

  • "[T]he emergence of a plethora of international legal, political, and economic institutions, and the impact of nonstate actors on world affairs" -- ranging from global financial instutions like the International Monetary Fund and World Bank to the pervasive threat of transnational terrorist organizations and criminal cartels.

  • "[T]he enduring reality of the nation-state system [which remains] the basic organizing unit of world politics"

  • The failure of the UN to adequately address "the new reality of aggressive nonstate actors (including terrorist organizations) and with the often-lethal reality of what are sometimes called 'failed states' or 'collapsing states'." Here Weigel cites a litany of post-Cold War crises:
    "the Rwandan genocide, the collapse of Yugoslavia, the hijacking of Afghanistan by the Taliban, widespread famine in sub-Saharan Africa, the African AIDS pandemic, and the spread of SARS from China. Catholic international relations theory must, in other words, face squarely the moral and political failures of a UN system in which Libya can become chairman of the UN Human Rights Commission, in which Saddam Hussein's Iraq can be slated to chair a major international meeting on disarmament, in which the Security Council has become dysfunctional because its structure and procedures are incongruent with the realities it must address, and in which UN peacekeeping operations (as in Kosovo) too often serve to create new dependencies rather than functioning civil societies.

  • "[T]he antidemocratic (and often anti-Catholic) bias in regional associations such as the European Union" -- which Weigel touched on in a previous article "Europe's Problem, And Ours" (First Things 140 (February 2004): 18-25)

  • "A new and dangerous form of judicial activism in international legal institutions", in which "international courts or national courts claiming international jurisdiction have imitated activist U.S. appellate courts and have become vigorous contestants in an international culture war over such issues as the family, abortion, and human sexuality"
Reading these "signs of the times," Weigel concludes by presenting four priorities for the intellectual development of Catholic international relations theory:

  1. Catholic international relations theory must take into account the relationship between "hard power" and "soft power," and between the rule of law and the use of armed force, in international public life.

    Refering to the terminology of Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye, Weigel calls for better familiarization with the relationship of "hard power" and "soft power,"in the pursuit of an ordered peace, composed of freedom, justice and security. The effective deployment of "soft power", or nonviolent tactics of persuasion, requires a certain historical context. Its application cannot universalized as a matter of policy. (Ex. "Had the nascent state of Israel opted for a "soft power" approach to being invaded by several Arab states in 1948, the Jews would have been driven into the sea in a mass slaughter.)

    Likewise, says Weigel, we must recognize that "law is not self-vindicating or self-enforcing":

    To juxtapose an undefined "law of force" over against the "force of law" in an absolute antinomy seems unsatisfactory, empirically and morally. All law, of whatever sort, ultimately requires the sanction of enforcement if "law" is to mean anything other than a vague expression of good intentions. This is a perennial feature of the human condition."
    Given the human tendency to "breach the peace," even a world of just and democratically-accountable international institutions as envisioned by John XXIII in Pacem in Terris would have to be backed by proportionate and discriminate armed force. 3

  2. The rediscovery of the classical Catholic view of the morally legitimate deployment of armed force -- Contemporary international law and recent Catholic commentary (including the Vatican) have settled on the view that first use of armed force is always bad (a "presumption against violence"), which both Weigel and just war scholar James Turner Johnson has questioned as contrary to the classical Catholic view. 4

    According to Weigel: "twenty-first-century Catholic international relations theory is going to have to think about these various uses of armed force in a more nuanced way. This, in turn, requires refining our understanding of 'aggression' and refining the criteria by which the international community and individual states can judge, with moral legitimacy, that aggression is 'underway.'" Case in point:

    During the Iraq War, the president of the American Society of International Law suggested that aggression could reasonably be said to be underway when three conditions had been met: when a state possessed weapons of mass destruction or exhibited clear and convincing evidence of intent to acquire weapons of mass destruction; when grave and systematic human rights abuses in the state in question demonstrated the absence of internal constraints on that state's international behavior; and when the state in question had demonstrated aggressive intent against others in the past. The author suggested that these three criteria set a high threshold for the first use of armed force in the face of aggression, while recognizing that there are risks too great to be countenanced by responsible statesmen. A revitalized Catholic international relations theory would engage this proposal, help to refine it, and indeed open a broader discussion that would include filling in the criteria by which the duty of humanitarian intervention is satisfied by the use of armed force when other remedies fail.

  3. A critical evaluation of ontemporary international organizations [such as the United Nations] and their contribution to "the peace of order and to the freedom, justice, and security that are its component parts." The Vatican's intensifying support for the UN has been questioned by Weigel and others in light of the UN's adoption of policies on abortion, family, and the proper response to the AIDS pandemic which run contrary to Catholic moral teaching. With respect to the war in Iraq, Weigel criticizes statements by Vatican officials which imply that the only justifiable use of force is that which is formally sanctioned by the U.N. Security Council:
    What is striking about recent commentary from officials of the Holy See on the Security Council's monopoly of legitimating authority in the matter of using armed force is that it has been asserted, not argued. The sheer fact of the UN system seems to be taken to constitute a new moral reality; states which adhere to the UN Charter are deemed to have forfeited attributes of their sovereignty that the Catholic Church had long recognized as morally legitimate. Perhaps that is the case. But that case has to be made, not assumed. And in arguing the case, certain facts of international public life cannot be denied.
    Weigel elaborates, challenging whether the "international community" has bound itself to the U.N.'s charter and rules concerning the use of force ("Since 1945, 126 out of 189 UN member states have been involved in 291 armed conflicts in which some twenty-two million people have been killed") and why he is reluctant to yield moral authority to the Security Council ("How, for example, is moral legitimacy conferred by the Security Council when three of its permanent members—China, France, and Russia—formulate their foreign policies on explicitly realpolitik grounds that have little or nothing to do with moral reasoning about world politics as the Catholic Church understands it?").

    No other global institution is as likely to bring the skills of moral reasoning to bear on the task of international organizational reform as the Catholic Church," says Weigel. It would be a tragic lost if the Church were to forsake its potential by granting an "undifferentiated embrace" of the United Nations as it is today.

  4. A thorough reexamination of the just war tradition. Given the Church's vocal opposition to the Gulf War and the deposition of Saddam Hussein by the U.S., Weigel again raises the question of whether the Catholic Church's current position on armed force is tatamount to "functional pacifism" -- "a way of thinking that retains the intellectual apparatus of the just war tradition of moral reasoning but that always comes down, at the bottom line, in opposition to the use of armed force." 5 As Weigel observes, various statements by the Holy Father and members of the Vatican Curia can be marshalled for or against this interpretation, calling for greater clarification of where the Church stands with respect to armed force.
    Several of the "priority issues" I have been discussing here bear on the reexamination of just war thinking for the post-Cold War world: the question of what constitutes "aggression underway" (which bears on the classic just war criteria of "just cause" and "last resort"); the moral status of the UN system (which touches the just war criterion of "proper authority"). Another reality of the contemporary world with which a reexamined and refined just war tradition would have to wrestle is the fact that precision-guided munitions and other forms of high-tech weaponry now make it more likely that a responsible country can use military force in ways that satisfy the in bello just war criteria of no-more-force-than-necessary and noncombatant immunity. Refining Catholic thinking on these questions is essential to the revitalization of Catholic international relations theory.
    It is with some amusement that I read that Weigel's article is an adaptation of "the twenty-sixth annual Thomas Merton Lecture delivered at Columbia University," given Thomas Merton's own pacifistic leanings and vehement denunciation of the U.S. military. At any rate, Weigel's article is a good condensation of his earlier works, and makes a good case for what the Church has to offer to the world; let us hope his call for the "revitalization of Catholic international relations theory" will not go unheeded.

  1. Given it's comprehensive subject matter, this summary is cross-posted to both my "Catholic Just War" and "Religion & Liberty" blogs.

  2. As chronicled in Weigel's book The Final Revolution: The Resistance Church and the Collapse of Communism

  3. See "Force of law, law of force ". The Catholic Difference. Publication Date: April 30, 2003

  4. See "Moral Clarity in Time of War", First Things 128 (January 2003): 20-2; "Using Military Force Against the Saddam Hussein Regime: the Moral Issues", James Turner Johnson. Foreign Policy Research Institute December 4, 2002. I previously blogged on Weigel and Johnson's questioning of the "presumption against war" on Dec. 6, 2003.

  5. See my post "Pacifism and the end of the Just War Tradition", Nov. 30, 2003.