It is no secret that late 2002 and early 2003—the months just before an American-led coalition deposed the Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq—were a difficult moment in the dialogue between the Holy See and the United States government, and between the leaders of the Church in Rome and many Catholics in the United States. There were several reasons for these difficulties, and it is not my purpose here to analyze them in detail. What I would like to explore, however, is the idea that this difficult period 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. Since the days of St. Augustine and St. Thomas Aquinas, it has been understood that Catholics bring more than a sensibility to the debate over world affairs; Catholics bring ideas, and those ideas are organized in a distinctive way that leads to distinctive insights and a distinctive method of moral analysis. That, I suggest, is what has been forgotten. Moreover, my further suggestion is that a wiser conversation—within Catholicism in the United States, within the U.S. government, between Americans and Rome—could result from retrieving and renewing what was once called "Catholic international relations theory."
Retrieval precedes renewal. So what is that distinctive tradition of moral reflection about the politics of nations? Catholic international relations theory was first forged by Augustine in De Civitate Dei, and by Aquinas in his commentaries on ethics and politics, the De Regimine Principum and the relevant sections of the Summa Theologiae. It was refined by theologians such as Francisco de Vitoria and Francisco Suárez in the Counter-Reformation period. It was further developed by the twentieth-century papal magisterium during the pontificates of Pius XII and John XXIII. Needless to say, the world changed a great deal from Augustine to the mid-twentieth century. Yet from Augustine to John XXIII, this distinctive Catholic way of thinking about world politics displayed certain consistent features. It was a tradition of moral realism, built around three key insights.
First, the Catholic tradition insisted that politics is an arena of rationality and moral responsibility. Unlike those theories of international relations which insisted that world politics is amoral or immoral, classic Catholic thinking about international relations taught that every human activity, including politics, takes place within the horizon of moral judgment, precisely because politics is a human activity and moral judgment is a defining characteristic of the human person. That is true of politics among nations, the Catholic tradition insisted, even if there are distinctive aspects to the moral dimension of world politics.
This basic stance toward politics was itself built on more fundamental Catholic moral-theological convictions: 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. Politics, the Catholic tradition of moral realism insisted, always engages questions of virtue, questions of how we ought to live together.
Second, the Catholic tradition taught a classic understanding of power: power is the capacity to achieve a corporate purpose for the common good. Power is not to be reduced, or traduced, to violence; on the contrary, violence is a limit-case testing the boundaries of a rational and ethical politics. Power thus has a positive dimension; its proper exercise is a form of human creativity. Power is also related to governance. Political communities exist to achieve common purposes — that is, to exercise power. Absent power, there is anarchy. Thus 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.
Third, the Catholic tradition had a distinctive understanding of peace. The peace to be sought in the politics of nations was not the interior peace that only comes to the individual through a right relationship with God. Nor was the peace to be sought in the politics of nations the eschatological peace of a conflict-free world, which Catholic moral realism deemed a utopian fantasy. Catholic moral realism understood that the biblical peace of the shalom kingdom envisioned in Isaiah 2:2-4 cannot be built by human effort in this world. Something else could be built, however — the peace of political community, in which order, law, freedom, and just structures of governance advance the common good in ways that lead communities toward that caritas that is their most proper and noble end.
This Catholic tradition of moral realism had a considerable, if often unremarked, effect on the evolution of world politics in the modern period. It was the foundation on which the Dutch Protestant Hugo Grotius based his seventeenth-century reflections on what he termed the “community of nations,” his early attempts to apply the category of “law” to world politics, and his development of just war thinking. If Grotius is the “father of international law,” and thus the father of today’s international system, then the grandfather of that system is the moderate realism of Catholic international relations theory.
As might be expected from a tradition that defined peace as “the tranquillity of order,” Catholic international relations theory in the mid-twentieth century 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 high point of this line of thought came in 1963, with John XXIII’s encyclical Pacem in Terris. There, the Pope taught that the “universal common good” required the development of a universal public authority. John XXIII was not a world federalist. He did not specify the structure of the universal public authority for which he called, and he did not discuss in any detail the relationship of that authority to existing nation-states. Rather, he pointed out that, as there were obviously certain grave problems on the global agenda that could only be addressed on a global basis, there ought to be some form of legal-political entity capable of resolving global questions in a global way. Pope John was careful to stress that the universal public authority he envisioned must operate according to the principle of subsidiarity (i.e., not drawing into itself all political authority but respecting the legitimate prerogatives of “lower” forms of public authority and the free associations of civil society) and must take as one of its primary objectives the defense of human rights. Forty years after Pacem in Terris, the encyclical’s stress on the imperative of public authority at the global level seems to have been given concrete diplomatic effect in the diplomacy of the Holy See and in commentary by officials of the Holy See on world politics and international conflict.
At the theoretical level, however, Catholic international relations theory entered a fallow period in the years immediately following Pacem in Terris. If you have just encountered the phrase “Catholic international relations theory” for the first time in your life, that might suggest how infrequently the term has been employed in the past two generations. That there is a distinctively Catholic way of thinking about world politics, rooted in the distinctive understandings that ground Catholic social ethics, has not been a dominant theme among Catholic moral theologians and international relations specialists since the mid- to late-1960s.
This is troubling in many ways, not least because there have been two important developments in the Catholic Church’s interaction with world politics during the pontificate of John Paul II that call for a development of Catholic international relations theory — and precisely at the level of theory.
Taking up an insight of John XXIII, John Paul II has insisted for a quarter of a century now that human rights are the moral core of the “universal common good” and that religious freedom is the first of these human rights to which the institutions of international public life must attend. This theme is both a fruit of the Second Vatican Council and an expression of John Paul II’s own experience with totalitarian regimes. To insist that religious freedom is the first of human rights and that international legal and political institutions must defend and promote it is not, for John Paul, a matter of institutional special pleading. Rather, it 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 development in this pontificate has been the emergence of the Office of Peter — the papacy — as an office of global moral witness with real effect within and among nation-states. The most obvious example of this, of course, was the Pope’s pivotal role in the collapse of European communism. By igniting a revolution of conscience in Poland in June 1979, John Paul II had a decisive impact on shaping the nonviolent politics that eventually produced the revolution of 1989 in east-central Europe and the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. But other examples could be adduced, including the Pope’s tacit support for the People Power revolution in the Philippines that displaced the Marcos regime; the Pope’s role in supporting democratic transitions in Latin America, with special reference to El Salvador, Nicaragua, Chile, and Argentina; and the Pope’s role in arousing an effective international opposition to the Clinton administration’s efforts to have abortion-on-demand declared a fundamental human right at the 1994 Cairo World Conference on Population and Development.
The emergence of the pope, the holder of the world’s oldest institutional office, as a global moral witness is an intriguing phenomenon in its own right. It becomes even more interesting when another aspect of the situation comes into focus. For while John Paul II was taking moral arguments directly to the people of individual states and to the people of the world, going “around” or “beyond” their governments or the relevant international organizations, the diplomacy of the Holy See (which now enjoys full diplomatic relations with more than 170 states as well as Permanent Observer status at the UN and diplomatic representation at the European Union, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and the Organization of American States) has continued to function through the normal channels of bilateral relations and multilateral institutions. Is there a tension here? I think so.
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?
This tension between the moral witness of the pope and the Church and the diplomacy of the Holy See is not likely to be resolved anytime soon — 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). At the present moment, when the Catholic Church is the world’s premier institutional challenger to utilitarianism as the default position in international politics and in the understanding of the human person implicit in international organizations, the world needs the Church, working through the Holy See, to promote the dignity of the human person as the foundation of any worthy politics, including international politics. And if that means the Church must live with ambiguity and tension, then so be it. In the face of the Islamist threat (which only intensifies the temptation to create a naked international public square), the world also needs a demonstration that publicly assertive religion is not necessarily violent or aggressive religion; the Catholic Church, acting through the Holy See, is the only available candidate for making that demonstration at the global level. And, again, if that results in a certain tension and ambiguity, so be it.
But given this inevitable tension and ambiguity, it seems to me all the more urgent to reconvene a conversation that has lapsed for almost forty years — the conversation about the development of Catholic international relations theory. Its central insights into the nature of politics and public life remain true and are crucial in a debate often dominated by less noble (and indeed less true) conceptions of the human person, human community, human origins, and human destiny. Moreover, Catholic international relations theory, properly developed, would offer a dramatic alternative to what is now the other prominent religiously grounded moral “reading” of world politics, namely, militant Islam. Further, a developed Catholic international relations theory would represent an important challenge to the realpolitik that has corrupted Western European thinking about world politics and that is always a danger in the formulation of U.S. foreign policy.
In accordance with the instruction of the Second Vatican Council to read the “signs of the times,” the development of Catholic international relations theory, while remaining faithful to the moral truths that are its foundation, must reckon with several current realities of international public life.
We no longer live in a world structured according to the political realities that prevailed at the end of the Second World War. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, the world is no longer divided into two opposing ideological and military camps whose rivalry set the framework for much of international public life between 1945 and 1991. The preponderance of U.S. military, economic, and cultural power in the world is one facet of the new situation. Other relevant factors include the absolute and relative decline of Western European influence in the world; the emergence of China, India, and Japan as international actors with potentially global impact; the new influence of international economic and financial institutions such as the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Trade Organization; the impact of international nongovernmental organizations on the world political debate; the global communications revolution and the emergence of a “real-time” global politics; and the new assertiveness of religious conviction as a factor in the politics of nations. All of these must be taken into account in thinking through the development of Catholic international relations theory.
A developed Catholic international relations theory must also reckon with the enduring reality of the nation-state system. Despite the emergence of a plethora of international legal, political, and economic institutions, and the impact of nonstate actors on world affairs, the nation-state remains the basic organizing unit of world politics. That seems unlikely to change in the twenty-first century. The twenty-first-century world is not going to be structured according to pre-1914 patterns of empire; but neither is the twenty-first-century world going to evolve swiftly toward a post-nation-state structure in which international legal and political institutions are the dominant actors.
There are new actors in world politics with which a developed Catholic international relations theory must contend. I have already mentioned the impact of global financial and economic institutions and international nongovernmental organizations. But one must also wrestle here with the fact that other nonstate actors have become increasingly important in shaping politics among nations. Transnational terrorist organizations and networks are the most prominent, and lethal, examples of this phenomenon. Transnational criminal cartels — trafficking in human persons, for example — are another.
Catholic international relations theory must also wrestle with the unavoidable fact that existing international organizations are in a troubled state. Founded to save humanity from the scourge of war, the UN system has proven incapable of doing so, even as it has proven largely incapable of dealing with 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.” The twentieth-century Catholic commitment to the evolution of effective international legal and political organizations is not going to be reversed, nor should it be reversed in the twenty-first century. But that commitment must now be informed by a new sobriety about the failures of the UN and its affiliated agencies to deal with such post–Cold War crises as 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.
While a developed Catholic international relations theory for the twenty-first century must take account of the failures of the UN system, precisely in order to help create conditions for the possibility of reforming that system, it must also take account of the antidemocratic (and often anti-Catholic) bias in regional associations such as the European Union, and a new and dangerous form of judicial activism in international legal institutions. The latter is particularly troubling, as 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. A developed Catholic international relations theory must recognize that the world will not come into greater conformity with Catholic understandings of the universal common good, or with Catholic understandings of the peace of order, if the tyranny of unelected judges supplants the tyranny of some governments, or if democratically achieved agreements within countries are summarily abrogated by activist courts in other countries. The problem here is not simply theoretical; it can damage progress toward the peace of order within and among states. To cite one recent example: Nothing did more to enhance the reputation of Slobodan Milosevic and his political party in Serbia than his trial in The Hague by the International Court of Justice; a local war-crimes trial, run by his own people, would have been far more likely to produce both a just verdict and an outcome that would advance the cause of Serbian democracy.
Catholic international relations theory must also come to grips with the ideological bias at work in both international tribunals and national courts seeking an expanded international role. When a Spanish court overrides the democratically rendered judgment of the Chilean people by issuing an international arrest warrant for former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet (when he was in London for medical treatment), something is clearly awry; and that “something” is made worse by the fact that Spanish courts dismissed attempts to conduct similar proceedings against Fidel Castro. One suspects that something other than a newly discovered commitment to judicial restraint was at work in the latter case. (A parallel set of problems has emerged with attempts to subvert national laws on marriage, abortion, and euthanasia through the European Parliament.)
Read against the pattern of Catholic reflection on world politics noted at the outset, these “signs of the times” suggest certain priority issues for the intellectual development of Catholic international relations theory in these early years of the twenty-first century. Let me outline four of these priorities.
Priority one: Catholic international relations theory must develop a sophisticated understanding of the relationship of what Harvard political scientist Joseph Nye has termed “hard power” and “soft power” in the pursuit of the “peace of order” that is composed of freedom, justice, and security.
The accomplishments of “soft power” in recent decades have been impressive. The nonviolent revolution of 1989 in east-central Europe, which began with John Paul II’s revolution of conscience in Poland, is the preeminent example, but one could also cite the democratic transformation of Latin America, the People Power revolution in the Philippines, and the democratic transitions in Taiwan and South Korea as further examples. The question to be pressed, though, is whether those experiences can be universalized.
The answer is almost certainly, “No.” Take what is the cockpit of so much of world conflict today, the Middle East. 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. Conversely, had the Palestinians opted for a “soft power” approach in 1967, at the end of the Six Day War, they would be preparing today to celebrate the thirtieth, or perhaps even the thirty-fifth, anniversary of independent Palestine. In the 1948 case, a “soft power” approach would have led to disaster; in 1967, it likely would have led to the dramatic amelioration of conflict. The effective deployment of “soft power” requires a certain context.
That was also true of the revolution of 1989. The nonviolent liberation of east-central Europe from communist control took place within a hard power context set by numerous factors, among them, Western rearmament during the 1980s. Absent that hard power context, it is unlikely that the revolution of 1989 would have happened when it did and how it did. Thus the question of how proportionate and discriminate “hard power” can set the context in which “soft power” can be effective requires careful study.
This, in turn, should prompt a more careful Catholic reflection on the relationship between the “force of law” and the “law of force,” a trope that got considerable attention in the debate prior to the Iraq War of 2003, but perhaps without shedding as much light on the future as its proponents hoped. 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, it seems. Imagine, for example, a world ordered according to the vision of John XXIII in Pacem in Terris, a world in which effective, just, and democratically accountable international legal and political institutions for resolving international conflict were in place. Human nature being what it is, someone would undoubtedly breach the peace, and in some instances that breach of the peace (and that challenge to John XXIII’s “universal public authority”) would have to be met by the use of proportionate and discriminate armed force.
Law is not self-vindicating or self-enforcing. Catholic international relations theory in the twenty-first century must take that into account in thinking through the relationship between “hard power” and “soft power,” and between the rule of law and the use of armed force, in international public life.
Priority two: Both contemporary international law and much recent Catholic commentary seem to have come to the settled view that the first use of armed force is always bad, while the second use of armed force (in response to that always bad first use) may be morally justifiable. This is not, however, the classic Catholic view, and 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.”
Classic Catholic thinking about the morally legitimate deployment of armed force did not restrict legitimacy to second use. Thomas Aquinas, for example, did not begin his just war thinking with a “presumption against war” (as that phrase is currently understood in much Catholic debate). Indeed, St. Thomas believed that there were occasions when the first use of force is morally justified — for example, to punish systematic and organized wickedness, or to prevent innocents from coming to harm. Pondering these examples, one readily thinks of Pope John Paul II’s address to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization in Rome in 1992, when he stressed the moral duty of “humanitarian intervention” in situations of an impending or ongoing genocide — but without specifying on whom that duty fell, or how it was to be fulfilled.
In any case, and with the recent Iraq War in mind, is it possible to begin to refine the criteria by which the first use of armed force would be morally justifiable because of a responsible judgment that aggression was indeed underway? 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.
Priority three: As I mentioned in sketching the broad outlines of pre–Vatican II Catholic international relations theory, the popes of the mid-twentieth century, Pius XII and John XXIII, laid considerable emphasis on international legal and political institutions. Thus it should hardly be surprising that the Holy See has been among the most consistent supporters of the United Nations. What is perhaps surprising is that this support has intensified in the past two decades, even as the UN and its affiliated agencies have adopted policies with respect to abortion, the family, and the proper response to the AIDS pandemic in Africa that are opposed to the moral teaching of the Catholic Church and the policy preferences of the Holy See. In the debate prior to the Iraq War, for example, at least one senior official of the Holy See insisted that only the United Nations, through the Security Council, can legally authorize and morally legitimize the use of armed force in the pursuit of peace, security, and order. And while that statement does not constitute the authoritative teaching of the Catholic Church or the settled policy of the Vatican, it certainly reflects a cast of mind that is deeply skeptical about any use of armed force in the world that is not formally authorized by the Security Council. (As the experience of the 1990-1991 Gulf War shows, the Holy See’s skepticism about the use of armed force extends even to actions authorized by the Security Council. I will return to this matter in a moment.)
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.
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. Given this record, it is difficult to argue that the “international community” has agreed in practice to be bound by the UN Charter and its rules on the use of force. It is even more difficult to argue that the “international community” has ceded an effective monopoly on the use of force to those actions sanctioned by the Security Council. Perhaps it should; perhaps it someday will. But to assert as a matter of fact that this transfer of authority has taken place seems counterfactual today.
As I indicated previously, classic Catholic international relations theory is an expression of moral realism. Thus a developed Catholic international relations theory must wrestle with several hard realities of the UN system today. The first and perhaps most urgent is that the present structure of the Security Council is thoroughly unrealistic. Granting veto power on the Security Council to five states — China, France, Great Britain, Russia, and the United States — does not reflect the realities of contemporary world politics, but rather a set of political accommodations reached for various reasons at the end of the Second World War. The rotation of the other nine Security Council seats takes place through a process which, again, does not reflect the realities of power. These structural problems themselves should raise questions about the moral standing of the Security Council and the claim that it alone is the locus of moral authority over the use of armed force in world politics.
If we probe a little deeper, other problems emerge as well. 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? Can an amoral calculus yield a morally determinative result? If so, it remains to be shown how.
To raise these questions is not to suggest that international organizations must always be a snare and a delusion, as some critics from the starboard side of American politics argue. The Catholic Church, which existed for a millennium and a half before the modern nation-state and which is the bearer of truths about the human person that must always stand in judgment on the nation-state (as they stood in judgment on previous forms of political organization), cannot regard the nation-state as the final form of human political organization. By the same token, however, it is surely true, from the point of view of a realistic moral analysis of the situation, that not every institution, agency, or process that labels itself “international” constitutes an advance for the cause of humanity and for the struggle to build the peace of order in world politics. Some are; but some are not.
Thus a developed Catholic international relations theory for the twenty-first century must undertake a critical evaluation of contemporary international organizations, asking openly, frankly, and without preconceptions whether and how those organizations contribute to the pursuit of the peace of order and to the freedom, justice, and security that are its component parts. That kind of critical examination seems crucial for the integrity of the Catholic analysis of world politics; it also seems crucial for the possible reform of international organizations. 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. If the Catholic Church, in expressing its convictions through the diplomacy of the Holy See, were to resemble ever more closely the World Council of Churches in the latter’s undifferentiated embrace of the current UN system, much would be lost — for the Church, but also for the world.
Priority four: During the 1990-1991 Gulf War, the Holy See seemed to oppose the use of armed force to reverse Iraq’s invasion and occupation of Kuwait, even though the use of force had been authorized by the Security Council. Concern for embattled minority Christian communities in the Middle East played a role here; so did the judgment, correct in my view, that it is not the task of the Holy See or the pope to bless a war. Yet the Holy See’s opposition to a Gulf War authorized by the Security Council, on the one hand, and its opposition to the deposition of the Saddam Hussein regime by a coalition facing opposition from permanent and rotating members of the Security Council, on the other, raises an important question: Is the Catholic Church’s position on the morally legitimate use of armed force (whether that position is manifest in the personal witness of the pope, the diplomacy of the Holy See, or the “default position” found in the relevant Vatican agencies) a kind of 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?
Recent events might seem to justify a positive answer to that question. But then what is one to do with John Paul II’s insistence on a duty of humanitarian intervention, which would presumably include the use of proportionate and discriminate armed force in cases of impending or actual genocide? And what is one to make of recent statements by the Holy See’s “foreign minister,” Archbishop Giovanni Lajolo, which seem to suggest the possibility of a legitimate first use of armed force?
This complex pattern of commentary from the Holy See suggests that the time is ripe for a thorough reexamination of the just war tradition. In the classic Catholic understanding of the just war tradition, just war thinking is not simply a calculus of means — a set of hurdles that religious leaders pose for politicians. Rather, the just war way of thinking is a tradition of statecraft within the broader ambit of Catholic international relations theory. The just war tradition is that part of Catholic international relations theory that addresses the question of whether, under certain specific circumstances and by certain specific means, the use of proportionate and discriminate armed force can help to build the peace of order. The just war tradition does not exist in intellectual isolation from politics; it is an integral part of a larger, more comprehensive conception of world politics.
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.
Commenting on Pacem in Terris in 1963, John Courtney Murray wrote that John XXIII’s “acute sense of the basic need of the age is evident in the word that is so often repeated in the encyclical and that sets its basic them. I mean the word ‘order.’” The passage continues:
This does seem to be the contemporary issue. The process of ordering and organizing the world is at the moment going forward. The issue is not whether we shall have order in the world; the contemporary condition of chaos has become intolerable on a worldwide scale, and the insistent demand of the peoples of the world is for order. The question is, then, on what principles is the world going to be organized?
Murray seems to have been prescient here. After the Communist crack-up, after the Cold War, after the September 11 attacks, the question indeed is, on what principles is the world going to be organized? A developed Catholic international relations theory, mediated through the catechesis and preaching of the Catholic Church, the witness of the papacy, and the diplomacy of the Holy See, could play an important role in answering that question. It is not Catholic special pleading, but only a recognition of the realities, to suggest that the Catholic Church must play such a role at the dawn of a new century and a new millennium, if the question of the principles on which the world is to be organized is going to be grasped in its moral depth.
The Catholic Church is a world Church, and the development of a refined Catholic international relations theory must therefore be the subject of a global conversation. Within this global conversation, however, there will be many other distinct Catholic conversations. One of these strikes me as particularly important, and that is the conversation between, on the one hand, the Holy See and the Roman intellectual milieu that informs its perceptions, and, on the other hand, the United States. The world’s most potent moral authority and the world’s leading political, economic, and military power must be in regular and intense conversation, not only at the formal diplomatic level (important as that is), but also in a mutual exchange of ideas and perceptions between U.S.-based scholars and their counterparts in the Roman Curia and the Roman universities.
That conversation, not unlike the conversation about Catholic international relations theory in general, has not been as robust as it might be. The causes of this involve all parties, and it is not my purpose to parcel out relative responsibilities here. But now, surely, is the time to get the conversation going again. The United States, for all its faults, is not a realpolitik power — and I would argue that it cannot be one, given the nature of the American Founding and the enduring moral commitments of the American people. The Catholic Church, because it is the bearer of a great tradition of moral realism applied to world politics, is distinctively positioned to broker a new and wiser conversation throughout the world about the way in which moral truths impinge on the politics of nations. The Church’s effort to do so will be respected by the United States, by its government, and by its people. Other powers may not be equally respectful.
And that, too, suggests that a new conversation is in order — a conversation about order, the principles that will guide the ordering of the world, and the principles that will guide the response of public authorities to the multiple disorders of the world. That conversation should result in the revitalization of Catholic international relations theory, which will be good for the Church and good for the world.
George Weigel is Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. This essay is adapted from the twenty-sixth annual Thomas Merton Lecture delivered at Columbia University.