June 7, 2004


World Order: What Catholics Forgot (George Weigel, May 2004, First Things)

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. [...]

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.

Until the Church does reckon with the necessity for and justice of first use in certain situations, it may be true, as Mr. Weigel says, that : "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." However, the Pope himself will not be the leading challenger to utilitarianism and the chief defender of human dignity in the field of international relations--that role has been ceded to George W. Bush and Tony Blair today.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 7, 2004 8:37 AM

Since the Iraqi invasion of '03 was clearly a continuation of the unresolved conflict of '91, (and unresolved because of the actions of one man, Saddam Hussein), only a person whose knowledge of history began in 1992 could claim that the American-led second invasion was unprovoked, or a "first-use" of armed force.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at June 8, 2004 2:39 AM