08 June 2004

A Catholic international relations theory?

Writing in the May issue of First Things, George Weigel discusses "World Order: What Catholics Forgot." Since Pope John XXIII published Pacem in Terris in 1963, Weigel argues, Catholics have largely forgotten the contours of a Catholic international relations theory, as rooted in a 1,500-year-old tradition of moral reflection beginning with Augustine. Not surprisingly, perhaps, Weigel sees as one of the touchstones of a Catholic international relations theory the Vatican itself, which he believes is uniquely capable of playing a distinctive role on the international stage. As an example, he cites the role played by John Paul II in the collapse of European communism at the end of the 1980s. However, the Pope's position on the world stage makes for a certain unresolvable tension:

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?

Apart from the issue of whether or not the Vatican City is a state (many would disagree with Weigel here), these tensions are applicable not only to the Church of Rome; they are in fact relevant to virtually any situation in which an ecclesiastical organization undertakes to involve itself directly in the political process. Protestant church bodies run into a similar tension constantly, as their synodical assemblies and denominational leaders devote much of their energies to issuing pronouncements on political and social issues -- activities which arguably exceed the proper bounds of their offices.

What would a christian theory of international relations look like if we were to take politics on its own terms, qua politics -- that is, as a legitimate pursuit rooted in the divine mandate to do public justice in a diverse society? Can we conceive of a christian approach to politics without artificially bringing in the institutional church? What role, if at all, ought the church as institution to play in the international arena? These are questions needing further consideration.

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