One Professor’s Guide To Studying International Relations and Peace Studies From a Catholic Perspective

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Author: Daniel Philpott

I have a prayer. It is that my students would become people who would “redeem the time,” in the phrase of the great poet T.S. Eliot.1 The inspiration for this prayer comes from Frank O’Malley, the legendary professor who taught English at Notre Dame from the 1930s through the 1960s and who carried a similar hope for his students, according to long-time Newsweek editor Kenneth Woodward, who reflects upon studying under O’Malley during the 1950s in a recent memoir in Notre Dame Magazine: There was, [O’Malley] showed us, a Catholic way of seeing and thinking —broadly human, decisively Incarnational — to which we were the fortunate heirs. From that perspective, we came to understand, the purpose of a Catholic education was to enable each of us in our chosen ways to “redeem the times.” On other words, he challenged us to transform the world we were about to enter, not merely graduate and join the affluent postwar crowd.2

I hope, too, that my students would be motivated by their Catholic beliefs (or analogous beliefs if they are not Catholic) to transform the world, perhaps even in the sphere of global politics or in some way in matters of war, peace, and justice, the subjects in which I teach and conduct research. This hope, this prayer, is very much what motivated me to come to Notre Dame, a university that is seriously Catholic — but is not paradise. Paradise is rather where I held my previous job as a professor — the University of California, Santa Barbara, a school perched atop the beachside cliffs on the shores of the Pacific Ocean, where winter days are crisp, sunny, and usually reach 63 degrees, where a gourmet coffee cart is never more than 50 yards away, where students come to class with sand between their toes, and where professors rarely wear ties. When I tell friends and colleagues who do not understand Notre Dame’s mission about my move, they tell me to get therapy. But unlike Santa Barbara and unlike most other universities, at Notre Dame professors are invited to integrate faith into their scholarship and their teaching. Through this integration, so claims the University in its mission statement and so runs my own prayer, students might become motivated to transform the world. That is why I left paradise.

At Notre Dame, then, I have sought accordingly to construct my courses in international relations and peace studies around the premise that Catholicism matters for global politics — that it influences that behavior of nations, but even more so that it offers a framework for our own reflection, study, participation, and even transforming influence upon global politics. At most other universities and certainly in much of the political world, this premise would induce skepticism. In July 1945, at the close of World War II, the leaders of the three allied nations, U.S. President Harry Truman, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin, gathered at Potsdam, Germany to discuss the fate of the post-war world. When Truman and Churchill met again eight years later, they recollected this gathering of 1945 in the presence of John Colville, the young Private Secretary to Churchill, who recorded in his diary: There was some talk about Stalin. Truman recalled how at Potsdam he had discovered the vodka Stalin drank for toasts was really weak white wine, and how when [Churchill] had said the Pope would really dislike something, Stalin had answered “How many divisions has the Pope?” [Churchill] said he remembered replying that the fact they could not be measured in military terms did not mean they did not exist.3

Skepticism of Catholicism’s importance for global politics, of course, runs far wider than Stalin; he simply expressed it most vividly. Were the skepticism correct, were it the case that the Catholic Church matters little in nations’ behavior and has little to say that would guide your or my political reflection and behavior, then there would be little point in my teaching courses at Notre Dame any differently than I did at Santa Barbara. But my contention is that Stalin was wrong.

Some of my students have welcomed my efforts more than others. One student in my Introduction to International Relations class told me that her study group would often wind up having debates about the place of Catholicism in the course. I was delighted. To have students sit around and debate any idea that one introduces in the classroom is a great victory for any professor. Another student was far less convinced. At the end of the semester, he or she wrote the following on a Teacher Course Evaluation: “Forget about the Catholic perspective on IR. I don’t think it really matters at all, and it’s not like the Catholic Church’s opinion should matter in IR, it’s one of the most flawed institutions in all of history. But that’s just my opinion.” In a sense, this student, too, was asking: “How many divisions has the pope?”

Both the study group debaters and the disgruntled TCE author convinced me that it would be worthwhile to make my case in writing for why and how I incorporate Catholicism into my courses on international relations and peace studies at Notre Dame. I offer my thoughts here so that my students might understand better how I teach my courses, reflect on the meaning of their Catholic education at Notre Dame, and yes, become people who will redeem the time. I build my case in three parts. First, I consider the role of basic assumptions in our thinking: what they consist of if we are Catholics, how they shape the mission of a Catholic university, and how they shape our lives and our participation in politics. Second, I consider how these basic assumptions can shape our outlook on international relations and peace studies and how this outlook compares to those of leading secular worldviews. Finally, I consider some ways in which Catholicism not only shapes how we think of global politics, but also how the Church and individual Catholics have shaped the actual practice of global politics — Stalin to the contrary.4

Part I: Our Basic Assumptions

Anyone who forms any opinion at all about politics does so according to some basic set of assumptions. When your roommate complains about the war in Iraq, you might well ask her: Why do you think that? And when she answers, you might press further: But why that? Eventually, you will hit rock bottom and discover that there are some beliefs about justice and about how politics works that function for her as basic assumptions. She can offer no further reasons for them. But her thoughts about the war in Iraq spring from them. This is not to say that our basic assumptions completely determine our judgments about politics. It is certainly possible that two roommates could each believe that the United States ought to safeguard its security and promote democracy in the world yet differ over the wisdom of the Iraq War. But basic assumptions still shape our judgments strongly. A student who thinks that behind all politics is the power of rich multinational corporations will almost certainly reach a different judgment on the war than one who does not.

That is to say, in an important but not completely determining way, our basic assumptions matter. They function for us much in the same way that a compass does for a sailing ship captain who is seeking to reach a harbor hundreds of miles away but only has a sketchy navigational chart in hand. A compass tells him which way is north, and by extension which way is east, south, and west, and he crucially relies on these directions. True, two captains headed for the same port with identical compasses might still choose different routes through the wind, waves, and weather. But one can be sure that if their compasses pointed in different directions, they would chart very different courses. A key goal of a good education is that you learn to tease out your basic assumptions. Which way is pointing north? We all hold such assumptions, whether we are religious or secular, a neo-conservative or an eco-feminist, a Protestant, a Jew, a Wiccan, or Katie Couric. But recognizing these assumptions is only the first step; the next, crucial, step is to understand them, test and reflect upon them, perhaps revise them, and ultimately to commit to them. The good life, said Socrates, is the examined life. So, too, any life that transforms the world, that “redeems the time,” is one that is rooted in clarity about fundamental assumptions.

I realize that not all of my students are Catholics. Much of what I am about to say, though, will hold true analogously for anyone, though to greater and lesser degrees depending on whether one is a non-Catholic Christian, a member of a different religion, or not religious at all. Certainly, to be a Catholic is to hold some basic assumptions. There are different ways to sum up the Catholic faith, of course. It is summed up in one way in the Nicene Creed, and in a shorter way in the Apostle’s Creed. Others have said that the key to the faith is “holiness” or “grace” or “mercy” or “peace.” The Church says that the Eucharist is the “source and summit” of the Christian life. Pope John Paul II taught that the “law of the gift” — living one’s life as a gift to others — is central to the faith.

My purpose here is not to tell you whether or exactly how to sum up the faith or to identify your assumptions, though certainly Catholic assumptions are ones that correspond to what the Church has taught over the centuries. Here, rather, I want to point out a certain quality of these assumptions, namely that they deal with big matters — the origin, redemption, and destiny of the universe, matters far larger than politics, far larger than Stalin. That is to say, they are encompassing. Consider a passage from the Letter to the Colossians in the New Testament:

[Christ] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible
and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all
things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he
might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether
things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

Whatever else this passage means, it seems to say that all things, including thrones, powers, rulers, and authorities — that is, politics — were created and redeemed by Christ. There is nothing in the universe which escapes this fact, this logic. Does not this then imply that political pursuits are to be oriented towards Christ and his creative and redeeming work? This may seem like a difficult thing to imagine in a world where Stalin’s logic — or at least the logic of power and interest — seems again and again to prevail, tempting us to conclude that what the Church professes only has a limited and circumscribed significance. But if we believe what the Church professes, then this is not the case. The victorious resurrection of Christ is a total victory, applying to all things, even if it is not yet consummated. And if we believe what the Church professes, then we are called to participate ourselves in this victory.

The Church Fathers, the pioneers of Christian theology in the first centuries of the Church, thought very much along these lines. Christ’s victory over sin, death and evil was a major theme in their thought.5 They held that political authority, even the authority of the Roman Empire, was ordained by God for his good purposes. The anonymous author of the second century Letter to Diognetus claimed that the Emperor ought to look upon Christians as model citizens, as contributors to the common good and not as troublemakers. But they also thought that the Empire was subject to the judgment of God and that Emperors ought to conduct themselves consistently with God’s purposes. This meant that when the political order strayed from these purposes — say, by practicing idolatry — they were to call it to account and sometimes even directly resist it. Both sides of this equation — a commitment to the common good and a willingness to resist political evil — reflect the significance of Christ’s encompassing victory for politics. Catholics (and other Christians) have indeed practiced both sorts of endeavors down through the centuries, contributing to the common good through government service, military service, and active citizenship, and resisting injustices and attacks on the Church, whether in England when Henry VIII was seizing the Church, in (a few cases in) Nazi Germany, or in contemporary China, whose government exercises sharp controls on churches. Of course, Catholics have often been on the wrong side of the victory, too, siding with or even fomenting injustices. But for now, our focus is on what Catholics are called to do and think, not on what happens when they don’t follow through.

“Nice homily, professor,” you say. “These are lofty thoughts that I would love to meditate on if I had time, but right now I have three papers due next week, my roommate has been playing his stereo too loud again, and the students around me are falling asleep (like the Garden of Gethsemene, right?). Will this be on the final exam? Besides, what does it have to do with the kinds of things that I was hoping to learn about when I signed up for your course — the World Trade Organization, the war in Iraq, global sweatshops, and the European Union?” Well, I hold that these lofty matters have everything to do with the course. And yes, they — or at least the politics that springs from them — may well show up on the final exam. How could God’s redemption of the entire world not be relevant for politics? Is the political world larger than this reality? Outside of it?

One way that Catholic faith is relevant for international relations and peace studies is its provision of a framework from which to consider political questions. But its relevance goes deeper. Your faith calls you, now and after graduation, to participate in politics in some way or another, at the very least through voting, but perhaps also, I pray, through some more ambitiously transformational endeavor. This is simply an implication of participating in Christ’s victory in every sphere of life. Pope John Paul II, in his apostolic exhortation on the lay life, Christifideles Laici, makes the point far better than I can.

The “world” thus becomes the place and the means for the lay faithful to fulfill their Christian vocation, because the world itself is destined to glorify God the Father in Christ. The Council is able then to indicate the proper and special sense of the divine vocation which is directed to the lay faithful. They are not called to abandon the position that they have in the world. Baptism does not take them from the world at all, as the apostle Paul points out: “So, brethren, in whatever state each was called, there let him remain with God” (1 Cor 7:24). On the contrary, he entrusts a vocation to them that properly concerns their situation in the world. The lay faithful, in fact, “are called by God so that they, led by the spirit of the Gospel, might contribute to the sanctification of the world, as from within like leaven, by fulfilling their own particular duties. Thus, especially in this way of life, resplendent in faith, hope and charity they manifest Christ to others.” Thus for the lay faithful, to be present and active in the world is not only an anthropological and sociological reality, but in a specific way, a theological and ecclesiological reality as well. In fact, in their situation in the world God manifests his plan and communicates to them their particular vocation of “seeking the Kingdom of God by engaging in temporal affairs and by ordering them according to the plan of God.” 6 In other words, there is no separation between our tasks as lay Catholics and our “divine vocation,” our practice of the theological virtues of faith hope and love, and our commitment to building the kingdom of God. Later in the same document, John Paul II specifically turns to lay involvement in politics:

In order to achieve their task directed to the Christian animation of the temporal order, in the sense of serving persons and society, the lay faithful are never to relinquish their participation in “public life”, that is, in the many different economic, social, legislative, administrative and cultural areas, which are intended to promote organically and institutionally the common good. The Synod Fathers have repeatedly affirmed that every person has a right and duty to participate in public life, albeit in a diversity and complementarity of forms, levels, tasks and responsibilities. Charges of careerism, idolatry of power, egoism and corruption that are oftentimes directed at persons in government, parliaments, the ruling classes, or political parties, as well as the common opinion that participating in politics is an absolute moral danger, does not in the least justify either skepticism or an absence on the part of Christians in public life.

On the contrary, the Second Vatican Council’s words are particularly significant: "The Church regards as worthy of praise and consideration the work of those who, as a service to others, dedicate themselves to the public good of the state and undertake the burdens of this task.”

Public life on behalf of the person and society finds its basic standard in the pursuit of the common good, as the good of everyone and as the good of each person taken as a whole, which is guaranteed and offered in a fitting manner to people, both as individuals and in groups, for their free and responsible acceptance. “The political community” — we read in the Constitution Gaudium et Spes — "exists for that common good in which the community finds its full justification and meaning, and from which it derives its basic, proper and lawful arrangement. The common good embraces the sum total of all those conditions of social life by which individuals, families, and organizations can achieve more thoroughly their own fulfillment.” Furthermore, public life on behalf of the person and society finds its continuous line of action in the defence and the promotion of justice, understood to be a “virtue”, an understanding which requires education, as well as a moral “force” that sustains the obligation to foster the rights and duties of each and everyone, based on the personal dignity of each human being.

The spirit of service is a fundamental element in the exercise of political power. This spirit of service, together with the necessary competence and efficiency, can make “virtuous” or “above criticism” the activity of persons in public life which is justly demanded by the rest of the people. To accomplish this requires a full scale battle and a determination to overcome every temptation, such as the recourse to disloyalty and to falsehood, the waste of public funds for the advantage of a few and those with special interests, and the use of ambiguous and illicit means for acquiring, maintaining and increasing power at any cost.7

Here, John Paul is saying that politics is in fact a realm where we can live our divine vocation.

Justice and service to others are hallmarks of this endeavor — nothing less than redeeming the time, transforming the world. Further below in the document, John Paul II addresses the vocation of lay people who are engaged in matters that are taught in international relations and peace studies: The fruit of sound political activity, which is so much desired by everyone but always lacking in advancement, is peace. The lay faithful cannot remain indifferent or be strangers and inactive in the face of all that denies and compromises peace, namely, violence and war, torture and terrorism, concentration camps, militarization of public life, the arms race, and the nuclear threat. On the contrary, as disciples of Jesus Christ, “Prince of Peace” (Is 9:5) and “Our Peace” (Eph 2:14), the lay faithful ought to take upon themselves the task of being “peacemakers” (Mt 5:9), both through a conversion of “heart”, justice and charity, all of which are the undeniable foundation of peace (42).

Not all of you, of course, will always be lay people. Some of you may be discerning religious vocations. But none of you can avoid politics. Some of you may serve in the military, in which case you may be called to lay your life on the line for causes related to the issues that we study in this course. Some of you may enter the foreign service or work for the Department of Defense, the U.S. Agency for International Development, the CIA, the National Security Agency, or some other government bureau that deals with international relations or peace issues. Or you might work in the United Nations or the World Bank. Or perhaps in human rights or relief and development work. You might deal in political issues in a specifically Catholic setting, either through your parish, a lay association like the Community of Sant’Egidio, a lay missionary organization, a relief and development agency like Catholic Relief Services, or an organization that advocates for religious freedom. Or, you may participate in politics simply as a voter or through heated discussions at the Linebacker or the equivalent establishment in Buffalo. Even if you don’t participate in politics at all and end up spending all of your time at putt-putt golf courses, that, too, is a form of participation — a choice not to participate. As Bob Dylan said, “you gotta serve somebody.” In any of these cases, if the theological claims that I have made — and that John Paul II has taught us — are at all valid, then you’ll want to integrate your Catholic beliefs into your participation.

Now let us extend this relevance to our Catholic university. Again, many of you, like me, came to Notre Dame because it is a Catholic University. Many of you integrate your faith into your lives in one way or another around campus — through dorm masses, volunteering at the homeless center, saying Hail Marys when it is fourth down and seven and the Irish are down by 11 points, and in some rare cases, by actually throwing a Hail Mary. But there is a special purpose that is achieved by integrating Catholicism into your studies — a purpose that converges with the quintessential purpose of our university, of any university, in the first place: the formation of your mind, the development of your beliefs, and indeed, the pursuit of truth. Think about it: During your four years here you will be forming outlooks that you will carry with you for the rest of your life. Given all that I have said about the sources of all reality — of truth, of knowledge of all kinds, of the political order —then ought it not to be the purpose of a Catholic university to pursue knowledge from the perspective of what we believe? Again, John Paul II says it far better than I, this time in his Apostolic Constitution on Catholic Universities, Ex Corde Ecclesiae (“From the Heart of the Church”): A Catholic University, as Catholic, informs and carries out its research, teaching, and all other activities with Catholic ideals, principles, and attitudes (II.2.2).

Later in the same document, John Paul II makes a connection to politics: A Catholic University, as any University, is immersed in human society; as an extension of its service to the Church, and always within its proper competence, it is called on to become an ever more effective instrument of cultural progress for individuals as well as for society. Included among its research activities, therefore, will be a study of serious contemporary problems in areas such as the dignity of human life, the promotion of justice for all, the quality of personal and family life, the protection of nature, the search for peace and political stability, a more just sharing in the world’s resources, and a new economic and political order that will better serve the human community at a national and international level. University research will seek to discover the roots and causes of the serious problems of our time, paying special attention to their ethical and religious dimensions. If need be, a Catholic University must have the courage to speak uncomfortable truths which do not please public opinion, but which are necessary to safeguard the authentic good of society. (I.B.1.32)

The Mission Statement of Notre Dame reasons similarly:
The University of Notre Dame is a Catholic academic community of higher learning, animated from its origins by the Congregation of Holy Cross. The University is dedicated to the pursuit and sharing of truth for its own sake. As a Catholic university one of its distinctive goals is to provide a forum where through free inquiry and open discussion the various lines of Catholic thought may intersect with all the forms of knowledge found in the arts, sciences, professions, and every other area of human scholarship and creativity.

Notre Dame’s character as a Catholic academic community presupposes that no genuine search for the truth in the human or the cosmic order is alien to the life of faith. The University welcomes all areas of scholarly activity as consonant with its mission, subject to appropriate critical refinement. There is, however, a special obligation and opportunity, specifically as a Catholic university, to pursue the religious dimensions of all human learning. Only thus can Catholic intellectual life in all disciplines be animated and fostered and a proper community of scholarly religious discourse be established.

Finally, our President, Father John Jenkins, weighs in: Our Catholic character also gives us a special capacity to undertake a range of inquiries in matters of faith and morals. Whether it is discussion of the doctrine of the Divine Trinity — the doctrine that God is Three Persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit —- or an inter–religious dialogue, or a forum on global health and our moral responsibilities, we can, because of our religious character, easily hold conversations that cannot be readily held, or perhaps not held at all, at other universities. We can do so because, while we are committed to reasoned inquiry, we embrace convictions of faith; while we are open to questioning, we subscribe institutionally to a clear understanding of what a good human life is, and we strive to help our students live such a life.8

Putting it all together: If our beliefs about politics are inseparable from our beliefs about all of reality, if these beliefs are what the Catholic Church proposes, and if a university is a place where we form and develop our beliefs in the pursuit of truth, then should not our study of international relations and peace incorporate Catholic perspectives?

Let Us Pause For Some Questions

I can hear some of the objections, ready to boil over. Before moving on, let us deal with some of them.

I am not a Catholic. Or: I am not persuaded by Catholicism. What am I supposed to make of this aspect of your course?

If you are a non-Catholic Christian, then I see no reason why virtually every religiously oriented reading on the syllabus will not be equally as relevant for you. In the pieces that I have selected, there is little concerning specific Catholic teachings about the Pope, purgatory, Mary, or the Church that will stand in the way of your understanding or acceptance. Indeed, some of the pieces are in fact written by non-Catholic Christians, in which case the same goes for Catholic students. If you are not a Christian, you’ll appreciate that I often include Jewish, Muslim, and other perspectives on my syllabus as well, and in any case can gain an appreciation for the religious dimension of international relations and peace studies, a dimension that is often overlooked at USC and Michigan State.

Whatever your perspective, though, you will also find that pieces written from an explicitly Christian perspective are in the minority, making up no more than roughly one-third of the syllabus. Many of the pieces are perfectly compatible with a Catholic perspective even if they are not explicitly written from one, and some of the pieces are downright challenging to one.

Another point that I cannot stress enough is that all readings are open to criticism from virtually any perspective. That is one of my fundamental pedagogical commitments. We think critically about the readings, and that means all of them. The Catholic perspective is taught through debate and dialogue with other perspectives, not through indoctrination.

Aren’t I being gypped out of the knowledge of the “real world” that I expected to gain when I signed up for this course — which IS required for my major, after all — and that I will need after graduation?

Based on all that I have said, I would begin by asking, What this thing is that you call the real world and why it is different from Catholicism? From the perspective of Christian theology, one of the more dangerous things we can do is to create a category called the “real world” and then ask that Christian theology must somehow relate to it — accommodate to it, conform to its strictures, play the game by its rules. Surely that contravenes the passage from Colossians above. And it almost inevitably makes the Gospel all but irrelevant.

Still, I see your point. You want to learn what people think “out there.” Again, the Catholic readings are only a part of the syllabus. I am committed to offering you both the best and representative selections of readings from the secular world, too. In my course, you will read the same sorts of things that your high school buddies at Penn State are reading — with Catholic readings to boot.

Fine. But even aside from the real world, there is another reason that I want to learn about non-Catholic perspectives. I have been a Catholic all my life and even went through Catholic education. I’ve had enough! Now I want to learn what the Muslims, Jews, Hindus, and for the matter, secular people think. Especially in our multicultural world, in a world where September 11th happened when I was only 13 years old, in a world where we need more tolerance and understanding and less narrow mindedness and parochialism, I think it’s really important that we try to learn what non-Catholics think. Not everyone is Irish and from suburban Chicago like me and my roommates.

Again, the syllabus includes a solid majority of readings from non-Catholic perspectives. I agree with you about the importance of exploring other religious and philosophical perspectives and about the need for tolerance and understanding, too. So does the Church, in fact. Since the Second Vatican Council, dialogue has been a major theme in the Church’s teachings. It has put out documents explaining the theology of dialogue and how to conduct dialogue in different parts of the world and with different churches and religions.9 But there is good dialogue and bad dialogue. In my view, bad dialogue is the sort that tells all parties to put aside their “particular” beliefs and stick to “common” beliefs about things like peace and reducing air pollution. The problem here is not with peace and clean air, but with the assumption that we reach conclusions about these things by adopting a standpoint other than or less than our full convictions. Though proposed in a spirit of tolerance, this kind of approach quickly collapses into intolerance, for it marginalizes people’s deepest beliefs. Or, it collapses into the form that all too many dialogues take, the sort whose motto is “We’re willing to talk with Unitarians of any religion!” When it is done right, dialogue allows parties to bring their full convictions to the table, but always with the goal of seeking to find common ground, coming to an honest and respectful understanding of differences, and developing friendships on this basis. But in order to carry out this kind of dialogue, each party must know its own perspective quite well first. Which takes us right back to the approach of this course.

But I still don’t think the Pope has any divisions! Neither President Bush nor President Putin consult him when they make major decisions, just like Churchill and Stalin did not. And why would they? They are not Catholic.

Again, I think Stalin was wrong. And again, don’t think that the Catholic perspective is only relevant insofar as it identifiably propels the actions of heads of states, CEOs, and Secretary Generals. It’s also relevant to you, your vocation, your beliefs, and the kind of judgments and choices that you will make. And don’t rule out the prospect that you might be President some day, in which case I sincerely hope that Professor Philpott, through you, will have influenced world affairs.

I keep hearing you talk about how the Catholic Church stands up for justice, human rights, and the like. But what about the Crusades and the Inquisition? I even heard that the Catholic Church caused the Holocaust and that the Pope refused to help the Jews!

It is true that the Church, or at least people acting in the name of the Church, have approved of and committed horrible deeds. To its credit, the Church today practices repentance and apology for these. As documented in a book by Italian journalist Luigi Accattoli, When a Pope Asks for Forgiveness (Pauline Books & Media, 1998), Pope John Paul II offered mea culpas over 100 times with respect to at least 21 historical episodes or people groups, culminating in the pologies of the Jubilee Year, 2000. These are not without controversy, though, and have been attacked from both the right and the left.

More generally, a couple of cautionary notes are in order regarding historical episodes of injustice. First, it is important that we hold Catholics accountable only for those deeds that stand up to historical scrutiny. The episode that you mention, for instance — the deeds of Pope Pius XII during the Holocaust — is hotly disputed, with critics and defenders taking positions ranging from those that render Pius XII as “Hitler’s Pope” to those that claim that he rescued hundreds of thousands of Jews. The matter is yet to be fully resolved (although my own view is that the evidence is increasingly showing that this pope was in fact strongly committed to rescuing Jews).10 Second, there is a theological distinction to be made between the sinful actions of members of the Church and the Church itself, which has a spotless, holy aspect, without blemish.11

Ultimately, the Church engages in repentance, apology, and appeals for forgiveness not because it is the agenda of the left of the right but because it is an apostolic task, reflecting the call of Christ. A memorable quote from the Second Vatican Council’s Lumen Gentium reads, “the Church, embracing in its bosom sinners, at the same time holy and always in need of being purified, always follows the way of penance and renewal.”

Well, OK, but doesn’t all this talk about Catholic politics violate the separation of church and state that we have in liberal democracies? Maybe the Catholic Church doesn’t do all of these terrible things anymore, but that’s because democracies limit its power and force it to concentrate on spiritual matters, as it always should have done in the first place.

The Second Vatican Council promulgated the principle of religious freedom for people of all faiths and taught that the Church and the state exercise different functions with different competences, spheres that each party must respect. Modern liberal democratic constitutional government is broadly endorsed by Vatican teachings and by Catholic churches nearly everywhere today. But by no means is it the case that the Church is to refrain from criticizing, contributing to, and sometimes even resisting the state. Otherwise, it would never have contributed widely to the “third wave” of democratization over the past generation or have produced Archbishop Oscar Romero, the El Salvadorean martyr who died for the cause of the poor, the pro-life movement, Bishop Juan Gerardi, the Guatemalan prelate who formed a truth commission to investigate the human rights violations of his country’s military regime and was assassinated for it, the Community of Sant’Egidio, the lay association that was instrumental in facilitating peace in Mozambique, or any of the other prophetic, inspiring episodes of modern Catholic political history (see more below). In fact, when the Church is too passive before the state it is more likely to behave like the Church in Rwanda, which largely stood by while a genocide occurred. Separation of Church and state does not mean the separation of the Church and politics. Otherwise, the Stalins of the world would get off scot-free, at least as far as the Church is concerned.

When I look at modern Catholic teachings about international relations and peace studies, there doesn’t seem to be anything unique about it. If the pope is now in favor of democracy, human rights, and economic justice — and it’s about time! — then how is this any different from the other ideologies in the course? Hence, why study the Catholic perspective?

True, there is much overlap between Catholic and secular perspectives on politics, particularly since the Second Vatican Council. But the Church differs from leading secular worldviews in many respects, too. See below.

You keep talking about the Catholic perspective. But when I am around Catholics, they are always arguing with each other! Shouldn’t we really be talking about Catholic perspectives? For that matter, Professor, how do I know that you are not just imposing your own views on us?

Catholics often disagree with one another. I try to note differences among Catholic views in my courses and say where they disagree on major issues. But keep in mind that one of the principles of the Catholic faith is the teaching authority of the Church. We have a magisterium who teaches authoritatively about faith and morals, a set of teachings that we ought to use as a source and criterion for our own thinking. This does not mean, though, that all new ideas come from the Pope. Catholic theologians, philosophers, social scientists, and activists on the ground come up with new ways of looking at things, too, some of which eventually make their way upstairs to the Vatican. There is plenty of room for creativity and innovation. again, students are always free to question any Catholic idea whatsoever.

Part II: How The Catholic Tradition Thinks About Politics

I have been arguing that Catholic beliefs are relevant for politics — as if to say that there is a Catholic politics. If we’re going to integrate our beliefs into our studies and our lives, if we are to become agents of transformation and redemption, then we need to know a few things about what that politics is. What politics flows from the assumptions and sources that I have laid out above, along with other important sources like the philosophers who make up the Catholic tradition and the modern encyclicals? A tome could be written. Many already have been. In my courses, we touch on this question from several angles. Here, I can only mention a few basic political principles. I approach the question in a way that might also answer further some of the good questions that we just considered concerning distinctiveness and relationship to secular perspectives — that is, through a comparison between the Catholic tradition and the two leading secular traditions of international politics today: Realism and Liberalism.12

Why Realism and Liberalism? Surely, these are not the only two perspectives for thinking about politics. Others include Marxism, Facism, socialism, Islam, pacificism, Gandhism, eco-feminism, and anarchism. Well, first, realism and liberalism are indeed traditions – examples of what Notre Dame philosopher Alisdair MacIntyre called “an historically extended, socially embodied argument.”13 They each have a long pedigree, composed of centuries of philosophers, kings, queens, presidents, prime ministers, and foreign ministers who have articulated and improved upon it, while remaining within its core commitments. Second, these two traditions are the most widely shared today —at least in America, probably in the West, within the wide set of international organizations and non-governmental organizations that is often called the “international community,” within universities and the media, and among ordinary citizens, Katie Couric, and probably some of you.14 Most of the other “isms” cannot compete. Until 1989, perhaps Communism could, but today it is all but dead except perhaps among the governments of North Korea, North Vietnam, Cuba, and Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Arguably the first and still the most important Realist was Thucydides, the Greek historian who narrated the Peloponnesian Wars over four centuries before the founder of the Catholic Church was born a few hundred miles to the southeast. In describing this great contest between the era’s two Aegean superpowers, Athens and Sparta, Thucydides places central emphasis on power as the core concern of states. It is perhaps Realism’s most enduring and central theme: Where states have no common superior — international anarchy — they must develop and deploy power lest they become attacked by others. Today’s international relations theorists call this principle “self-help.” Put more frankly, kill or be killed. The principle becomes vivid in the Melian Dialogue, where the Athenians argue with the conquered inhabitants of the island, Melos, over how the Melians are to be treated. Over the course of the dialogue, it becomes clear that power matters more than justice or the will of the Gods, the two principles to which the Melians appeal. “The strong do what they can, the weak accept what they must,” the Athenians insist as they proceed to kill and enslave the Melians.

When an anarchical states system arose again in early modern Europe, Realist thinking arose with it. Famous philosophers like Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Cardinal Richelieu, perhaps the greatest Catholic realist, were its proponents. In the twentieth century, realism was again prominent among American foreign policy intellectuals during the Cold War. The German Jewish émigré political scientist Hans Morgenthau, diplomat George Kennan, theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, Secretary of State — and originally international relations professor! — Henry Kissinger, and political scientist Kenneth Waltz were the big names. Shaping their common thought was the experience of the 1920s and 1930s, when idealist liberals thought that war could be overcome through international law and international institutions, measures that failed to stop Adolf Hitler from causing a war that killed 50 million people and brought the Holocaust. Aggression can only be stopped and international security promoted, they argued, through the judicious use of power. See Daniel Maliniak, Amy Oakes, Susan Peterson, and Michael Tierney, The View From the Ivory Tower: TRIP Survey of International Relations Faculty in the United States and Canada (2007), 16.

It is a silly caricature that Realists are amoral or power hungry. Most of the classic Realists thought deeply about ethics, though always on Realist lines. Morgenthau argued for the “morality of the national interest,” the claim that in a dangerous world, those policies that best preserve the state’s national security and international stability are the most moral. Often Realist have favored restrained rather than aggressive policies. A constant strain among the American realists has been their caution against idealist crusades or moralistic adventures, to which they have thought Americans especially prone, and which cannot succeed, will be abandoned when costly, or will amount to hypocrisy. Most of them came out against the Vietnam War. They were skeptical of President Jimmy Carter’s human rights policies, which they criticized him for hypocritically failing to apply against crucial military allies. They are skeptical of historical progress in international relations. The result is moderation and caution. One of the wisest statements by a Realist was nineteenth century President John Quincy Adams’ insight that “[America] goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own.”

A Catholic perspective, too, finds wisdom in Realism. Realism’s emphasis on the ubiquitous struggle for power resonates with Catholicism’s doctrine of original sin, and should indeed create a healthy skepticism about foreign adventures. “Wars and rumors of war,” to quote the Biblical expression, will be with us until the end of time. Niebuhr relied heavily on St. Augustine, one of the greatest Catholic thinkers about politics, for these same insights.

But deep differences also exist between Realism and Catholicism. One of the most fundamental concerns the purpose of the state. Realism treats the state as a single collective entity that inevitably pursues power and security as its first goal. They may acknowledge that states have other ends like aspects of their people’s welfare, but these are subordinate ends. The international system makes them so. The overriding theme in Realists’ descriptions of international politics, and the basis of their prescriptions for action, is the self-help system of power-seeking states. Indeed, Realists like Morgenthau and Waltz thought that they could build a science around this assumption. Catholicism, by contrast, sees the first purpose of the state as the common good, which in turn consists of the defense of the state from outside attacks, but also the good of individuals and families, their rights, their economic welfare, their spiritual welfare, and other aspects of their well being. Indeed, the common good of people in other states is on a morally equal footing, even if each state is equipped best to promote its own inhabitants’ good. One might object: Is this really the purpose of the state, or is it just an ideal? Wouldn’t it be more accurate to say that the state ought to pursue these ends rather than that its purpose is to pursue them? In fact, such a distinction is foreign to Catholic social thought. Recall that in Catholicism, the moral order of the universe is a fact, not an aspiration, even if people do not act in accordance with it. That the state’s purpose is to pursue the universal common good is a fact established by God. Again, some state may well fail to live up to this purpose – obviously many fail egregiously! – but this does not obscure the fact that they have it. So Catholicism looks at the purpose of the state fundamentally differently from Realism. Pursuing the common good is central, regardless of how valid any scientific, empirical laws may be about how states behave.

These laws may be treated as relevant data to assist in this pursuit, but not as a logic to which the common good is to be subordinated.

What follows is a second difference between Catholicism and Realism: the content of their ethics. In Catholicism, not only are states to pursue the common good, but they are to do so according to fixed moral norms that themselves make up the common good. In the tradition of the Church, these norms are absolute and exceptionless, a quality affirmed by St. Paul, St. Augustine, the great Catholic philosopher St. Thomas Aquinas, and John Paul II in his encyclical on morality, Veritatis Splendor. Not so for Realism. Beyond wisely pursuing their security — the morality of the national interest — states are bound by no absolute norms. Such an idea is indeed part of the idealism that Realists have decried.

In certain circumstances, this difference in moral thinking results in very different conclusions about policy. Consider President Harry Truman’s decision to drop a bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in order to end the Second World War against Japan in August 1945. Was it moral? For a Realist the question hinges on whether the bomb would have ended the war quickly (which it did), whether it would have killed more people, especially American troops, than it would spare (debatable) and whether there were alternatives like allowing Japan to surrender (there probably were). These are questions that historians still argue about.

But from the perspective of Catholic morality, the decision was surely impermissible even apart from the answer to these questions. Why? Because, as is well documented, President Truman and his advisers’ intentions in the bombing were to target civilians so that Japan’s morale would be destroyed and surrender hastened. But an action which directly intends the death of innocents (and civilians are considered innocent in the tradition) is always impermissible, no matter what end this particular means serves. In 1944, American Jesuit priest John Ford, S.J. courageously published an article condemning the similarly intended American carpet bombing of other Japanese cities during the war as well as the British bombing of civilians in Dresden and Hamburg, Germany. Father Ford was one the few Americans openly to criticize U.S. policy during this popular war.15 After the war, the Catholic philosopher at Oxford University, Elizabeth Anscombe, refused to attend a ceremony to award an honorary degree to President Truman, explaining in a brilliant article that he had committed a war crime.16

Third, Catholicism differs from Realism in commending to states a variety of policies, ends, and norms that realists normally consider beyond the national interest: human rights, international law, armament reductions, debt relief, and the support of economic development in impoverished countries as an end in itself. It has also developed a rich set of standards for thinking about the justice of war of which the prohibition against killing innocents is only a part, one that dates back to Sts. Augustine and Ambrose and has now been adopted in international law, is taught at military academies, and is invoked (if not always followed) by politicians. Realists have objected to these strictures as potentially getting in the way of following the national interest. All of these ends and norms overlap more strongly, though, with the liberal tradition.

The liberal tradition arrived far more recently than Thucydides or Jesus. Originating in the Enlightenment movement of philosophy of the eighteenth century, its Hall of Fame includes John Locke, Immanuel Kant, Adam Smith, David Hume, Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, Woodrow Wilson, Jimmy Carter, and more recently, philosophers Charles Beitz and John Rawls. Liberalism’s central focus is not the state in a world of anarchy, but the individual, who is entitled to liberty and equality. All states are responsible for upholding liberty and equality in their own borders, but also respecting it and to some degree furthering it outside their borders. Some of the prominent themes are the tendency of democracy to reduce war, at least with other democracies, the positive potential of international institutions for promoting peace and harmony, international law, free trade, the power of public opinion, human rights, and economic equality. It is fair to say that liberalism is the guiding philosophical tradition of most constitutional democracies, within and outside the West.

Liberalism appears to be much closer to Catholicism, especially since the Church embraced human rights, international economic development, arms reductions, democracy, and the like at the Second Vatican Council. The Church’s support for religious freedom, a key plank of liberalism, was most important of all, for up to that time, the magisterium had not pronounced this principle as dogma. Indeed one of my students once commented to me, “I don’t see any difference between liberalism and Catholicism.”

Was this student correct? Much depends on which brand of liberalism we are talking about. The tradition has different strands, which can sometimes disagree sharply. Philosophically, the Kantian strand of liberalism emphasizes rights, equality, and moral absolutes, while in the utilitarian strand morality involves maximizing the utility of the aggregate number. On economic justice liberals differ between libertarians, social democrats, and moderate redistributionists. Catholicism certainly comes closer to some strands of liberalism than others. In a few respects, it differs from most current versions of liberalism altogether.

First, in Catholicism, the basis for the human dignity that underpins liberty, equality, and human rights is the image of God, a divine foundation that transcends the values of any culture. Liberalism, by contrast, has advanced the concept of rights while arguably weakening the philosophical foundations that make sense of them. Most of the great Enlightenment liberal philosophers were skeptical of traditional Christianity, and especially of Catholicism, which they considered benighted, superstitious, papist, and dungeon-like. Utilitarians openly reject rights — Bentham called them “nonsense on stilts” — are soft on the intrinsic dignity of the person, and usually omit theism from their thinking. Although Kant was a champion of both rights and moral absolutes, many Catholic philosophers regard his stress on autonomy and the will as a far less robust foundation for human rights than the imago Dei. Today, skepticism about the compatibility of religion and liberal democracy is a common theme in liberal thought. But the Catholic tradition says that when it comes to human dignity and human rights, God matters. Although Church councils did not come around to endorsing rights strongly and explicitly until Vatican II (1962-1965), voices in the Church arguably espoused natural rights (knowable and enjoyed by all humans) far earlier than the Enlightenment —in medieval canon law, and in defense of indigenous peoples in the New World against the oppression of conquerors, slave traders, and even other members of the Church.17

Second, there is a crucial difference in how the Church and many contemporary liberal philosophers defend what is perhaps the central idea of the liberal tradition: individual freedom. Freedom has also emerged as a prominent theme in 20th century Catholic philosophy and social thought. There it is conceived of as a condition that enables people to live a virtuous and faithful life. For many contemporary liberals, though, freedom is the maximum space for individuals to define themselves, to determine, pursue, and revise their own conception of the good life. The conflict between these two notions of freedom is indeed the source of many current debates over issues like abortion, homosexual rights, and the like, but also has implications for economic justice, immigration, and many other issues. The two conceptions indeed point in very different directions.

Third, many liberals do not endorse moral absolutes. Utilitarianism builds morality on an explicit denial of them. But even non-utilitarian liberals like Michael Walzer and John Rawls espouse a doctrine of “supreme emergency” that says that when push comes to shove, when a nation’s basic survival is in jeopardy, it may do things that it is not ordinarily permitted to do, like bomb civilians directly and intentionally.18

Fourth, while Catholicism largely agrees with liberalism on the content of human rights, it also stresses certain human rights that liberal circles often omit or downplay — like the right to life of the unborn, for instance. Though tens of millions of abortions are performed ever year around the world, most secular international human rights activists do not support the right to life of the unborn and often favor abortion rights.19 Now that the Catholic Church has embraced religious freedom, it has become a strong promoter of this particular right, one of the most often violated in the world today. But some liberal human rights activists have been lukewarm towards religious freedom, even shunning it as special pleading — probably reflecting their secular outlook.20

Fifth, Catholicism tends to be far more sympathetic towards some liberals than others when it comes to international development policy. It used to be the case, as late as the early 1980s, that the standard for economic development was a highly utilitarian one, based on the aggregate GNP of countries but giving little attention to the distribution of wealth or other aspects of individual welfare. Philosophers Martha Nussbaum and Amartya Sen improved things considerably with their proposal that development be measured according to its promotion of human capacities that reflect the person’s roles as a family member, a community member, and a spiritual being, as well as his health, education, and other capacities. The Church thinks along these lines as well, though it might emphasize even more strongly the welfare of families and religious communities. In a recent high level discussion of economic development in Ghana, the Holy See insisted:

It must be clear that development is not only about the growth of the economy in general; it is about the development of the human being with his/her capabilities and relationships with intermediary social groups family, social, political, cultural groups etc. within which he/she lives. This requires a change in perspective that recognizes peoples as united by a common factor, their humanity being created with the imprint of the common God creator. Only by starting from this premise can we aim, within pluralist institutions, toward the achievement of the common good, which needs to be the primary objective of any society. The common good is neither an abstract goal nor a simple list of targets. It is simply the realization of the primary needs of the person: the need of truth, love, and justice.

At international conferences in Cairo in 1994 and Beijing in 1995, the Church clashed with the international development community over family planning methods and abortion. These differences should not be exaggerated, though: The Church gives strong priority to the protection and advancement of women in international development.

Sixth, there is another principle of international relations that Catholicism shares with liberalism but offers different rationales for — limitations on state sovereignty. That the authority of the state within its borders is not absolute and is limited above all by its responsibility for human rights has become a core feature of international law ever since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was signed by most of the world’s nations in 1948. Since the end of the Cold War, the sovereignty of states — at least some states — has been curtailed even further through the practice of humanitarian intervention from the outside. An even more dramatic circumscription of state sovereignty is the growth of European integration, beginning with the European Coal and Steel Community in 1950. The Church has been a strong supporter of both developments. But its support has a very particular source — a stormy historical relationship with the sovereign state. In medieval Christendom, the Church was the guardian of a continent-wide European society whose morality was based largely on its teachings. Then, after 130 years of war following the Protestant Reformation, culminating in the Thirty Years War of 1618-1648, the Peace of Westphalia legalized Protestantism and cemented the authority of the sovereign state, which now held supreme authority and divided up Christendom into multiple autonomous units. The Pope at the time, Innocent X, condemned the settlement as “null, void, invalid, iniquitous, unjust, damnable, reprobate, inane, empty of meaning and effect for all time.” After the end of World War II, the Catholic Church and European Catholics supported the curtailment of sovereignty, in part out of allegiance to the idea of Christendom, although now having incorporated human rights and democracy firmly into its thinking. The great 20th century philosopher Jacques Maritain, a key supporter of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, even excoriated the sovereign state as idolatrous in his classic of political philosophy, Man and the State.21

Finally, there are some respects in which the Catholic Church simply thinks “outside the box” in comparison to both Liberalism and Realism. During the Jubilee Year, 2000, for instance, the Church, in firm alliance with U2’s Bono,22 advocated rich countries’ forgiveness of poor countries’ debt, an idea that it derived from the Jubilee tradition in the Book of Leviticus. The Church has advocated forgiveness more widely, too. In the final section of one of his least known encyclicals, Dives in Misericordia (“Rich in Mercy,” 1984), Pope John Paul II proposed that forgiveness become a principle of statecraft, not just a practice for individuals in the confessional. This was revolutionary. The only pope who had previously advocated the practice of forgiveness in politics was Benedict XV, who commended it to the European powers at the end of World War I. John Paul II repeated his provocative claim on several subsequent occasions, most famously in his Message for the World Day of Peace in 2002, following the attacks of September 11, 2001, when he appended to Paul VI’s dictum “no peace without justice” the corollary, “no justice without forgiveness.” Pope Benedict XVI has spoken for the same cause, even naming himself in part for Pope Benedict XV and his witness for peace and reconciliation. Still, it is not entirely clear how forgiveness and reconciliation are supposed to be practiced in international relations. John Paul II argued that forgiveness did not preclude the justice of self-defense against terrorism. But who is to practice it, how are they to practice it, and under what circumstances? It is a great topic for a student paper.23

A comparison with Realism and Liberalism, of course, only begins to depict the Catholic tradition of political thought, which deserves to be portrayed in its own right, too. Such a portrayal might begin with the politics of the Old Testament and New Testament, then proceed through early church teachings and debates on the legitimacy of political authority, war and military service, and religious freedom, then through the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine in 313 A.D. and the thought of Augustine, then through Thomas Aquinas and the political thought of the medieval church, and then through the Church’s stormy relationship with the modern states, states system, and liberalism. The Church’s teachings on politics in the twentieth century are too vast to summarize, but might include its response to World War I, fascism, and communism, its support for European integration, the Second Vatican Council, the pontificate of John Paul II, and issues ranging among war, economic development, human rights, abortion and sexuality, the death penalty, and globalization. Such a portrayal, I cannot offer here. That is what I and many other colleagues at Notre Dame try to provide in our courses. I also recommend buying the wonderful compendium on Catholic social thought that has recently been put together by Cardinal Renato Martino of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace.24

My purpose here is rather to show that Catholicism contains a tradition of thought about politics that is rich, distinct, and highly useful for Catholics who seek to transform the world.

Last page of letter.
Footnotes.


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