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

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Author: Daniel Philpott

Part III: The Influence of Catholics and the Catholic Church on Global Politics

But if the Catholic tradition offers a framework for studying, reflecting upon, and participating in politics, this still does not prove that the Catholic Church, individual Catholics, or Catholic organizations actually make a difference in politics. Stalin could be right: The Pope has no divisions. And if he is right, then it would be pointless for Catholics to try to transform the political world, whatever the richness of Catholic thought. In the traditional sense of divisions, Stalin surely is right. Since the Church lost most of its lands in the Papal States around 1870, it has wielded little military might or political power of a traditional sort. True, in the late 19th century the Vatican still owned a submarine, a fact whose absurdity only underlines the Church’s temporal frailty. But recall Churchill’s response to Stalin that divisions of a nontraditional sort might matter for politics, too.

Here, I cannot systematically prove that the Church — its prelates, its parishioners, and Catholic prime ministers, presidents, parliamentarians, and parties — has influenced politics in any particular way. In response to my claim that Pope John Paul II was instrumental in ending the Cold War, for instance, smart students might well ask how I analytically separate his influence from that of Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev, U.S. President Ronald Reagan, and impersonal forces like the global balance of power and the failed Soviet economy. This is the sort of lively discussion you will have in my and other professors’ classes. What I can offer here, though, are some examples of Catholic actors who have been thought to make a difference in global politics. I hope that when these are amassed, you will see that it is both plausible and probable, if not absolutely proven, that these actors were efficacious.

The examples are of two sorts. The first consists of episodes of the Church or some of its members affecting politics on the grand scale of states’ policies, the international system, or cultures.25

Consider:

• In the decade after becoming pope in 1978, Pope John Paul II returned to his native Poland at least three times to lead pilgrimages — with an agenda. Before open air crowds of hundreds of thousands, he spoke unambiguous words of opposition against the Communist regime, galvanizing the Church and its ally, the Solidarity union, to undertake a campaign of non-violent resistance that led to the democratic elections and the regime’s downfall. Poland’s drama then touched off a chain reaction of similar collapses of Communism throughout the rest of Eastern Europe, culminating in the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989. Pope John Paul II was thus a major factor in ending the Cold War and transforming the international system. Indeed, John Paul did much to destroy exactly the same system that Stalin had created.26

• The Catholic Church’s embrace of human rights, especially religious freedom, and democracy at the Second Vatican Council of 1962-1965 sparked what political scientist Samuel Huntington called the “Catholic Wave” of democratization movements in which the Church was a major factor in bringing an end to authoritarian regimes not only in Poland, but also in the Philippines, Brazil, Chile, Lithuania, Ukraine, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala, East Timor, Malawi, Kenya, and elsewhere. In other places, though, like Cameroon, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Argentina, the Church was hardly influential at all in democratization. In Rwanda, the hierarchy even stood by while a genocide occurred, some of its priests and nuns even participating in it.27

• In 1992, the Community of Sant’Egidio, a public lay association of the Catholic Church, was instrumental in forging a peace agreement to a civil war in Mozambique that lasted 16 years and took over a million lives. The community was able to bring the parties together because it had established deep contacts in Mozambique through its charism of friendship.

• In 1995, perceiving weaknesses in official plans for a truth commission to investigate three decades’ worth of atrocities in Guatemala’s civil war, the Human Rights Office of the Catholic Archdiocese of Guatemala, led by Bishop Juan Gerardi, launched its own Recovery of Historical Memory Project (REMHI). REMHI uncovered 14,291 incidents of human rights and humanitarian law violations involving 52,427 victims, gleaning them through a uniquely personalist method of investigation that involved 700 “agents of reconciliation” who were trained not simply to record factual information, but also to support victims emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually. Its final report, Nunca Mas (“Never Again”) used the language of reconciliation, repentance, and forgiveness. In 1998, Gerardi presented this report at the Metropolitan Cathedral in Guatemala City, stressing reconciliation in his address. Two days later he was bludgeoned to death by agents of the military.

• National Catholic Churches also played an important role in shaping how their respective political orders dealt with the injustices of past war or authoritarianism in Chile, Northern Ireland, El Salvador, South Africa, Sierra Leone, and East Timor during the 1990’s and 2000s.

• The Catholic Church is responsible for providing 27% of the resources for efforts to combat AIDS in Africa.

• The political leaders who founded the European Coal and Steel Community in 1950, the embryonic body that has now grown into the 26-state European Union, were predominantly Catholics: German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, Italian Prime Minister Alcide Gasperi, French Foreign Minster Robert Schuman, and French political leader Jean Monnet. Pope Pius XII was an enthusiastic supporter of the movement, as have been subsequent popes. The strongest political support for the European Union still comes from Christian Democratic parties, which were Catholic in their inspiration.

The second sort of example consists of individual Catholics or Catholic organizations (and a few non-Catholic ones as well) who took a stand, developed an important strand of thought, or otherwise contributed to the common good in a memorable way — that is, who redeemed their times — though not on the scale of entire national policies or changes in the international system. Though not all have been beatified, they can nevertheless be thought of as an “honor roll.”28

• Thomas More (1478-1535). Perhaps the only office-holding politician ever to be beatified, he was named by Pope John Paul II as “Patron Saint of Politicians.” He rose to be Lord Chancellor under English King Henry VIII, but then refused to take a loyalty oath to Henry VIII when he claimed to be Supreme Head of the Church of England, resulting in More’s execution for treason.

• Pope John XXIII (1881-1963). Convenor of the Second Vatican Council and promoter of the Church’s embrace of human rights, religious freedom, international economic development, and arms control. All of these stances had a profound global impact on the political thought and activity of Catholics. During World War II, as an Apostolic Delegate to Turkey and Greece, he was instrumental is saving the lives of thousands of Jewish refugees. He was beatified in the year 2000.

• Oscar Romero (1917-1980). Salvadoran Archbishop who was murdered by a military death squad in 1980 for his advocacy for Salvador’s poor.

• Pope John Paul II (1920-2005). Outside of his influence on the end of Communism, he articulated major teachings against the death penalty, euthanasia, and abortion, and on behalf of human rights, religious freedom, reconciliation, and economic development for the world’s poor, and apologized in the Church’s name for many past injustices.

• Dorothy Day (1897-1980). Founder of the Catholic Worker movement (along with her friend Peter Maurin), a largely American organization of Catholics who live in community with the poor and protest militarization, especially nuclear weapons, and indeed war in general.

• Msgr. George Higgins (1916-2002). American priest known as the “labor priest.” He was a tireless advocate of the rights of workers and an inspiration to the labor activism of Cesar Chavez and his United Farm Workers union.

• Catholic soldiers. Thousands of brave men and women who have fought justly for just causes, risking and often losing their lives.

• Sophie Scholl, Hans Scholl, and Christoph Probst. Youth who led the White Rose nonviolent resistance movement against the Nazi Government of Germany and were executed for it. See the movie, Sophie Scholl: The Final Days.

• Patricio Aylwin (1918-). President of Chile who, acting on his Catholic beliefs, apologized to Chilean victims of torture under General Augusto Pinochet and supported his country’s Commission on Truth and Reconciliation.

• Jacques Maritain (1882-1973). French philosopher who led the revival of Thomist philosophy in the twentieth century and pioneered Catholic justifications for human rights and democracy as well as European integration.

• Catholic Relief Services. One of the most respected relief and development
organizations in the world, working for economic development and peacebuilding in 98 countries.

• The Catholic Family and Human Rights Institute, which lobbies the U.N. to adopt policies consistent with the protection of the unborn, along with all who work to support the right to life in the U.S. and abroad.

• St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226). In addition to the many other things he is famous for, he was a pioneer of interreligious dialogue through his visit to the Sultan of Egypt during the wars of the crusades. Francis initially sought to convert the Sultan to Christianity, risking his life to do so and even hoping to become a martyr, but instead he ended up speaking to him about peace. Francis also brought peace to warring cities in Italy.

• Bartolomé de las Casas (1484-1566). A Spanish Dominican peace who openly advocated for the rights of indigenous native American peoples who were being tortured, slaughtered, and enslaved in the Spanish conquest.

• Community of Sant’Egidio. Apart from the Mozambique case, mentioned above, the Community has mediated peace negotiations in Guatemala, Algeria, Kosovo, Liberia, Uganda, and elsewhere, has campaigned against the death penalty around the world, and has won award for the DREAM project, a major effort to fight AIDS in Africa through providing anti-retroviral drugs.

• Elizabeth Anscombe (1919-2001). British Catholic philosopher in the Thomist tradition who spoke out publicly against the bombing of innocents by Allied powers in World War II, including President Harry Truman’s bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan.

• Father John Ford, S.J. (-1989). U.S. Catholic philosopher who did the same in a 1944 article, “The Morality of Obliteration Bombing.”

• John Paul Lederach. Contemporary Mennonite peace activist who has introduced his unique methods of holistic peacebuilding to the Catholic Church: to bishops around the world and to organizations like Catholic Relief Services and Caritas International.

• Gustavo Gutierrez (1928-). Theologian who pioneered liberation theology (and in his own work kept it on a theologically orthodox footing), calling for change in economic and political structures that oppress the poor, especially in Latin America.

• Senator Sam Brownback (1956-). Catholic Republican Senator who holds consistently Catholic views on international issues, fighting against support for abortion rights and policies in the U.S. and overseas, advocating assistance to victims of genocide in Darfur, Sudan, and endorsing an apology to native American tribes for the many crimes that the U.S. government committed against them.

• Father Alberto Hurtado, S.J. (1901-1952). Chilean Jesuit priest who advocated for social change on behalf of the poor in the mid-twentieth century and was canonized in 2005.

The French novelist Léon Bloy wrote at the turn of the twentieth century that “life holds one tragedy, ultimately: not to have been a saint.” This sums up my prayer that my students would become people who redeem the time in the area of global politics. They might do this on a small or large scale, thinking globally, acting locally, acting nationally or through the Church, as priests, nuns, brothers, and lay people, in parishes, in NGOS, in military units, in parliaments, or maybe even as professors. The above examples show that it can be done. The Pope has divisions after all.


Daniel Philpott is an associate professor, Department of Political Science and Kroc Institute for Peace Studies, at the University of Notre Dame.

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