Are you tired yet of our discussion about the Vatican “one-world government” document, Caritas in Veritate, and so forth? If so, please move on. If not, I’d like to bring to your attention some thoughtful comments about Caritas in Veritate, the 2009 papal encyclical (read it here) that endorses the idea of a global political authority to administer the economy for the common good. The thoughts below the jump come from a lecture on the development of Catholic social teaching delivered in 2009 by the Catholic philosopher John Rist, who spoke at Mount St. Mary’s University.  I don’t have a link to the full lecture; this fragment was sent to me by a Mount St. Mary’s professor friend, and is published here with the permission of Dr. Rist. Read below the jump for Dr. Rist’s words. Remember, this is not a reaction to the recent Pontifical Council document, but to the 2009 encyclical — which, to be sure, the Pontifical Council clearly draws from. These paragraphs strike me as an admirable example of respectful but critical engagement with papal teaching — recognizing the moral correctness of the thrust of the Pope’s teaching, but doubtful of its practicality. Dr. Rist doesn’t fob the Pope’s words off as illegitimate edits forced on the pontiff by left-wing Curial bureaucrats.

What I’m unclear about is the extent to which the Pope’s words in an encyclical are held within orthodox Catholic thought to be binding on the faithful. If the Pope says “abortion is wrong,” then Catholics are obviously obliged to agree. If the Pope says, in the same document, “Catholics ought to therefore seek in their nations to get abortion outlawed” — well, how much leeway to Catholics have, within the bounds of fidelity, to say, “No, Holy Father, that would be a bad idea”? In Caritas (para. 67), Benedict says that “there is an urgent need of a true world political authority,” and claims that only this can bring about the changes our moral duties require. Dr. Rist disputes this below, as you’ll see. What I’m genuinely unclear about is how an orthodox Catholic can tell the Pope that he agrees with what the Pope wants to do morally (e.g., ensure a just economy for all), but disagrees with the mechanism for doing so (e.g., world government), when both are part of a high-level papal teaching. I hope some knowledgeable person will explain this in the comboxes. Anyway, here’s Dr. Rist:

Dr. Rist:

       Perhaps the area where the encyclical comes closest to looking wildly over-optimistic is its discussion of the reform of the UN: certainly a matter of raw politics and not merely of economics. Benedict wants to say both that we need an overarching political authority, and that the present one will not do, but he seems to underestimate the difficulty, at the purely political and ideological level, of possible reform, and to mention but then underestimate certain features of the present international order which are seriously threatening to the promotion of his own world view. The United Nations Organization, in its purely political role, was set up at the end of the Second World War with the primary purpose of avoiding serious conflicts between nations which might lead to a nuclear World-War Three.  Its core was the Security Council and its permanent members, but these were selected not on moral grounds but in virtue of the fact that they were the major powers of the day:  those powers which, in alliance, had overthrown Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. The General Assembly was to consist of the whole gamut of states in the world, but neither the Council nor the Assembly had any intrinsic moral authority, except that which the Council and a few others had acquired in virtue of being recent victors. And the aims of members of the Security Council, then as now, were to control abuses of power or what was treated as such, by others, not by themselves. Thus a Security Council member could condemn genocide by others but disallow any interference in its own internal affairs – if not in theory at least in terms of Realpolitik.  That meant that the effectiveness of the UN depended on the wishes of its individual members, pursuing their private interest however defined or justified, and that any injustice, if sanctioned by a veto-wielding Security Council member, could be achieved with impunity. And of course even if a state (or would-be state) was to be condemned for its policies, as for example, was North Korea, it could only be brought to book if one of the more powerful countries, normally the United States, wished that this should happen.

That must be one of the reasons for Benedict’s view that the UN should be given more teeth, but the suggestion is not only politically impossible, but potentially dangerous (cf. 71). At the moment the UN is politically successful in controlling the behaviour of its member states only when the United States wishes that to happen (and not always then):  hence some success in Korea and Kosovo and Bosnia and Iraq, but none whatsoever in Rwanda or Zimbabwe or Tibet.  So it is a matter of power-politics, as it was with its predecessor, the League of Nations, which collapsed when a reasonably powerful state, namely Fascist Italy, decided to ignore its decrees, and no-one was willing to act to enforce them. If that situation had confronted the present UN, the Italians would probably have been restrained if the United States had been willing to enforce UN decrees, and had not been thwarted by other Security Council members; otherwise not.  So to give the UN more military power would amount to little more than providing a fig-leaf (whether needed or not) for  the military power of some of its members regardless of their moral reputation.

That looks bad enough, but the long-term moral problems for Benedict’s agenda are still greater.  The UN is now taking upon itself the role of maker of international law, thereby extending its remit (formally at least, though it probably had some sort of tacit remit to proceed in the Charter itself) to include intervention not only between but within individual states:  precisely what the Soviet Union, at the outset, wished to resist, and which many powerful states, including Russia, still want to resist when it suits them.  But now I am less concerned with the practical than with the theoretical results of all this. The acceptance of the UN as a body fitted to make universal  laws about human rights, genocide, etc means that it is in effect taking on the role of God, whose very nature is the nature of natural law, in most versions of the natural law tradition. But now God becomes the decrees of the Security Council, a body to which I for one, and doubtless many others, am not committed as a believer, and the results of that odd circumstance can be recognized in at least two respects:  first that the decrees of a human organization are taken to be of overriding importance, though again – remember the case of Goering – formulated by processes and by the agency of those who believe only in positive law:  which can be made and re-made.   Thus again, as with intra-national legislation, positive law comes to pose as natural law, though it is proposed without reference to the principles by which alone natural law can be expressed.  Nor in the future is there any reasonable likelihood that this situation will change, and in Augustine’s view – Him again, yes indeed – it will never change, human nature and its capacity for constructing what recent popes have called structures of sin being likely to remain as they are.

And a second point:  the result of all this is absurdities in practice as well as in theory:  thus Libya was the state recently in charge of the UN policy on human rights.   There is little reason why – to put it crudely – any of us should regard the whims of a collection of dictators as a useful guide to the nature of natural law – nor for that matter the aims of well-financed lobby groups like Planned Parenthood and similar non-governmental agencies with excessive influence over politicians. Of course, in theory the Vatican knows all this perfectly well, not least in its constant but ineffectual efforts to restrain the UN’s pro-abortion policies world-wide. What needs further reflection is whether an international body, given even more authority, is going to be any more amenable. Again, Augustine, in the City of God and speaking of at least nominal and sometimes more than nominal Christian rulers, would advise extreme caution.   The diversity of languages, according to his reading of the story of the Tower of Babel, was God’s way of preventing too much centralized and tyrannical control. For once power to act as God is given to a human body, and especially a single human body, the very principles of Benedict’s documents will be overthrown. As the old Roman poet put it, “Quis custodiet ipsos custodies?” (Who will guard the guards?”).  Benedict is clearly aware of the risk (as in 71) but seems to underestimate it. Indeed principles of subsidiarity and of a world authority seem to be necessarily and intrinsically in radical conflict – unless we are going to be very clever indeed and helped in a manner not to be assumed by the grace of God (who, for his part, did not like being put to the test at Meribah).

The clergy have always been better at formulating what we ought to do than at telling us how to do it.    The Crusades – though not without some merit were not an unmitigated success either politically or morally, neither was the advice given about burning people by her bishops to Mary Tudor – which even her husband, the king of Spain, thought unwise – nor was the behaviour of Cardinal Pacelli as nuncio in handling the ever-growing National Socialist movement, as the leaders of Catholic political parties in Germany discovered to their cost.  Recent popes – including this one – have told us that the church does not want to be a political animal, only to point out eternal moral truths; it seems that more thought needs to be given as to how this admirable distinction is to be worked out in practice, and that that thought should take more heed of the old maxim “If you sup with the Devil, you need a very long spoon”.  So that if Benedict’s non –Augustinian optimism about the human social prospect is to be vindicated, we do indeed need more thought not about only principles – Benedict has laid many of these out admirably in the present encyclical – but about means, about the relationship, that is, between the City of God and the earthly city.