Ethics & Public Policy Center

Five Issues

George Weigel

Distinguished Senior Fellow and William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies

Were the NCCB to make a powerful moral argument on behalf of responsible internationalism, linking the defense of the “national interest” to a broader sense of national purpose in the pursuit of a world order in which legal and political instruments increasingly replace war or its threat as the ordinary means of conflict-resolution, the Church and the country would be well served, indeed. In fact, I would urge that any future document be focused primarily on these foundational questions. But if there is time and inclination, there are—needless to say!—a host of other issues to be explored. I list the five that follow because I think the NCCB, as a body of religious pastors and moral teachers, could say something distinctive about these questions.


1. The Structure of the International Order


Catholic social teaching, as embodied in the allocutions of Pius XII, in John XXIII’s Pacem in Terris, and in the Second Vatican Council’s Gaudium et Spes, has been traditionally favorable to the notion of an international public authority. John Courtney Murray once described such an authority as a matter of building “juridical institutions in the international field that [would] control, not destroy, national sovereignties.” Moreover, such “juridical institutions” would be able, when necessary, to deploy “coercive power adequate to protect the [international] juridical order and to vindicate it … in the interests of the [international] common good.”9 If that sounds something like what is going on in Somalia, and isn’t in Bosnia, the harmony is not merely accidental.

The relative success of the United Nations in meeting the threat of Saddam Hussein and in brokering several other settlements in recent years has led to what some will regard as a certain euphoria about the possibilities of collective security. But collective security is not a matter of political parthenogenesis; it does not give birth to itself. Rather, collective security works when there is leadership forcing it to work. In large measure, the U.N. system remains today what it has been since 1945: a stage on which a script written elsewhere is played out. Thus at the present moment, and in the truly difficult situations, American leadership is the sine qua non for the effective use of collective security measures against violators of international law or (as President Clinton has put it) against those who trample on the “conscience of the international community.” Over time, the experience of making collective security work through the U.N. system may permit that system to acquire a degree of its own integrity and authority. But for the moment, the traditional Catholic concern for effective international legal and political institutions cannot be disentangled from the foundational question of responsible American internationalism. If you want the former, you’ve got to will the latter.

“Collective security,” the Somali disaster, and the unfolding tragedy of the Balkans also remind us of two related conceptual issues laden with moral content: the question of the boundaries of sovereignty, and the question of the “right of self-determination.” Classic Catholic theory has always considered sovereignty a relative, not absolute, value. In this sense, Catholic social ethics has been out of step with the post-Westphalian evolution of international law, in which the inviolability of sovereignty is the overriding norm. Thus Catholic theorists have been less reluctant than some others to admit a range of exceptions to the claims of sovereignty, particularly in terms of human-rights violations within sovereign states.

One should not dismiss the importance of state sovereignty too easily; the secular post-Westphalian system was developed, we must remember, precisely because nominally Christian states had turned Europe into a bloody bedlam in the European wars of religion. On the other hand, much of the history of this cruelest of centuries reminds us that to absolutize the claims of sovereignty is to fall into moral absurdity: would Hitler’s Final Solution to the Jüdenfrage have been beyond the reach of other states had it been carried out within the internationally recognized boundaries of Germany? Acknowledging the utility of the current state system while clarifying the moral norms by which the claims of sovereignty can, on occasion, be overridden is one important task in the post-Cold War world.

So is a clarification of the oft-invoked “right of self-determination,” which almost always carries with it a claim to national political independence. Yet for all its emotive power, this cannot be a claim that trumps all other claims—for one nation’s invocation of a “right to self-determination” inevitably abuts other claims, some of which may be prior claims. Moreover, some claims to exercise a “right to self-determination” can badly disrupt the international system, whose stability is not without political (and moral) value.

The hard fact is that in the world today, and for complex historic, political, and/or economic reasons, some nations cannot be states. On the other hand, some nations formerly denied an independent state clearly have a legitimate claim to that form of political association; Lithuania and Ukraine come immediately to mind. The difficulty (and the violence) often comes in the “middle cases,” e.g., the Kurds. Developing a moral-political calculus by which claims to “self-determination” can be weighed, and thinking through the intermediate arrangements (forms of sub-nationality and federalism, for example) that could provide cultural security to nations unable to become full-fledged states, is, as the daily headlines attest, an urgent piece of business in which clear moral reasoning is essential.

Finally, the growth of a measure of “order” in international public life may well require, over the next decades, the revival of some form of the trusteeship system first developed by the League of Nations. Some countries, recognized today as sovereign states, are clearly incapable of self-rule in their present state of political culture: Somalia and Haiti are two unhappy examples. In these and similar situations, could a new form of “trusteeship,” modeled more on the “receivership” exercised by a court in order to revive a bankrupt company than on the colonial patterns of the past, provide a breathing space during which the country in question could stabilize its political culture and its political and economic institutions to the point where self-governance becomes a real possibility?


2. “Humanitarian Intervention”


Somalia, Bosnia, and Haiti also raise the question of “humanitarian intervention,” now being pressed urgently by the Holy See in international forums. The moral and legal rules capable of guiding such actions require considerable clarification. The present “rule,” such as it is, seems to be the “CNN Rule”: when the pictures get too awful on the television, it is time to intervene. This is clearly unacceptable, on moral and political grounds. When terrible crimes don’t get regularly televised (e.g., the genocide of the Christian tribes of the southern Sudan), they don’t get attention. Moreover, the “CNN Rule” precludes any serious pre-emptive intervention to prevent the kind of starvation that took place in Somalia before a decision to intervene was taken.

One difficulty in establishing a responsible pattern of “humanitarian intervention” today is that the burden for such interventions almost always falls primarily on the United States. This not only creates political difficulties abroad; it also feeds isolationist sentiment at home. It is true that, absent U.S. leadership, difficult situations are going to be left unattended. It is also true that “burden-sharing” is essential to the evolution of genuine collective security.

The fecklessness of western European states in the face of the outrages being committed in ex-Yugoslavia is one obvious illustration of the problem here: and this despite the urgent pleas of the Holy Father for Europe to rouse itself to its responsibilities in this grim business. Thus the NCCB, in the context of a call for responsible internationalism on the part of the United States, might well consider challenging fraternal national conferences of bishops in Europe to a parallel address to their societies and governments.

3. Other Just-War Issues

The question of “humanitarian intervention” lies precisely on the border where moral reasoning about the evolving international order meets moral reasoning about the proportionate and discriminate use of armed force in pursuit of the classic ends of politics: which is another way of saying that the question of “humanitarian intervention” graphically illustrates just how the just-war tradition is a form of moral reasoning in the service of peace, security, and freedom. This dimension of the just-war tradition is one that the NCCB should forthrightly acknowledge in any new document on post-Cold War foreign policy.

Refining the just-war tradition to meet the exigencies of our current situation is an unavoidable and urgent task. Here, particular attention should be paid to those classic ad bellum criteria that may have been neglected in our concern to refine the in bello criteria of proportionality and discrimination to meet the challenges posed by modern weapons technologies. Can “resistance-to-aggression” be the only legitimate casus belli in the contemporary world? Is there room in the just-war tradition for pre-emptive military action aimed at denying aggressors weapons of mass destruction?10 Could a threat to the stability of the global economy ever constitute one part of a morally adequate casus belli? Is the United Nations the sole legitimate authority capable of authorizing the use of armed force (pre-emptively or in response to an aggression already under way)? If so, what is our duty when the U.N. is clearly in default of its moral responsibilities? The NCCB cannot settle these questions; but it could be helpful in placing them more thoughtfully on the public agenda.


4. Economic Development


Following the lead of Pope John Paul II in Sollicitudo Rei Socialis and Centesimus Annus, the NCCB might well raise some useful questions to the U.N. system and to the U.S. government about models of economic development and development assistance in the Third World. As the Holy Father taught in Sollicitudo, and as the weight of empirical evidence suggests, the key to successful “take-off” is a situation in which the individual’s “right of economic initiative” is respected, and its exercise fostered, by his or her government.11 Morally, the “right of economic initiative” is one dimension of the “truth about man” that is the foundation of the Church’s social teaching; empirically, the evidence is overwhelming that capitalist development works economically (and, ultimately, in terms of democratization) and socialist development doesn’t.12 The refusal of certain national and international ecumenical and denominational agencies to accept this empirical evidence is a moral scandal, given the human suffering caused by state-centered development schemes. The NCCB could help put a firm period on the end of a long process of ecumenical and denominational irresponsibility by reminding Americans of the teaching of Sollicitudo and Centesimus Annus and suggesting appropriate applications to the work of the U.N. development agencies, the international lending institutions, and the U.S. Agency for International Development.


5. Religious Freedom: The First of Human Rights


Pope John Paul II’s insistence on the direct relationship between the defense of religious freedom and the pursuit of peace in the world ought to loom large in any American Catholic analysis of peacemaking after the Cold War. Our own national experience bears witness to the truth of the Holy Father’s insight, as does the experience of the “resistance Church” in central and eastern Europe in preparing the moral and political groundwork for the nonviolent Revolution of 1989 and the New Russian Revolution of 1991.13If there can be no love without justice, there can be no peace without religious freedom: that would seem to be an empirically, as well as morally, incontestable claim. Alas, the fall of European communism has not meant the triumph of religious freedom throughout the world.

In addition to Roman Catholicism, there are two great, dynamic religious movements with the capacity to shape massive historical change in the immediate future: activist Islam, and evangelical/ fundamentalist/pentecostal Protestantism. Islam offers the most immediate and graphic challenge to Catholic life and to Catholic understandings of religious freedom, in Africa, the Middle East, and East Asia. The Pentecostal Revolution (to use short-hand) in Latin America and eastern Europe has also led to grave ecumenical complications: in eastern Europe, involving evangelical activism in historically Orthodox lands, and in Latin America, involving evangelical activism on a historically Catholic continent.

While the Latin American situation may strike us as more immediately pressing (given the historic, geographic, and cultural links between North and Central/South America), it may also be more amenable to a reasonable modus vivendi, in which “rules of engagement” for the inevitable competition between these two forms of Christian conviction are gradually set into place, even as we now deplore and reject any resort to violence as a means of resisting proselytization.

The Islamic challenge is likely to prove the more difficult (some would say, intractable), for mainstream Islamic thought seems to lack the theological resources that would legitimate religious freedom in “Islamic societies.” Meeting that challenge will be made more, not less, difficult by self-flagellations about the crimes of European colonialism in the Maghreb and the Levant; nor will it be met by weakening Catholic commitments to the dialogue with Judaism, or by Catholic squeamishness about the legitimate security concerns of the State of Israel. On the other hand, there are pockets of Islamic scholarship (almost exclusively outside the Arab Islamic world) where probes toward an Islamic legitimation of religious tolerance (if not religious freedom) are being made; these must be encouraged and engaged, even as the NCCB, like other national conferences of bishops, continues to support the Holy Father’s insistence that religious freedom is the first of human rights.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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