Ethics & Public Policy Center

What Catholics Forget About World Affairs

Published in National Review Online on May 19, 2015


For quite some time now, commentary on world politics by leading Catholic officials, here and at the Vatican, has been marked by a certain softness, occasionally bordering on the surreal, that is a continual amazement to my non-Catholic friends and colleagues in the more Realist sectors of the foreign-policy community. Their puzzlement is both warranted (in that this muddled commentary, which seems to confuse gestures and protestations of good will with real change on-the-ground in world affairs, is at odds with an older Catholic tradition of hard-headedness about political realities) and unwarranted (in that the current patterns of commentary go back at least 50 years, such that no one should be surprised by them any more). Perhaps a look back will shed light on the present and suggest a wiser path forward.

This profound shift in official Catholic foreign-policy commentary can be traced back as far as contemporary memories reach; like everything and everyone else in late modernity, the Catholic Church was deeply shaken by the experience of two world wars and the unprecedented political violence that occurred during, between, and after them. But if one is looking for a proximate turning point in this tale, there’s no need to look back further than 50 years, when, during its fourth and final session in 1965, the Second Vatican Council promulgated its Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World, usually referred to by its Latin title, Gaudium et Spes (Joy and Hope). The Council’s very existence, like that of the planet, had been called into question by the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, which coincided with the first weeks of Vatican II. So, in the wake of that jarring experience, which seemed to embody the unique dangers of international public life in the late 20th century, the Council fathers undertook to evaluate war “with an entirely new attitude,” as they put it in Gaudium et Spes.

At least that’s how one of the most widely read English translations of the documents of Vatican II put it. The Latin phrase in question was mente omnino nova, which a later translation rendered, rather more accurately, as calling for “a completely fresh appraisal” of war and, by extension, of world politics. “A completely fresh appraisal” suggests an intellectual exercise, a work of reason; “with an entirely new attitude” suggests that the modern problem of war and the problems of contemporary world politics are, at bottom, psychological — matters of misunderstandings and their attendant grievances. And it was the latter notion that seized the imaginations of Catholic peace activists, who began working their way into the crevices of the newly expanded Catholic justice-and-peace bureaucracies that sprang up, from the banks of the Potomac to the banks of the Tiber and at most points in between, after Vatican II, and of Church leaders eager to put a new face on Catholicism for the late 20th century.

The problem was that mente omnino nova, however translated, either stated the obvious or proposed something that distorted, rather than clarified, the situation.

If the Council fathers were saying, in that ambiguous phrase, that warfare and world politics had changed radically since the days when small professional armies fought set-piece battles on behalf of princes, they were simply underscoring the obvious: that, as Churchill wrote of the effects of the Great War, entire nations were now combatants — and, after the development of long-range bombers and intercontinental ballistic missiles, entire nations were now targets. If, on the other hand, mente omnino nova was suggesting more — that this dramatic shift in military capability had also resulted in a profound change in world politics, so that the old categories of “interest” and “power” no longer counted for much, then Vatican II could seem, in the minds of some, to have been jettisoning a lengthy tradition of Catholic reflection on the relationship between moral norms and world politics that went back to St. Augustine.

Whatever the Council fathers’ intention, the latter seems to have been what was learned from Gaudium et Spes by several generations of Catholic intellectuals and Catholic leaders. The old, Augustinian-realist analysis of world politics — which began with the premise that conflict was in the nature of human affairs and that the real question was the “order” that could be established to manage conflict — was out; a new set of premises, which began with the notions that conflict was an aberration and that cooperation was the “normal” mode of international public life, was in. And it took no great intellectual dexterity to leap from that new set of premises to an approach to world politics that stressed, not balancing competing interests and deterring aggressors, but assuaging misunderstandings thought to be at the root of conflict. If the old Catholic approach to thinking about world politics reached its symbolic high-water mark at the Congress of Vienna, where the papal secretary of state, Cardinal Ercole Consalvi, remade post-Napoleonic Europe alongside Castlereagh, Metternich, and Talleyrand, the new Catholic approach seemed to imagine senior churchmen, including the pope and his diplomats, as global therapists, soothing the grievances of men of power by calling them to attend to the better angels of their nature.

John Paul II was something of an outlier here, both in his bold defense of human rights behind the Iron Curtain and in his frontal challenge to Central European, Latin American, and East Asian dictators. Benedict XVI revived the Augustinian approach to Catholic thinking about politics in his striking address in 2011 to the German Bundestag. Pope Francis has, on occasion, broken with the soothing, post–Vatican II Catholic approach to world politics with his vigorous condemnation of the persecution of Christians throughout the world, and especially in the Middle East. But the general pattern since Vatican II remains one in which both national Catholic justice-and-peace offices and the Holy See seem to approach world politics through therapeutic, rather than political, categories. And that approach, it seems to me, tends to obscure far more than it illuminates.

In the first instance, it obscures the causes of conflict. Whether the issue is the war Russia is waging in Ukraine, or the ongoing conflict in the Holy Land, or the status quo in Cuba, what is happening today, be it low-grade war or continued repression, is happening not because of misunderstandings, but because of clashing interests, or deep ideological conflicts, or both. And those conflicts are not going to be resolved by suggesting to the aggressors or dictators (or aggressive dictators) that the Vatican understands and, to one extent or another, appreciates their point of view, which it is prepared to think has some merit. Therapy is not the answer to Putin’s aggression in the Donbas or to rocket attacks from Palestinian territory against Israel; nor is therapy likely to be of much aid in fostering a post-Castro-brothers future for the island prison that is Cuba.

The second problem with the psychologization of conflict — this attempt to approach world politics “with an entirely new attitude” — is that it tends to obscure the things that actually can be done, now, to move situations of conflict in a better direction. Take, for example, the Middle East. There is very little hope for a stable peace in the Holy Land, or for improving the lot of Christians there, to be found in the present state of Palestinian politics. The Abbas regime’s writ does not run in Gaza, where the anti-Semitic terrorists of Hamas hold sway. West Bank politics, where Abbas is theoretically in control, remain thoroughly corrupt, and no sensible person would count on today’s Palestinian Authority fulfilling any obligations it undertakes in international agreements. What can be done in the West Bank, however, is to slowly and painstakingly build up a Palestinian civil society capable of eventually sustaining a Palestinian state that is not obsessed with the destruction of its neighbor, Israel. That is where the very little leverage the Church has in the Palestinian portions of the Holy Land should be applied: in a long-term effort to both sustain Christian communities and to see them become agents in the building of a genuine civil society on the West Bank.

The same Catholic-realist logic would seem to apply as well to Cuba. Cuba has been shattered by 50 years of the Castro flail. Its economy is a wreck (and not primarily because of the American embargo); its people are dispirited, and often kept pacified by cheap alcohol; brave opposition groups like the Ladies in White are left, essentially, to fend for themselves. In this situation, there will be no rapid transition to democracy and the free economy, as there was in Poland after the Revolution of 1989. Nor is the Catholic Church in Cuba in a situation parallel to the Church in Poland under Communism; it is far weaker, and its present leadership is largely focused on building up the Church’s lost institutional strength. That is important, but building ought to be accompanied by resisting, as the Church allies itself visibly with the democratic opposition, provides a zone of freedom for the opposition to meet and gather strength, and constantly keeps the pressure on the Castro regime on questions of civil liberties.

Then there is the John Kerry–negotiated Iran nuclear “deal,” which was welcomed by both the chairman of the U.S. bishops’ International Justice and Peace Committee and the Holy See as a step toward peace — presumably because it was regarded as a step toward reincorporating Iran into the “international community” (a favorite trope of the post–Vatican II Catholic address to world affairs). By contrast, an older Catholic, Augustinian-realist analysis would have focused on the evil intentions of the Iranian mullahs, publicly stated on innumerable occasions; their amply documented support for international terrorism; and the virtual certainty that a Shia-dominated Iran on the verge of a nuclear-weapons capability guarantees nuclear-weapons proliferation throughout the Sunni Arab world. What it would have avoided was giving a tacit blessing, and thus a form of cover, to another chimerical “peace process,” which is what Kerry’s “deal” is. Such an Augustinian-realist analysis would, I suggest, help identify the baseline from which a serious, long-term strategy of transition for Iran, which cannot successfully re-engage the world until it moves beyond apocalyptic Shia totalitarianism, might be devised.

The hardest of hard-power foreign-policy realists will dismiss all of this as irrelevant to the “real world.” Who cares, they ask, what popes, cardinals, and bishops have to say about matters far outside their remit? A Catholic Church that wants to offer a plausible answer to that question is not a Catholic Church that sounds, in its address to world politics, like the European Union. To answer the hard-power realists’ question persuasively, the Catholic Church’s leaders, intellectuals, and activists ought — if I may borrow two phrases — to make a “completely fresh appraisal” of the Augustinian-realist tradition, approaching it “with an entirely new attitude.”

— George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington’s Ethics and Public policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.

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