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10 Principles of Catholic International Thought

Until relatively recently, there existed a rich tradition of distinctively Catholic theorizing about the nature of world politics. Beginning with the works of the Church Fathers and culminating in what is sometimes labeled the Golden Age of Catholic International Relations theory in the middle decades of the 20th century, this tradition – sometimes called the ‘Augustinian-realist’ tradition – provided educated Catholics with the tools necessary both to understand global affairs and to make informed moral and prudential judgments about foreign policy.  To be sure, the tradition was not fixed. It unfolded over time, shaped by internecine debates, changing geopolitical realities, and the evolution of Church teaching. But it was a tradition – a set of truths derived primarily from an Augustian Christian understanding of natural law, the understanding of which deepened and matured over time while remaining unchanged in essence and substance. And it was a uniquely and distinctively Catholic tradition.

Beginning in the post-WWI era and accelerating in the1960s, however, some new and alien innovations began to find their way into this tradition of international thought.  These include, but are not limited to, the ‘merchants of death’ theories of the interwar period; the Peace Studies ideology, pacifism, and liberation theologies of the 1960s; the utopian nuclear disarmament thought of the 1980s; and the Gospel nonviolence and Just Peace ideas that achieved such prominence in the 2000s. The result has been a cumulative, though not yet decisive, break with tradition associated with Augustine, Aquinas, Vitoria, Suarez, Pope Pius XII, and Pope John XXIII. Catholic international thought today, at least in certain progressive Catholic circles, is no longer distinctively Catholic. In its place has congealed a toxic brew of “progressive” bromides that is indistinguishable, except for a thin theological froth, from the cultural-Marxist international thought currently prevalent on the secular left.

Assuming, as I do, that this “progressive” turn in Catholic International Thought (and its doctrinal echo) is an historical cul-de-sac, I think the only way forward is to back up to where we took our collective wrong turn and start again. I am suggesting, in other words, that we return to the mid-twentieth century – the culminating point in the evolution of the Catholic tradition of reflection on world politics – and see what conceptual raw materials we can collect and use to specify enduring principles of international relations that are not tainted by contemporary theoretical and doctrinal developments, but that might shed light on contemporary challenges.  Indeed, we might even go farther.  Let’s revisit the entire history of Catholic theorizing about international relations and distil from it timeless answers to perennial questions related to politics among nations.

I’m not, of course, suggesting that historically specific answers to historically specific questions can provide direct solutions to the challenges of the current era.  But I am suggesting that even partially recovering the intellectual toolkit of pre-twenty-first Catholic International Thought might provide us with better ways of thinking about the great questions of our day than the ones the progressive turn has bequeathed us.


Principle #1: Human Nature 

The foundation of Catholic international relations theory is the belief that the final end or telos of humanity’s earthly pilgrimage twofold: “perfect happiness” (beatitudo or beatitudo perfecta), and “imperfect happiness” (felicitas or beatitudo imperfecta). Perfect happiness, being the perfection of our supernatural nature, is only possible in the afterlife for those who achieve a direct perception of God.  Beatitudo imperfecta, on the other hand, being the fulfillment or perfection of our human nature, is possible in this life through the exercise of reason and the cardinal and theological virtues.


Principle #2: Human Society 

Societies naturally flow from human nature. Individual persons cannot realize beatitudo, even imperfectly, as isolated individuals.  To perfect and complete their natures, they first must live in families, then partake of broader associations (civic associations, the Church, etc.), and finally, be part of a community ordered toward creating the conditions of possibility for true human flourishing.


Principle #3: States as Governed Societies 

Catholic international relations thought teaches that these anthropological and sociological truths naturally give rise to states. Simply put, in the post-lapsarian world – a world of fallen people and ubiquitous sin –  societies can neither sustain themselves nor steer themselves spontaneously toward their proper ends. That requires a government (from the Latin gubernare, to steer) or state. The tradition teaches that the moral purpose of the state, then, is to remedy the effects of sin by imposing “earthly peace.”  In other words, the state is not directly ordered toward the promotion of the good life or beatitudo.  Rather, its purposes – the common good that it exists to serve – are considerably less ambitious: (a) maintaining peace and order, (b) harmonizing the interests of different subnational communities with the requirements of justice, and (c) providing a defensive carapace within which Christians can use this peace, order, and harmony to seek God  – even as their fellow citizens might choose to use them for other purposes.


Principle #4: Neither City-States nor Empires

The Catholic tradition also teaches that the national state is the appropriate scale for the “perfect” or “complete” community. Whereas Aristotle thought the city-state was the appropriate scale for such a community, and pro-imperial thinkers such as Dante and Englebert both thought universal empire best fit the bill, Aquinas and the neo-scholastics maintained that the scale of polity best suited to human flourishing was the state.  The tradition also teaches that there exists – and ought to exist – a diversity of kingdoms.  According to this view, the appropriate form of government for each kingdom is determined by language, way of life, law, habit, customs, and what each considers virtuous.  Finally, the Catholic tradition of international thought teaches that these states are sovereign. They recognize no superior authority, whether another state, empire or international organization.  Such sovereign states are considered to be immune from the supervision of any other authority, except where they willingly accept such supervision or are in such grievous violation of natural law that they are no longer acting as duly constituted sovereigns.


Principle #5: International Society

The Catholic tradition of political theory and international thought also holds that these governed communities necessarily interact with one another, generating historically specific ‘international orders.’ While these orders may be hierarchical in terms of the distribution of power among states, they are not hierarchical in the sense of a universal empire.  They are not governed by a supranational authority with the power, as Dante put it, to ‘ensure that kings be content to remain within the bounds of their kingdoms, and thereby to keep peace among them.’ Nor are such orders merely ‘systems’ – that is, wholes comprising parts that interact in a mechanical way like balls on a billiard table. Instead, international orders are societies, properly understood. In other words, they are collectivities of states that have established shared norms, rules, and institutions that govern their relations with one another.


Principle #6: Friends and Enemies

The tradition also teaches that the enduring geopolitical realities that flow from human nature via the nature of the state and the society of states generate forms of ‘friction’ that that make the friend-enemy distinction intrinsic to international order. The ultimate source of this friction, of course, is the reality that all international societies are compromised by the presence of evil in the world. But the more proximate cause is that states have different characters and thus different interests. Thus all states are, in a sense, rivals, competitors, or adversaries. But in some cases, mere rivalry is converted into mutual enmity. This occurs when the characters or interests of states are so divergent that they are mutually incompatible. The tradition teaches us that this friend-enemy distinction is a ubiquitous feature of all international societies. It is not an aberration, but the ‘factory settings’ of international society. The tradition also teaches that, short of the Parousia, it will ever be thus.


Principle #7: Anarchy

Compounding this pervasive tendency toward mutual enmity is the logic of anarchy. Anarchy is a condition in which there is no universal authority that can adjudicate disputes between kingdoms.  In such a system, states must look out for their own interests, which typically fall somewhere between mere security on the one hand and the lust for domination or what Augustine called libido dominandi on the other. This makes it rational for states to arm themselves, seek out allies, and establish a favorable balance of power within the society of states. In turn, this makes for an inherently unstable system, one in which the slightest miscommunication or misperception can spiral into war.  Nor is anarchy merely a ‘bug’ in the system. Any attempt to follow Dante’s advice and create a universal empire to remedy the ‘problem’ of anarchy would run counter to the most basic purpose of international society – that is, preserving the independence of its constituent units. Anarchy is thus a ‘feature’ of international society, one that amplifies the other naturally occurring sources of friction.


Principle #8: War and Rumors of War

The tradition teaches us, then, that risk can never be reduced to zero. War cannot be abolished nor perfect peace realized. In an imperfect world, populated by fallen people, organized around flawed institutions, and defined by the logic of anarchy, security can never be absolute. States always face the possibility that other earthly powers and dominions may attack them. Indeed, they often are subject to pressures to attack other states, either to defend or advance their interests. Insecurity, conflict, and war are thus pervasive and inevitable aspects of international political life. They are not psychological defects that can be remedied via some sort of therapeutic diplomacy. Nor are they merely byproducts of inequality or poverty or irrationality. They are hard and enduring artifacts of human nature as refracted through the kinds of national and international societies humans are by their natures fated to construct. In such a world, perpetual peace is an unrealistic – even utopian – goal. As the Second Vatican Council noted, ‘insofar as men are sinful, the threat of war hangs over them, and hang over them it will until the return of Christ.’ The most that can be hoped for are structures and practices that minimize the frequency of war and mitigate its severity.


Principle #9: Economic Injustice

The Catholic tradition teaches that the Fall renders perfect justice in this world unattainable. Disordered affections among the citizens of the Earthly City (materialism, avarice, and indifference to the plight of others) essentially condemn vast swathes of humanity to poverty. Since the cause of this suffering (man’s fallen nature) cannot be overcome, and pace Blake, Jerusalem simply cannot be built ‘in England’s green and pleasant land.’ No state or international organization can accomplish this, and efforts to do so risk eroding the liberties necessary for the survival of the international order as a society of independent states. Of course, this does not mean that nothing can be done to mitigate suffering, approximate justice, and redress insufficiency. The norms of charity and solidarity make that unthinkable. Rather, the tradition teaches that a perfectly just world, one in which there is neither want nor suffering, is a utopia. It also teaches that the pursuit of such utopian goals is not only futile but can generate even greater injustices than those it seeks to redress.


Principle # 10: The Universal Common Good vs Communis Utilitas

Even given the ubiquity of war and injustice, the tradition also teaches that a society of states, being a society, has a common good. Sometimes, the universal common good is misconstrued or misrepresented as the sum total of the particular goods of all the people on earth. In practice, however, this good is less about the aggregate goods of all the individual human persons, nor even the aggregate goods of the individual states that comprise a given international order.  Rather, the universal common good is the corporate good of the society itself, understood in terms of its ability to realize the final end toward which it is ordered. If the end or purpose of the society of states is to create the conditions of possibility for the flourishing of its diverse constituent units (states), and if there is no universal agreement on what that flourishing entails, then the “common good” in the Aristotelian or Thomistic sense is a logical impossibility.  All that is possible is a qualified agreement on limited number of intermediate goods that have a “common usefulness” (communis utilitas): peace, the satisfaction of basic material needs, and orderly social intercourse.  The realization of this set of limited objectives would then provide a context within which those states built on the foundations of liberty, justice, and the general welfare could coexist with those built on foundations less conducive to human flourishing.  Ultimately, as Augustine argued in the context of domestic politics, the communis utilitas cannot be understood in terms of the common pursuit of a universally agreed notion of beatitudo or human flourishing. Rather, in the fallen world in which we live, it must be understood as the common pursuit of the earthly peace and the tranquility of order necessary for citizens of both well-ordered and less-well-ordered states to pursue their diverse ends. 

Taken together, these ten principles encapsulate a 1500-year old tradition of Catholic international thought that provided Catholic statesmen with a reliable guide to the conduct of international affairs through the first half of the 20th century. For reasons I have discussed elsewhere, progressive Catholics both within and beyond the institutional Church largely abandoned this tradition in the mid-1960s, seduced by the siren song of Marxisant and even Gnostic ideas then much in fashion in certain circles. But the principles comprising this tradition remain as relevant today as they were in, say, 500 AD or 1300 AD or even 1900 AD. While the world has changed, human nature and all that flows from it has not. These principles are not, as some would have it, quaint anachronisms, irrelevant in our more enlightened and ever-so-progressive age. Nor conversely, are they dangerously retrograde ideas, fundamentally unsuited to an age of nuclear weapons, climate change, and other extinction-level dangers unimaginable even a century ago?  Rather, they are enduring truths – truths that can provide the Catholic hierarchy and the faithful in the pews with the intellectual tools necessary to both understand and engage the world of the early 21st century.

We would do well as a Church to embrace them as such.

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