A Word of Welcome: Catholicism and International Relations

A Word of Welcome: Catholicism and International Relations February 8, 2016

A little over a decade ago George Weigel, writing in First Things, noted the absence of attention to what he termed “Catholic international relations theory.” This was the first time that I had encountered the term. At Emory University, I had completed a B.A. in international affairs and philosophy, and a M.A. in philosophy with a focus on the Scholastic tradition but had never come across this concept. Subsequently, I would go on to complete my doctorate in political science at the University of Washington and despite my exposure to myriad competing schools of thought in international relations – the Realist School, the Liberal School, the English School, and so on – the “Catholic School” never entered the conversation.

Of course, it was understood that Catholicism played an important role in the history and development of international law. Concomitantly, the role of the Church as a transnational actor – the oldest and largest transnational actor on the planet – was recognized: as a focal point for organization against the state socialist regimes of Eastern Europe in the 1980s and as a nearly omnipresent actor in the political history of Latin America. However, I had yet to gain an understanding of any distinctly Catholic theoretical approach to inter-state relations, the problems of international collective action, global development and political economy.

This led me to ask: Does a Catholic International Relations Theory exist? If so, what are its components?

In his 2004 article, Weigel referred to that body of scholarship from Augustine to Aquinas to de Vitoria to Suarez – continuing through the mid-20th century in encyclicals such as Pacem in Terris – that provides a rich, uniquely Catholic frame in which to conceptualize and to understand global politics. He highlighted three aspects as central and found across those works which comprise a sort of unofficial canon of Catholic international relations theory (CIRT – to coin an acronym).

First, CIRT recognizes that “politics is an arena of rationality and moral responsibility.” The assumption of rationality in the action of states is certainly nothing new in IR; it’s a standard assumption in a variety of schools of thought. Conversely, recognition of a moral aspect to global politics is significantly less common.

Second, CIRT maintains a distinct definition of power. Where power is broadly understood in political science as, in its simplest terms, the ability of one actor to exert influence over another – in CIRT terms, the definition of power is given a new, normative element, i.e. “the capacity to achieve a corporate purpose for the common good.” This understanding moves us significantly beyond the narrower, traditional definitions provided by Niccolo Machiavelli or Hans Morgenthau.

Finally, CIRT’s understanding of peace is also distinct. Weigel’s explanation is worth quoting in its entirety: “Catholic moral realism understood that the biblical peace of the shalom kingdom envisioned in Isaiah 2:2-4 cannot be built by human effort in this world. Something else could be built however: the peace of political community in which order, law, freedom, and just structures of governance advance the common good in ways that lead communities towards that caritas that is their most proper and noble end.”

Unfortunately, in 2016, the CIRT approach remains both under-developed by scholars and under-utilized by Catholic policy makers, journalists, and commentators on international relations. The goal of this blog is to help to fill the gap and to promote greater understanding of a Catholic international relations theory as a theoretical tool to understand global politics. While exploring various global issues from a CIRT-type approach, I shall also utilize this space to examine the role and challenges that confront the Church in its diverse forms (as a sovereign state, as a global moral witness, and as a transnational community of individual believers). I hope you will find it interesting and informative.

Upcoming topics include: Rome, Russia, and Ukraine; the Church and China; and Catholicism and Democratization.


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