John Rist on the “white paper” from the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace

Someone pointed out that Rod Dreher conveyed some remarks of a thinker to whom I do pay a great deal of attention. Apparently, John Rist, an eminent scholar of St. Augustine and a moral philosopher and ethicist, spoke about Caritas in veritate at Mount St. Mary’s in Emmitsburg.   Since many people think there are parallels between Caritas in veritate and the “white paper”, Dr. Rist’s comments can be applied to the new “white paper”.

I had several courses from Dr. Rist at the Augustinianum. This guy’s got game. I recommend What is Truth?: From the Academy to the Vatican. Try also his Real Ethics: Reconsidering the Foundations of Morality (hard) and also Augustine: Ancient Thought Baptized. (Obligatory for anyone who reads Augustine or any of the Fathers or who studies late antiquity.)

Here are Rist’s remarks.  As a preface, I think it is too precipitous to attribute the notions in the PCJP “white paper” to Pope Benedict without filters.  I suspect they come rather more from the Secretariate of State, which may or may not have in mind what Pope Benedict thinks.  Remember that the “white paper” (as I call it) is called by the PCJP a “Note”.  It doesn’t have a signature and there is no indication that Benedict approved it or ordered its publication.

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.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Supertradmum says:

    Excellent summary and review of St. Augustine. Many of his ideas were discussed by contributors on this blog. It is rather embarrassing to have a naive hierarchy. Those of us, like this superb commentator above, have a more realistic idea of the truly evil United Nations. I sincerely hope the Pope is not behind this, as I consider him highly intelligent and astute.

    Perhaps the great value of a Universal Church, rather than just a European Church, is that we can all help with discernment. Those of us from the American side of the pond has seen the evils of the UN and other Big Brother governments perhaps more clearly.

    May I add, that “Small is beautiful”.

  2. randomcatholic says:

    WOW. Game indeed. This is brilliant.

  3. wmeyer says:

    I find it troubling that Dr. Rist would refer to the document as an cyclical, and attribute it to Pope Benedict. With all respect, it suggests either carelessness on the one hand, or hidden knowledge on the other. [Speaking of carelessness… you might review the very top of the entry, where I explain that Prof. Rist is referring to Caritas in veritate. o{];¬) ] The latter possibility is beyond disturbing, as the changes the document suggests would leave us at the hands of bodies against which mere citizens have no practical recourse. The current insanity inside the beltway is horrible enough, and our ability to reverse its effects questionable, but a world body? That would destroy all hope. Take the EU as a prefiguring of such a pody, and gosh, hasn’t that been a boon to humanity?

  4. randomcatholic says:

    He really nails this. This is probably the best thing I have seen on this issue. Period.

  5. Rachel says:

    Thoughtful and very readable. I have a short attention span on the Internet, but I got up this morning, sat down groggy at the computer with my tea, and read the thing right through.

  6. Hidden One says:

    @wmeyer: Reread Fr. Z’s first paragraph. Dr. Rist was discussing an encyclical attributed to Pope Benedict.

  7. @WMeyer:

    “Apparently, John Rist, an eminent scholar of St. Augustine and a moral philosopher and ethicist, spoke about Caritas in veritate at Mount St. Mary’s in Emmitsburg. Since many people think there are parallels between Caritas in veritate and the “white paper”, Dr. Rist’s comments can be applied to the new “white paper”.”

    Rist isn’t calling the recent doc an encyclical. Fr Z is bringing up his thoughts on Caritatis.

  8. irishgirl says:

    This is an excellent essay! (I know how you feel, Rachel-I have a short attention span on the ‘Net, too)
    I wish that the UN would go out of business…it’s an evil organization.
    That monstrosity on the East River in NYC-its HQ-should be torn down and the acreage put to better use.

  9. Phil B says:

    Response to wmeyer:

    As Rod Dreyer indicates in the original post, Dr. Rist’s remarks were made in 2009 and specifically concern Caritas in Veritate, hence his reference to “the encyclical.”

  10. wmeyer says:

    Saint Irenaeus and Phil B:

    Clearly I got it wrong. Too much multi-tasking this morning. Thanks for showing me my error.

  11. disputationist says:

    “principles of subsidiarity and of a world authority seem to be necessarily and intrinsically in radical conflict ”

    NOT necessarily. I think this is a mis-characterization of subsidiarity, which applies to function and execution, not fundamental moral laws (and their codification in civil law) . Would we consider it intrinsically good for say, right to life to be decided on a municipal level, or at the level of a family? We want the right to life to be protected by law EVERYWHERE, and this is not a violation of subsidiarity. Similarly so for other basic moral laws that follow from the intrinsic dignity of human beings. The existence of a worldwide authority to enforce these laws would not make it “God”, and it would violate subsidiarity only if this body exceeds certain limits in how it affects the functioning of local bodies.

  12. Traductora says:

    Excellent. And extremely well written.

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