Politics & Policy

Teacher and Witness

Benedict XVI at the United Nations.

They came to see John Paul II, a new Roman saying goes, but they come to hear Benedict. When Pope Benedict XVI came here, Americans in turn overwhelmingly approved what they saw and heard.

Americans of all faiths and none discovered what Romans (and other close observers) have long known, namely that Benedict is very much his own man, with his own distinctive personal, pastoral, and intellectual style. Chief among his particular gifts are clarity of thought and sincerity of purpose, offset by considerable personal warmth.

Benedict’s visit to the United States was prompted by several distinct but related concerns. The first was to address the status of human dignity and human rights, especially religious freedom, in the current international landscape. The second was to encourage the local Church in the manner of the Apostle Paul. And the third was to commend the ongoing American experiment in religious freedom amidst religious pluralism and state accommodation.

So far most attention has rightly been paid to Benedict’s words and gestures in support of American Catholicsdeeply troubled by the legacy of the sexual abuse crisis and the reality of uncertain episcopal leadership. His pastoral remarks — simple, direct, and accessible — bear his characteristically forthright intellectual and moral imprint. Agree with him or not, there’s no doubt where Benedict stands.

Benedict’s remarks to the U.N. General Assembly belong to an entirely different genre. His purpose was to explore and develop the first principles that underlie state sovereignty and the international system as a whole. It’s tempting to view these remarks merely as an academic lecture, given Benedict’s long career as a professor and theologian, but it’s more helpful to see his words as a kind of final exam for practitioners of statecraft. For it’s above all an invitation to think through his recommended first principles, apply them to specific cases, and draw appropriate conclusions regarding the proper shape of international order, law, and institutions today. And it’s especially relevant for Americans considering how best to reconcile interests and ideals in U.S. foreign policy.

In a nutshell, Benedict sketches a familiar natural-law argument that unexpectedly points to some novel and potentiallycontroversial conclusions.

He begins with the basic and familiar premise that state sovereignty and international order do not exist for their own sake, but rather for that of human dignity. In other words, the state exists for the person, not the other way round; and the same applies to international institutions and laws. This has been established Catholic teaching in one form or another since St. Thomas Aquinas; and it is the philosophical basis of liberal democracy and liberal internationalism.

The second step of his argument is that “natural reason shared by all nations” can discern universal principles needed to shape the political order — both national and international. The natural law is by no means a one-size-fits-all template, but rather basic moral rules of thumb, accessible to reason, that statesmen struggle to discern, approximate, and apply in varying circumstances. And these same principles, “based on the natural law inscribed on human hearts and present in all cultures and civilization,” and therefore “valid at all times and for all peoples,” are best captured by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948).

It is the third step of Benedict’s argument that will provoke controversy. He maintains that that the two greatest threats to the universality of the same human rights for every personare authoritarian secular ideologies, on the one hand, and “majority religious positions of an exclusive nature,” on the other. This is a politely diplomatic but unmistakable reference to Russia and China (and their authoritarian imitators) and to some (but not all) Muslim-majority states.

In their own distinct ways, these “authoritarian” or “exclusive” regimes deny the “universality … indivisibility and interdependence of all human rights” expressed in the Universal Declaration. “Removing human rights from this context,” Benedict maintains, “would mean restricting their range and yielding to a relativistic conception, according to which the meaning and interpretation of rights could vary and their universality would be denied in the name of different cultural, political, social and even religious outlooks” (emphasis added).

These observations are woven into Benedict’s lengthy discussion of religious freedom and freedom of conscience, the sole human rights he treats in detail. For Benedict as for his predecessor, these two freedoms are the prerequisites for all others, since freedom of conscience and freedom to seek the truth together give substance and meaning to freedoms of speech, association, and all other civil and political rights. But these same freedoms are inadmissible in authoritarian regimes, where the person exists for the sake of the state and intermediate institutions (like religious groups) are tolerated only so far as they serve state interests. That is why the Chinese regime denies the rightful autonomy of Christian churches, presuming to install Catholic bishops and other religious leaders whom it can control, while imprisoning those it cannot. And it helps explain why the Russian Orthodox Church (or Moscow Patriarchate), whose leadership may be the only Russian institution untouched by glasnost and perestroika, risks (willing) capture by the state, with predictably grim consequences for itself and for Russia’s fast-disintegrating civil society — including the loss of an essential moral yardstick for measuring (and possibly restraining) the exercise of state power. In both cases, citizens are reduced to subjects.

In the Islamic world, the situation is more varied. Ten Muslim-majority states are officially declared Islamic states that impose Muslim religious law (sharia) to varying degrees. Another dozen designate Islam as the official or state religion. In all these states, non-Muslims and officially disfavored Muslims (Saudi Shiites, Iranian Sunnis, Pakistani Ahmadis, among others) are at best second-class citizens. Where “the religious sphere is kept separate from political action,” Benedict maintains, “then great benefits ensue for individuals and communities.” But that requires “clearly distinguishing between the dimension of the citizen and that of the believer.”

It is inconceivable, then, that believers should have to suppress part of themselves — their faith — in order to be active citizens. It should never be necessary to deny God in order to enjoy one’s rights. The rights associated with religion are all the more in need of protection if they are considered to clash with a prevailing secular ideology or with majority religious positions of an exclusive nature.

These are by no means purely academic or merely theological considerations. Most hardheaded observers agree that states which respect human rights seldom threaten their neighbors (neighbors like Taiwan or Ukraine) or export fascist ideologies and suicide bombers.

These grim considerations lead to Benedict’s final, and potentially most controversial, point. It concerns ends and means. So far as the current international order fails to protect or promote human dignity, it stands in urgent need of radical reform or replacement. Benedict pointedly quotes his 2007 encyclical Spe Salvi to the effect that “every generation has the task of engaging anew in the arduous task for the right way to order human affairs” (no. 25). In other words, new international structures and rules may well be needed to meet freshand pressing challenges posed by secular and religious authoritarianism. And there’s nothing sacrosanct about existing structures and rules that have plainly failed to achieve their stated purposes, or have proven demonstrably counterproductive and perverse.

Two examples will suffice. One is the U.N.’s renamed Human Rights Council, arguably more reprehensible and pernicious than its wholly discredited predecessor. Consider only its membership, promotion of speech codes to prohibit all criticism of political Islam, and the upcoming Durban II hate-fest. Another is the Security Council’s inability to address Sudanese genocide or Iranian nuclear proliferation, thanks almost entirely to Chinese and Russian realpolitik. Such is the plain meaning of Benedict’s pointed reference to “the obvious paradox of a multilateral consensus that continues to be in crisis because it is still subordinated to the decisions of a small number, while the world’s problems require from the international community that it act on a common basis.”

So what’s to be done when the “international community” plainly cannot “act on a common basis” in furtherance of some vital international common good? Like his predecessors, Benedict continues to favor “the higher role played by rules and structures that are intrinsically ordered to promote the common good, and therefore to safeguard human freedom.”Consensus and law of course trump anarchy(and unilateral self-help) in principle. But Benedict certainly takes a more sober and realistic view of the U.N.’s possibilities and limitations and a far greater willingness to look beyond its 1945 Charter as the best or only way to order international relations.

This willingness is clearest in the case of the “responsibility to intervene” where an otherwise sovereign state fails catastrophically in its “primary duty to protect its own population from grave and sustained violations of human rights, as well as from the consequences of humanitarian crises, whether natural or man-made.” In such exceptional cases, Benedict argues, the “international community” has the moral right and duty (“must intervene”) to avert catastrophe “with the juridical means provided in the United Nations Charter and in other international instruments” (emphasis added).

This is perhaps the toughest question the former Professor Ratzinger poses for statesmen and moralists. And it’s impossible to answer in the abstract, only by reference to specific cases. Take Kosovo, for instance, where Russia (supported by China) thwarted an overwhelming consensus for humanitarian intervention under the UN Charter. What other international instruments, existing or contemplated, might have provided sufficient legal and moral legitimacy for military action in 1998? The Genocide Convention (1948), yet another dead letter as measured by actual state practice? The North Atlantic Treaty, which NATO members ultimately invoked as the legal basis for action? Or is NATO insufficiently “universal” to confer sufficient moral legitimacy? If so, what other possibilities exist or can be imaginedfor the “international community” — perhaps redefined less universally and more realistically as the civilized world — to address “new and insistent challenges”?

One such is a council of democracies that could complement or even replace the U.N. for certain purposes. It’s not a new idea, but it’s gotten new life from Sen. John McCain’s endorsement; and it could potentially serve U.S. interests and ideals by providing needed and otherwise unavailable international legitimacy for certain U.S. initiatives undertaken in concert with like-minded states.

Benedict’s role, however, is limited to asking the right questions, not insisting on specific answers that statesmen alone are competent to supply. But it’s fair to say that his address may well mark the beginning of the end of the long papal honeymoon with the U.N., a conclusion bolstered by his pointed insistence on “subsidiarity,” which means democratic accountability in the international context. That alone is sure to displease transnational progressives and other enthusiasts for global governance.

What gives added weight to Benedict’s words is that he speaks as a witness as well as a teacher. He is one of the last world leaders with hard personal experience of the Second World War, including forcible conscription into the Hitler Youth and the Wehrmacht at the end of the conflict, followed by a brief period as an American POW in a shattered and disgraced nation.

The founding of the United Nations, we all know, coincided with the earth-shaking upheavals that humanity suffered when the reference to the meaning of transcendence and natural reason was abandoned, and in consequence, freedom and human dignity were grossly violated. When this happens, it threatens the objective foundations of the values inspiring and governing the international order and it undermines the cogent and inviolable principles formulated and consolidated by the United Nations. In the face of new and insistent challenges, it would be a mistake to fall back on a [purely] pragmatic approach, limited to determining “common ground,” minimal in content and weak in its effect (emphasis added).

Forty years ago, Benedict’s predecessor Paul VI wrote that “modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.”


 –John F. Cullinan is an expert in international human rights and religious freedom.


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