A Global View of the Church and the World

By: Laurie Johnston

November 30, 2022

Carrying Forward Drew Christiansen’s Legacy

Rev. Drew Christiansen, S.J., frequently wrote about Pacem in Terris as a lodestar for Catholic engagement in the world today. He also modeled a form of public engagement that put that vision into practice–reading current events, trends, and policies through the lens of Catholic social teaching and responding practically, critically, and hopefully.

One challenge for us as American Catholic thinkers is how to cultivate a truly global vision of the world while also maintaining a clear focus on trying to shape American policy in more ethical and peace-promoting directions. Fr. Christiansen often spoke clearly, specifically, and knowledgeably about American foreign policy. But, he operated from a deep commitment to the global common good, acutely sensitive to the implications of U.S. policy around the world. This is something that is often lacking in our domestic political conversation, but which ought to be very much front of mind for Catholics who claim membership in a universal church. The very range of topics which Fr. Christiansen addressed is a striking reminder of the complexity of what is required for building peace: climate justice, addressing the needs of migrants and refugees, confronting corruption, and building democratic governance. In all of these, he attended to both the governance structures that are needed and the requisite human virtues.

Fr. Christiansen also had a deep sense of the Catholic Church itself as a global reality. He likely would have sympathized with Pope Francis’ recent comment that he doesn’t want to be merely a “chaplain to the West.” One example would be Fr. Christiansen’s response when the Vatican concluded its accord with China in 2018. Many observers wondered at the wisdom of any sort of dialogue with a government guilty of such human rights abuses. Fr. Christiansen urged American Catholics to stop looking at China through the lens of Cold War politics and instead recognize the accord as a step towards the inculturation of the Catholic Church in China. Pope Francis’ approach to China has deep theological roots. As Fr. Christiansen wrote, “A cornerstone of his apostolic exhortation ‘The Joy of the Gospel’ is that each culture produces its own unique synthesis with the Gospel. [Pope Francis] is inclined to accept the idea of Chinese Catholicism rooted in the world’s most ancient civilization.” This is a challenging perspective, but he was right to attend to the needs of the Church in China and also to the need to cultivate avenues of communication with the Chinese regime. In so many contexts around the world, it is impossible to think of promoting a just peace without attending to the role of China, so this is important.

This sense of the global church is also evident in the way that Fr. Christiansen responded to the Community of Sant’Egidio. As Sant’Egidio became more broadly known after mediating the peace accord in Mozambique in 1992, Fr. Christiansen was warmly welcoming to Sant’Egidio when it first began in the United States, despite the fact that Sant’Egidio does not fit easily into the mental categories of most American Catholics. He was consistently supportive of Sant’Egidio’s diplomatic work, in part because he recognized how this peace work flowed from a spirituality profoundly shaped by Vatican II. But it was also because he understood the importance of what was just then beginning to be termed “Track II diplomacy.” In an article about his own professional trajectory, Drew described that period: “Civil society was beginning to work with governments and international organizations. World affairs was no longer a chessboard…but a three-dimensional game in a complex network of states, international organizations, and civil society institutions and movements working together in a network of relations.” His global view gave him the ability to recognize the complexity of the global context in which organizations like Sant’Egidio were beginning to play an important peacemaking role.

In many ways, Pacem in Terris anticipated Fr. Christiansen’s multidimensional, global view. As he pointed out,

Pacem in Terris still dealt with binational and multinational realities of a traditional sort. But the underlying political theology of the encyclical revived an older, ‘cosmopolitan’ Catholic political theology, identified from late antiquity through the Middle Ages with Christendom, now secularized…in the form of a rights based political universalism. John saw all political order as directed to upholding the rights of persons. In this context, the pope introduced a level of political action the encyclical calls ‘the world community’ and which diplomats, journalists and church leaders refer to as ‘the international community.’ For the sake of the future welfare of the one human family, Pope John also proposed a novel concept: the universal common good.

Reading that, it is easy to see why Fr. Christiansen devoted so much energy to promoting mechanisms of global governance such as Responsibility to Protect (R2P), the International Criminal Court, and nuclear nonproliferation agreements. Yet, he combined that attention to structures with careful attention to the need for peace to be cultivated in local contexts and especially in human hearts. He welcomed Pope Francis’ way of speaking about unity–or about peace, really–as “a polyhedron, a multifaceted reality in which the contribution of the diverse parts to the whole are more evident. Francis wants to bring together the global and the local, but with each part growing in its own way, so we constantly broaden our horizons even as we deepen our local roots.”

In recent years, one component of promoting peace at the local level to which Fr. Christiansen paid attention was the cultivation of nonviolence as a political strategy. Already in the 1993 pastoral letter The Harvest of Justice is Sown in Peace, the role of nonviolent movements in the political transitions in Eastern Europe and the Philippines is highlighted. In the past few years, nonviolence has been receiving more emphasis in Catholic ethics, particularly since Pope Francis’ 2017 World Day of Peace message. Writing about that message, Fr. Christiansen noted that “The task it sets for the church, including especially Catholic just-war analysts, is to make the principles and practices of active nonviolence as familiar and natural to Catholics, and the public generally, as those of the just war.” This is indeed a challenge–how to enculturate a more truly Christian approach to political action into a U.S. context that far too often romanticizes violence and guns.

Finally, on the level of the individual conscience, it is remarkable to see how naturally Fr. Christiansen combined incisive policy analysis with more personal reflections on kindness and tenderness as essential for peace and good governance. In his reflections on Fratelli Tutti, he wrote, “Christian approaches to governance, including the power of the sword, must be exercised in the context of a life of Christian virtue with the imitation of the gentleness of Christ at its heart.” This echoes one of the loveliest aspects of the pastoral letter that he helped to draft, The Harvest of Justice is Sown in Peace: it begins with a section entitled “Peaceable Virtues,” where we read first and foremost that “True peacemaking can be a matter of policy only if it is first a matter of the heart.” We are indeed fortunate that it was clearly a matter that was very close to Fr. Christiansen’s heart.

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