The Ecumene and Global Order

By: Drew Christiansen

September 25, 2015

Religion and World Order

When the Papal States fell to the forces of the Italian Risorgimento in 1870, the thousand-year rule of popes over central Italy, and with it the temporal (political) authority of the papacy, came to an end. For nearly 50 years, until the Lateran Treaty in 1929, the pope remained “a prisoner of the Vatican.” During World War One, the belligerents ignored papal pleas for peace, and at the Versailles peace conference President Woodrow Wilson and the victorious allies saw fit to exclude Vatican diplomats from their deliberations (Pollard).

In “the long nineteenth century” (an expression for the sway of nineteenth century preoccupations over church life well into the twentieth century [O’Malley]), Catholics regarded the loss of the Papal States as a devastating setback, but, since then, it has come to be seen as a blessing. Speaking to U.S. State Catholic Conference directors in 1999, Celestino Migliore, the then-Vatican sub-secretary of state declared that, “free of the ball and chain” of the Papal States, the Holy See had been freed up to conduct “a diplomacy of peace and conscience” (Origins, v. 29). 

As an ecumene, a universal communion (Voegelin, Wolin), its attitudes toward world order will tend to be, in political terms, “cosmopolitan” (C. Beitz) —focused more on the rights of persons and communities and on the promotion of the common good rather than the interests of states. For this reason, it can be expected to serve as a “leaven” promoting world order and replenishing the sources of renewal for political institutions in the decades ahead (Vatican II, Gaudium et Spes, 2). In this context, the Church has also repeatedly advocated for the sake of the universal common good a global authority to address pressing issues which states and treaties among states have failed to meet. 

Tom Banchoff’s judgment that “At the level of the international system, however, the (Catholic) Church’s advocacy . . . has achieved only isolated successes . . .” misjudges the Church’s role in the late twentieth century. Take human rights, for example. Pacem in terris laid the groundwork for an extensive network of human rights activity, beginning with the Vicariat for Solidarity in 1970s Chile and a host of human rights centers across the developing world. Its activity was a source for democratization and liberalization from south to north in Latin America and for labor rights, indigenous rights, and religious liberty in India, Pakistan and elsewhere. 

In Eastern Europe, Pope John Paul II was a major actor in the collapse of Communist governments (Garton-Ash, Sculz, Weigel), not only by his tutoring of the labor activists of Solidarity and grand gestures like his trips to Poland, but by astute negotiation with Brezhnev and later Gorbachev that prevented Soviet invasions to put down the popular uprisings. Those were no mean achievements in international affairs. And one can list several other authoritarian countries where governments or colonial regimes fell in the wake of John Paul’s visits (See, e.g., Kohen). 

John Paul held the interest of both the CIA and Soviet intelligence, and had direct support from the CIA. His would-be assassin was sponsored by a Soviet client state. In the atmosphere of the Cold War, the CIA was less favorable to other church figures. 

Good Pope John received visits from CIA head John McCone and other emissaries to dissuade him from his engagement with the Soviets (Ostpolitik), an anticipation of Superpower détente, and his policy of disengagement from Italian politics, which allowed Christian Democrats and Communists to find common ground, clearing the road for Eurocommunism and the end of Soviet hegemony over the leftist parties of Western Europe. The US proxy wars in Central America took aim at church activists as a threat to American hegemony. 

These were no mere epiphenomena on the surface of the international system, but developments in which the Church played a major role that deeply marked their times. 

Nonetheless, the Church and churches do not see their role as “[challenging],” as Banchoff writes, “the foundations of the secular international system that has crystalized in the two centuries since the Congress of Vienna—the system of states, market economies, and international institutions based fundamentally on principles of national sovereignty.” The Catholic and mainline churches have accepted secularity and the autonomy of the political order. They see themselves rather as a leaven— “making the [human] family and its history more human” (Gaudium et Spes, 41). 

When it comes to the issues Banchoff cites—human rights, inequality, terrorism and regionalism—the churches, and particularly the Catholic Church, are on the front lines. Their role is to discern “the sufferings and aspirations” of the day (Paul VI). With their global reach and longer timeframes, they are often ahead of the conventional wisdom of states and the international system, and for that reason they may be treated as antagonists by established authorities.

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