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Rome Notes: George Weigel on Just War Theory; Before the Pope Travels Abroad

5/28/2004 - 6:00 AM PST

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U.S. Scholar Expounds on Role of U.N., and More

by Delia Gallagher

ROME, MAY 28, 2004 (Zenit) - George Weigel is one of the foremost American Catholic thinkers involved in the current debate on the Catholic just war tradition and modern warfare.

Weigel was one of the featured speakers and organizers of a conference last month on "Catholic Thought and World Politics in the 21st Century," at the Gregorian University.

I asked Weigel to expound on some of the arguments he raised at the conference, particularly concerning the Church's position on just war, the role of the United Nations and the Holy See's current position on armed intervention.

Q: How did the idea for the conference evolve?

Weigel: In the late spring of 2003, Archbishop Celestino Migliore, the Holy See's representative at the United Nations, and I began to talk about certain problems in the state of Catholic thinking about world politics.

Both of us were concerned about the condition of what used to be called "Catholic international relations theory," and we agreed that a series of programs in Rome that would put European scholars, American scholars and Vatican officials into conversation on the future of Catholic thought about world politics would be in everyone's interest.

The April 2004 conference was, we hope, the beginning of a multiyear process that will lead to a clarification of thought for all who are involved.

So, at the beginning of the process, it seemed best to focus on some very basic questions: the very idea of "Catholic international relations theory"; the current state of the just war debate in the Church; and the nature, prospects and limits of international law.

Q: In your talk, you touch on the difficulties of the role of the United Nations, an organization which in some instances is at odds with the teaching of the Catholic Church, yet one which the Holy See nonetheless says should have decision-making authority on matters such as war. How does one reconcile sovereignty of states with participation in an international organization? Do you think that sovereign states can act to secure peace without assistance or agreement from an international organization; and perhaps that such an organization may not have any significant role to play in securing world peace? Is there an alternative to the U.N.?

Weigel: These are some of the most urgent questions requiring careful thought today. They often come down to the question, What is the locus of moral authority in world politics at the beginning of the 21st century?

Since the modern notion of state sovereignty emerged in the 17th century, the Catholic Church has cautioned, rightly, against absolutizing this idea. The 20th-century popes, in continuity with this concern, were strong advocates of international organizations, with Pope John XXIII proposing a "universal public authority" to handle those global questions that could only be handled at the global level.

At the same time, Blessed John XXIII made clear that he was not supporting "world government," or international structures that would impinge on the legitimate prerogatives of national governments or local governments.

So, from a Catholic point of view, this is a both/and, not either/or, matter. Both the U.N. and sovereign states are facts of international public life, and Catholic international relations theory has to take account of both.

On the question of the U.N.'s authority, and as I indicated in my paper at the April conference, it would be hard to say that, as a matter of fact, the world's nations have agreed that the only entity that can authorize the use of armed force is the U.N.

Here is what I wrote: "Since 1945, 126 out of 189 U.N. member states have been involved in 291 armed conflicts in which some 22 million people have been killed. Given this record, it is difficult to argue that the 'international community' has agreed in practice to be bound by the U.N. Charter and its rules on the use of force. It is even more difficult to argue that the 'international community' has ceded an effective monopoly on the use of force to actions sanctioned by the Security Council. Perhaps it should; perhaps it someday will. But to assert as a matter of fact that this transfer of authority has taken place seems counterfactual today."

That's one dimension of our current situation. On the other hand, the nations of the world are obliged, morally, to build a world of "order," which is Augustine's understanding of the meaning of "peace," and that has to be done, politically at least, through transnational and international organizations.

Work to reform the U.N. system is thus a moral and political imperative. But while that work goes on, it doesn't make much sense to me, from ...

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