Skip to content

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

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 a moral-theological or political point of view, to ascribe to the U.N. capacities it doesn't have and a moral authority it has rarely demonstrated in practice.

Q: One of your arguments at the conference was that Catholic teaching does not contain a "presumption against war," as the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops claims it does. Some at the Vatican equate the Pope's messages against war -- "War is always a defeat for humanity" -- with a presumption against war. If Catholic teaching in the 20th century were to include a presumption against war, would that be wrong? Why?

Weigel: The phrase "presumption against war" obscures far more than it illuminates. Of course Catholic thinking about war and peace begins with a "presumption against war," if by that we simply mean that war should not be the first recourse in an international conflict.

But those who use that phrase today often mean much more. They mean that the use of proportionate and discriminate armed force is always morally suspect, and this has not been the stance of the Catholic just war tradition for 1,500 years.

The classic tradition believed that the morality of the use of armed force depended on who was using it, why, to what ends, and how. Thus the classic just war tradition begins with a presumption in favor of justice: legitimate sovereign authority has the moral obligations to defend those for whom the public authorities have assumed responsibility.

There are many ways to fulfill that obligation; in certain circumstances, proportionate and discriminate armed force can be one of those ways.

If you begin your analysis this way, with the responsibility of sovereign authority to advance the peace of order, you can bring the full riches of the tradition to bear on the situation; if you begin somewhere else, you can get confused. And your vision can become blurred.

Q: Similarly, you question whether the Holy See's position on war isn't a type of "functional pacifism -- a way of thinking that retains the intellectual apparatus of the just war tradition of moral reasoning but that always comes down, at the bottom line, in opposition to the use of armed force." If the Vatican's line on war were to be a type of functional pacifism, could that be accepted as a legitimate development in Church teaching or would it be an error, in your opinion?

Weigel: We have to distinguish here between the moral teaching of the Catholic Church and the diplomacy of the Holy See, acting as an extension of the global mission of the Bishop of Rome, the Pope.

The moral teaching of the Church is aptly summarized in the Catechism, which I do not believe can be read as endorsing what I termed in my Rome paper "functional pacifism."

As for the diplomacy of the Holy See, it seems to me that the Holy See should constantly press for non-military solutions to conflicts.

It would be inappropriate for the Vatican's secretary for relations with states -- the "foreign minister" -- or officials like the president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace to announce, publicly, and in so many words, "These are the good guys, these are the bad guys; good guys, go to it, and God bless you." The diplomats of the Holy See should press for non-military solutions; that's their job.

Similarly, the moral witness of Pope John Paul II has been directed, appropriately, toward pressing the nations to resolve their conflicts without violence. We can be sure that future popes will do the same thing.

That witness and that diplomacy should be conducted in such a way that it does not suggest that the Church has, as a matter of moral principle, adopted a stance of "functional pacifism," which it has not.

How to do that is a delicate matter that requires, among other things, careful coordination of statements from all the organs of the Holy See. It also requires a measure of self-discipline on the part of senior churchmen in Rome.

American and other reporters falsely assume that every senior official of the Holy See speaks "for the Vatican." They don't. In this kind of media environment, senior churchmen have to be very careful to let the Holy See speak in its own voice, through its own appropriate organs.

All of these questions, which touch on the meaning of the rich, complex just war tradition for today, will be among the issues discussed as the process I began discussing with Archbishop Migliore a year ago unfolds.

Q: You say, "Catholics whose countries experience a particular burden of responsibility in world affairs and who understand the distinctive way that Catholic social ethics once thought about the moral dimensions of world politics, ought to play a significant role in the Roman conversation and might well be consulted more regularly by the appropriate dicasteries of the Roman Curia." I assume here that you refer to Americans Catholics, at least as one of the major groups, and ask why, if they make up only 6% of worldwide Catholics, should they be given a majority voice in Rome?

Weigel: No one is asking for a "majority voice." As Archbishop Migliore and I both recognized, there is considerable expertise in the relevant disciplines -- just war theology, international legal theory, human rights theory, etc. -- in the United States.

Those specialists should be in more regular conversation with European intellectual colleagues, with the Roman intellectual milieu, and with the appropriate offices of the Holy See. Everyone will benefit from such a conversation, in both directions across the Atlantic.

* * *

The Lean Team

When a public dignitary or head of state travels, an "advance team" normally precedes him, to arrange everything from security to dietary needs. Advance teams for presidents and pop stars can number in the hundreds.

John Paul II has an advance team of two. One of them is Bishop Renato Boccardo, recently named secretary of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications and a longtime organizer of papal trips.

In anticipation of the Pope's June 5-6 trip to Switzerland, I sat down with Bishop Boccardo, who had just returned from Bern.

"When I go to speak with a government to prepare a visit, there is always great surprise when they see there are only two of us," Bishop Boccardo said. "They always ask, 'And when will the group be coming to prepare the trip? Isn't there a committee?'"

"I tell them we are the committee and we'll return a month prior to the trip for the last-minute details," he said.

The second surprise for governments is that the Pope's entourage consists of not more than 30 people: cardinals, the Vatican secretary of state, the "sostituto," master of ceremonies, some priests from the Secretariat of State to assist with languages, a physician, the directors of L'Osservatore Romano, the press office, and Vatican Radio and six security staff -- two Swiss guards and four Vatican police -- unarmed.

"It's another great surprise for the governments: The Pope's security does not carry weapons," said Bishop Boccardo. "'What kind of security is that?' they say to us."

He explained: "The Pope prefers that the people closest to him don't carry weapons. Security is entrusted to the host country."

The Pope views his travels as a true pilgrimage, not just a trip abroad.

"He has the attitude of a pilgrim when he travels," said Bishop Boccardo. "When in the car or a helicopter he always has the rosary in his hand. It's as if he were sowing prayer in the lands where he visits."

When on the papal plane, the Pope often looks out the window and makes a gesture of benediction on the land below.

Before he begins his daily activities, the Pope spends two hours in morning prayer.

"During the trips, and still today, the Pope is in prayer from just before 6 in the morning until 8," said Bishop Boccardo.

"Before, there was often a chapel in the house he was staying. Now, we try to find a place near his apartment or when possible, even in the apartment, to avoid major movement," he said.

"His personal prayer consists of the breviary, Eucharistic adoration and then scriptural readings from the Mass of the day," the bishop said.

John Paul II's great strength is precisely this "profound intimacy" with God, as well as his "humanity in small gestures," said Bishop Boccardo.

"We are used to the official image of the Pope, but behind this officialness, there is a profound spirituality and humanity," said the Vatican official.

"I remember when we were in Azerbaijan, during a Mass in this closed stadium," said Bishop Boccardo, "at a certain point, a man gets up and starts running toward the Pope. Naturally, he was stopped by the security services and taken away."

"But then the Pope whispered to me, 'I want to see this man,'" recalled the bishop. "I asked the head of security who told me, 'It's not possible. We don't know who he is -- there is a risk he might attempt something -- we've already isolated him.'

"So I told the Pope that the head of security thought it wasn't safe for him to see this man.

"'No, I really want to see him, it's important that I see him,' the Pope said to me."

"So I insisted with security, and at the end of the Mass we brought this man to the Pope, who greeted him and embraced him," Bishop Boccardo said. "He was a man without a home, with a wife and children, who wanted to tell the Pope of his desperation and the Pope welcomed him.

"The Pope can be very insistent -- even the head of security had to give in to his request."

The Pope's great skill in communication lies also in his ease in front of enormous crowds and his ability to deviate from his prepared remarks and joke with the crowd.

"I remember in Cuba, for example," said Bishop Boccardo, "at a certain point during the homily, the people began to cheer and the Pope said, 'I thank you for your cheering, it allows the Pope to catch his breath.'

"Another time in Manila for World Youth Day, there was a huge spotlight that illuminated the scene and every so often it would go out for a few moments and then come back on. The light would go out and the young people would start singing and then the light would come back on and the Pope would continue speaking. This continued for quite some time and at a certain point the Pope said, 'Hmmmm -- light, darkness, light, darkness ...'"

At the beginning of his pontificate, the Pope's desire to travel was misunderstood by the Vatican, according to Bishop Boccardo.

"They did not see his trips as a pastoral strategy," he said. "In the beginning, the interpretation was that a papal trip was the exception, and then we get back to normal life.

"I think for the Pope, the trips were never an exception, but in continuity with what came before and after.

"There was a difficulty in accepting these trips as part of a larger project, but for the Pope papal trips are an ordinary part of being Pope and he has marked an era through this form of communication."


Catholic Online CA, US
Catholic Online - Publisher, 661 869-1000



War, Iraq, Pope, Weigel

More Catholic PRWire

Showing 1 - 50 of 4,718

A Recession Antidote
Randy Hain

Monaco & The Vatican: Monaco's Grace Kelly Exhibit to Rome--A Review of Monegasque-Holy See Diplomatic History
Dna. Maria St. Catherine Sharpe, t.o.s.m., T.O.SS.T.

The Why of Jesus' Death: A Pauline Perspective
Jerom Paul

A Royal Betrayal: Catholic Monaco Liberalizes Abortion
Dna. Maria St.Catherine De Grace Sharpe, t.o.s.m., T.O.SS.T.

Embrace every moment as sacred time
Mary Regina Morrell

My Dad
JoMarie Grinkiewicz

Letting go is simple wisdom with divine potential
Mary Regina Morrell

Father Lombardi's Address on Catholic Media
Catholic Online

Pope's Words to Pontifical Latin American College
Catholic Online

Prelate: Genetics Needs a Conscience
Catholic Online

State Aid for Catholic Schools: Help or Hindrance?
Catholic Online

Scorsese Planning Movie on Japanese Martyrs
Catholic Online

2 Nuns Kidnapped in Kenya Set Free
Catholic Online

Holy See-Israel Negotiation Moves Forward
Catholic Online

Franchising to Evangelize
Catholic Online

Catholics Decry Anti-Christianity in Israel
Catholic Online

Pope and Gordon Brown Meet About Development Aid
Catholic Online

Pontiff Backs Latin America's Continental Mission
Catholic Online

Cardinal Warns Against Anti-Catholic Education
Catholic Online

Full Circle
Robert Gieb

Three words to a deeper faith
Paul Sposite

Relections for Lent 2009
chris anthony

Wisdom lies beyond the surface of life
Mary Regina Morrell

World Food Program Director on Lent
Catholic Online

Moral Clarity

Pope's Lenten Message for 2009
Catholic Online

A Prayer for Monaco: Remembering the Faith Legacy of Prince Rainier III & Princess Grace and Contemplating the Moral Challenges of Prince Albert II
Dna. Maria St. Catherine Sharpe

Keeping a Lid on Permissiveness
Sally Connolly

Glimpse of Me
Sarah Reinhard

The 3 stages of life
Michele Szekely

Sex and the Married Woman
Cheryl Dickow

A Catholic Woman Returns to the Church
Cheryl Dickow

Modernity & Morality
Dan Shea

Just a Minute
Sarah Reinhard

Catholic identity ... triumphant reemergence!
Hugh McNichol

Edging God Out
Paul Sposite

Burying a St. Joseph Statue
Cheryl Dickow

George Bush Speaks on Papal Visit
Catholic Online

Sometimes moving forward means moving the canoe
Mary Regina Morrell

Action Changes Things: Teaching our Kids about Community Service
Lisa Hendey

Easter... A Way of Life
Paul Spoisite

Papal initiative...peace and harmony!
Hugh McNichol

Proclaim the mysteries of the Resurrection!
Hugh McNichol

Jerusalem Patriarch's Easter Message
Catholic Online

Good Friday Sermon of Father Cantalamessa
Catholic Online

Papal Address at the End of the Way of the Cross
Catholic Online

Cardinal Zen's Meditations for Via Crucis
Catholic Online

Interview With Vatican Aide on Jewish-Catholic Relations
Catholic Online

Pope Benedict XVI On the Easter Triduum
Catholic Online

Holy Saturday...anticipation!
Hugh McNichol

Never Miss any Updates!

Stay up to date with the latest news, information, and special offers.

Learn about Catholic world

Catholic Online
Inform - Inspire - Ignite

Catholic Online Saints
Your saints explained

Catholic Online Prayers
Prayers for every need

Catholic Online Bible
Complete bible online

Catholic Online News
Your news Catholic eye

Daily Reading
Today's bible reading

Lent / Easter
Death & resurrection of Jesus

Advent / Christmas
Birth of Jesus

Rest of Catholic Online
All Catholic world we offer

Products and services we offer

Catholic Online Shopping
Catholic medals, gifts & books

The California Network
Inspiring streaming service

Advertise on Catholic Online
Your ads on

Catholic Online Email
Email with Catholic feel

Catholic Online Singles
Safe, secure Catholic dating

The California Studios
World-class post production service

Learn the Catholic way

Catholic Online School
Free Catholic education for all

Student Classes
K-12 & Adult Education Classes

School Teachers
Teacher lesson plans & resources

Support Free Education
Tax deductible support Free education

Connect with us online

Catholic Online on Facebook
Catholic social network

Catholic Online on Twitter
Catholic Tweets

Catholic Online on YouTube
Enjoy our videos

Catholic Online on Instagram
Shared Catholic moments

Catholic Online on Pinterest
Catholic ideas style inspiration

Catholic Online Logo

Copyright 2018 Catholic Online. All materials contained on this site, whether written, audible or visual are the exclusive property of Catholic Online and are protected under U.S. and International copyright laws, © Copyright 2018 Catholic Online. Any unauthorized use, without prior written consent of Catholic Online is strictly forbidden and prohibited.