|Encyclical Does Not Advocate World-State
By John Zmirak
MERRIMACK, New Hampshire, 14 JULY 2009 (zenit)
Much of the buzz around
Benedict XVI's complex and multi-faceted new encyclical in the secular
press has centered on just one paragraph, number 67.
Taken out of context, without the countervailing statements in the rest
of the document, and removed from the organic whole of Catholic social
teaching, it is being trumpeted by many as the Pope's call for an
one with sovereign powers akin to those the U.S. federal government
wields over the 50 states, or the European Union (some fear) will soon
exercise over member nations.
To most of us, such a prospect is not a dream but a nightmare. As I
wrote in my early comments on "Caritas in Veritate" at
InsideCatholic.com: "Perhaps I am too Augustinian, but I cannot help
deeply suspecting that any such state would by its very nature begin or
(more likely) end as a tyranny. The very monopoly of its power, and the
fact that there was not one square inch of the earth from which anyone
could escape its clutches, would remove any check or balance from its
Surely Benedict XVI is not so naïve as to willingly lay the groundwork
for such a dystopia. And indeed, throughout the document he insists on
the centrality of what the Church calls subsidiarity
the principle that any vital social service that can be done by private
individuals should be. Failing that, civic organizations
whose centrality he trumpets throughout the document
should take up the slack.
If an important social good
something impinging on the rights of human persons, or what the Pope
calls true "human development"
is still being neglected, then local government should address it. If it
fails, regional government ought to take action.
Problems that escape a region's grip (for instance, air pollution, the
smuggling of drugs or people) will rise to the attention of the national
Hence, by strict Catholic principles, only problems that elude the
efforts of individuals, civil society, townships, states, and even
nations could ever fall under the purview of an international authority.
To needlessly involve a more distant, unaccountable level of government
in a social problem is simply wrong
civic sin. There is even a name for it, a very old Greek name:
Now, the Pope points to certain contemporary problems in economics,
ecology, and human rights that do indeed seem to cry out for some
supranational solution. To whatever extent human use of energy is indeed
changing the climate and threatening to render uninhabitable the only
planet we know of that's (ahem) "open to life," then it does seem that
international cooperation is in order
with some mechanism for punishing countries and corporations that play
Likewise, the mass migration of peoples from underdeveloped continents
to lands that do not require their unskilled labor also requires
international cooperation to control it.
One problem the Pope points to is that the most powerful countries are
often precisely the culprits in such international issues
think of how in the 18th century, Great Britain "ruled the waves," and
dominated the global slave trade, or of the environmental abuses
occurring today in China.
Such countries, thanks to what the Pope cites as the "global balance of
power," are the least likely to make (or at least to comply with)
The current worldwide financial crisis is America's most successful
the product of U.S. businessmen making wildly speculative loans, certain
that if they failed, the taxpayers would step in like a long-suffering
spouse and pay their gambling debts, since the banks involved were "too
big to fail."
Reading Benedict XVI's encyclical, one might draw the conclusion that
companies "too big to fail" are in fact too big to exist
and ought to be broken up by governments. Such a solution was proposed
after World War II by Wilhelm Röpke, the economist who served as
architect of the postwar German "miracle." It ought to be taken
The problem isn't with the Pope's language (taken in context), but how
dishonest people will try to use it.
It's critical for us to fight for the proper interpretation of the
Pope's call for international cooperation, and some authority higher
than the nation-state that could hold countries accountable for crimes
like genocide, or recklessly irresponsible behavior that endangers
neighboring countries. We must point out, relentlessly, the following:
The Pope states as a mandatory condition that any such projected
government: a) respect subsidiarity, and be delegated the power only to
intervene when every other level of government had failed; b) accept
what Benedict calls the "Truth" of the human person
in the person of Jesus Christ as preached by the Church.
So, the Pope wants an international federation of sovereign states that
can, in rare and exceptional cases, intervene in the affairs of
particular nations when their actions threaten others, and he wants it
to be in spirit
if not in name
profoundly Catholic. Anything else that’s on offer, he’s opposed to it.
And no, you cannot build up a global state first, with power in the
hands of the kind of utopian materialists who currently dominate the
European Union and the United Nations, in the hope that later on you’ll
infuse it with “Gospel values.” That’s like giving a tanker truck full
of plutonium to a chronic drunk driver in the hope that he’ll discover a
Until and unless the two conditions are met, Catholics are free to
and I think obliged to
fight for states' rights, regional liberties, and national sovereignty.
The alternative is Orwellian.
* * *
Dr. John Zmirak is Writer-in-Residence at Thomas More College, and
author of (among other books) "Wilhelm Röpke" (ISI Books), and the
graphic novel "The Grand Inquisitor."