The Long View: World Government and the Roman Catholic Church

One of the complaints about Pope Francis' encyclical Laudato Si is that he calls for a world government. This isn't really something new in Catholic social teaching. John frequently argued that Catholic social teaching and just war doctrine assume that something like a competent international authority already exists.

However, John also makes the point that Catholic teaching has a lot to say about what a government should do, but nothing at all about how it should be structured. This is one of those little points that makes Catholic thought so fascinating to me. In principle, any form of government, or any particular government, can be in accord with the universal principles articulated in the Catechism, but no particular government is singled out as best. While many Catholics over the years, even popes, have expressed preferences about what form of government is best, when it came time to write a universal catechism the long institutional memory of the Church ignored all of those particulars in favor of something more universal.

World Government and the Roman Catholic Church
by John J. Reilly
laissez faire
We live in an age of eschatological expectation, and for most of this century a feature of popular American eschatology has been the expectation of the rise of a wicked world government, controlled by Antichrist. It was, perhaps, the "World" in the name of the World Trade Organization, the arbitration association created by the latest GATT agreement, which set off the reaction. In any case, the GATT was denounced by hostile congressmen as a move toward world government, while the chatter on computer bulletin boards described it as yet another sign of the near approach of the endtimes. Throughout the discussion, the explicit premise was that world government is inherently diabolical, and that any international organization is a sort of "government" until proven otherwise.
Although the hostility to world organizations is at least as widespread among conservative Catholics as among conservative Protestants, it really does not fit very well with Catholic tradition or the current understanding of doctrine. Since the Holy Roman Empire proved to be something of a disappointment, the Church has been slow to support particular schemes for universal government. However, the notion of some sort of secular international authority, one that would not detract from the sovereignty of independent states but serve to facilitate their interaction, does fit rather neatly into Catholic social teaching.
Reference to the new Catechism of the Catholic Church can quickly illustrate this point. The general rationale for government is given by section 1927. As we can easily see, this rationale in principle invites universal application:
"It is the role of the state to defend and promote the common good of civil society. The common good of the whole human family calls for an organization of society on an international level."
The Catechism is careful, however, to point out that even an authority which is universal in jurisdiction is not therefore necessarily universal in power. Indeed, as Section 1884 explains, the situation is quite the opposite:
"God has not willed to reserve to himself all exercise of power. He entrusts to every creature the functions it is capable of performing, according to the capacities of its own nature. This mode of governance ought to be followed in social life. The way God acts in governing the world, which bears witness to such great regard to human freedom, should inspire the wisdom of those who govern human communities. They should behave as ministers of divine providence."
What we are talking about here, of course, is the principle of subsidiarity. In political theory, it takes the form of the axiom that the most local level of an organization which is capable of handling a certain issue should have the authority to handle that issue. Subsidiarity is the guiding constitutional principle of the Church. It is the reason why bishops have such wide discretion over matters of discipline and liturgy in their own dioceses. Indeed, it is part of the secret of the Church's longevity: if the Church really were the centralized autocracy of Protestant mythology, it would have strangled in red tape many centuries ago.
Subsidiarity has applications far beyond ecclesiology. It is closely akin to the principle of federalism in American constitutional theory, under which the states are supposed to retain primary jurisdiction over government functions that are local by their nature. The European Community explicitly defines the relationship of its member states to the union government as one of subsidiarity. What we should note here is that the principle does not just protect the rights of local jurisdictions. It also strongly implies that hierarchy, properly understood, is a positive good. Section 1885 suggests, in fact, that good government naturally seeks to make the tranquility of order universal:
"The principle of subsidiarity is opposed to all forms of collectivism. It sets limits for state intervention. It aims at harmonizing relationships between individuals and societies. It tends toward the establishment of true international order."
In discussing the hypothesis of world government, we should recall that not all governments are twentieth century bureaucracies. Henry Kissinger, in his book "Diplomacy," notes that the rather informal association of great powers known as the "Concert of Europe" was for all intents and purposes the government of that continent in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars. The United Nations, in contrast, has all the trappings of a government, except the ability to actually govern anything. The Catechism has nothing to say about what form the institutions of world order should take. Rather, it seeks to outline what their functions should be. Quoting the Vatican II document, "Gaudium et spes," Section 1911 gives us some notion of what a world government would be expected to do:
"Human interdependence is increasing and gradually spreading throughout the whole world. The unity of the human family, embracing people who enjoy natural dignity, implies a UNIVERSAL COMMON GOOD [phrase italicized in original]. This good calls for an organization of the community of nations able to 'provide for the different needs of men; this will involve the sphere of social life to which belong questions of food, hygiene, education....and certain situations arising here and there, as for example...alleviating the miseries of refugees dispersed throughout the world, and assisting migrants and their families."
Governments normally provide disaster relief and social services, but then so do private agencies. The defining power of government has usually been a monopoly on the legitimate use of force, particularly of military force. The sections dealing with war, 2306-2316, rather grudgingly allow to states a right of self-defense, "as long as the danger of war persists and there is no international authority with the necessary competence and power" to maintain world peace. Presumably, then, a universal government would have as one of its functions the duty to police the world, though the principle of subsidiarity would suggest that local disorders should normally be dealt with by local forces.
The verb "police" here is precisely the right one to describe the Catechism's view of the role of the military. Sections 2306-2316 (which together comprise a division entitled "Safeguarding Peace") simply restate traditional Catholic doctrine on war. Peace is defined as not just the absence of conflict, but as the tranquility which naturally arises from a just social order. The familiar criteria for a "just war" are set out. Anyone who reads this material out of context is likely to be struck by its legalism. For statesmen in most places at most times, questions of war and peace are questions of policy, of contingency. While not quite lawless, perhaps no decision about going to war has ever been governed entirely by a legal formula. If the principles enunciated in "Safeguarding the Peace" are supposed to be normative, they are not descriptive norms.
What Catholic military doctrine does resemble is the criteria that well-run civilian police forces articulate regarding the use of deadly force. As the nightly television news will tell you, rules of this sort often work imperfectly. However, they do make sense for any law-governed society in which the authorities, too, can be held responsible for their actions.
In other words, Catholic doctrine best fits a world in which subsidiarity has already reached its logical conclusion. It assumes that a universal "law" and "government" are somehow normative. The present society of nations, in which states must resort to self-help to protect themselves, is provisional. Catholic doctrine looks toward a future situation in which there is some supernational entity with the acknowledged right to settle disputes among states, and the physical ability to make its decisions effective. In that world, the rigid legalism which the Catechism prescribes for questions of war and peace would be not only workable, but morally unavoidable.
There are some denominations that lay great stress on international cooperation and occasionally give explicit support to the idea of world government. They dismiss the anxieties of millenarian evangelicals because, for liberal Christianity, the "endtimes" have become purely metaphorical. The Second Coming means only the eventual victory of goodness and niceness, and the only Final Judgment will be the judgment of history. There are, of course, Catholic theologians who think much the same way these Protestants think, but the actual deposit of the faith is quite otherwise. The Antichrist is alive and well in Catholic eschatology, as section 675 of the Catechism indicates. So is the notion of a final tribulation, when many will be tempted to apostasy by a false messianism. In those days, the Church will "follow her Lord in death and Resurrection" (section 677). The liberal belief that "the kingdom will be a historic triumph of the Church by a progressive ascendancy" is specifically rejected. Only the direct intervention of God in history will defeat the final unleashing of evil. For the Catholic Church, the apocalypse is not a metaphor.
The Catholic Church's lack of anxiety about international organizations has another foundation: historical memory. The Church has lived before under governments with pretensions to universal sovereignty. There is no reason in principle why it could not do so again. As the neo-Thomist philosopher Josef Pieper once noted, although it is likely that the reign of Antichrist would involve some sort of world state, a universal government might still be a goal which men of goodwill could pursue if it seemed advisable at the time. The Roman Empire, for instance, was sometimes hostile to Christianity, sometimes indifferent, and sometimes friendly (too friendly, according to many observers). A government that could actually claim jurisdiction over the whole human race for any length of time would be likely to make a similar record, but even a hostile world government would not necessarily be the mark of the endtimes. The final tribulation is a unique event, a miracle of evil. Religious persecution, in contrast, typically needs no explanation beyond politics.
Considering the dismal record of the United Nations in recent years, this is not one of those eras in which stronger international bureaucracies are a self-evidently good idea. The contemplation of a world government which accurately reflected the political culture of the world today is enough to give any reasonable person the heebie-jeebies. Fine. Nevertheless, it does seem to be a law of history that any international system, such as that which existed in the Mediterranean world in the centuries before Christ, will eventually fall under the control of some overarching sovereignty. I suspect, like Toynbee and Spengler, that our own civilization will also someday find itself governed by a universal state. If you don't live to see it, maybe your grandchildren will. Be this as it may, there is no cause for undue anxiety. It does not have to be the end of the world.
Copyright © 1997 by John J. Reilly

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