10 Principles of Catholic International Thought

Until relatively recently, there existed a rich tradition of distinctively Catholic theorizing about the nature of world politics. Beginning with the works of the Church Fathers and culminating in what is sometimes labeled the Golden Age of Catholic International Relations theory in the middle decades of the 20th century, this tradition – sometimes called the ‘Augustinian-realist’ tradition – provided educated Catholics with the tools necessary both to understand global affairs and to make informed moral and prudential judgments about foreign policy.  To be sure, the tradition was not fixed. It unfolded over time, shaped by internecine debates, changing geopolitical realities, and the evolution of Church teaching. But it was a tradition – a set of truths derived primarily from an Augustian Christian understanding of natural law, the understanding of which deepened and matured over time while remaining unchanged in essence and substance. And it was a uniquely and distinctively Catholic tradition.

Beginning in the post-WWI era and accelerating in the1960s, however, some new and alien innovations began to find their way into this tradition of international thought.  These include, but are not limited to, the ‘merchants of death’ theories of the interwar period; the Peace Studies ideology, pacifism, and liberation theologies of the 1960s; the utopian nuclear disarmament thought of the 1980s; and the Gospel nonviolence and Just Peace ideas that achieved such prominence in the 2000s. The result has been a cumulative, though not yet decisive, break with tradition associated with Augustine, Aquinas, Vitoria, Suarez, Pope Pius XII, and Pope John XXIII. Catholic international thought today, at least in certain progressive Catholic circles, is no longer distinctively Catholic. In its place has congealed a toxic brew of “progressive” bromides that is indistinguishable, except for a thin theological froth, from the cultural-Marxist international thought currently prevalent on the secular left.

Assuming, as I do, that this “progressive” turn in Catholic International Thought (and its doctrinal echo) is an historical cul-de-sac, I think the only way forward is to back up to where we took our collective wrong turn and start again. I am suggesting, in other words, that we return to the mid-twentieth century – the culminating point in the evolution of the Catholic tradition of reflection on world politics – and see what conceptual raw materials we can collect and use to specify enduring principles of international relations that are not tainted by contemporary theoretical and doctrinal developments, but that might shed light on contemporary challenges.  Indeed, we might even go farther.  Let’s revisit the entire history of Catholic theorizing about international relations and distil from it timeless answers to perennial questions related to politics among nations.

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