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Ralph Rotte {*}

Beyond Everyday Business

The Holy See on Reorganizing International Relations


From: Herder Korrespondenz, 9/2009, P. 469-473
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    As a subject of international law the Holy See is not only an outstanding player in international politics. It has also always been developing concepts for the global order of politics and economy, which not least are reflected in Benedict XVI's social encyclical and are certainly worth discussing.


With the encyclical Caritas in Veritate (see HK, August 2009, 380 et seq.) Benedict XVI has again summarized and actualised the fundamental position of the Catholic Church to today's pressing social and political problems against the background of the global financial and economic crisis. The Holy See has thus emphasised that it is entitled on the basis of Catholic social teaching to participate actively in the debate about fundamental questions of humanity and at the same time thus to play a significant, self-defined role with regard to ethical and moral aspects of a humane policy. It might be that its positions are lacking in media-effective improvements and substantiations, as the ambivalent reactions in public show.

Benedict XVI's reference to the urgent need of "a true world political authority" in order to "manage the global economy; to revive economies hit by the crisis; to avoid any deterioration of the present crisis and the greater imbalances that would result; to bring about integral and timely disarmament, food security and peace; to guarantee the protection of the environment and to regulate migration" (Caritas in veritate, No. 67) e.g. was repeatedly criticized as too vague and abstract for a practical policy of reform at the global level.

In fact, there are definitely two immediate points of contact for more specific positionings of the Holy See in this matter: As the only non-state actor the Holy See as observer has, on the one hand, a position equal to that of other states in the United Nations and uses it for active commitment to all global issues concerning the social doctrine.



On the other hand, the Catholic Church definitely takes quite explicitly, not least at the regional level time and again a stand on political issues.

A summary of the current key challenges for the diplomacy of the Holy See at the United Nations in the autumn of 2006 was given by the recently appointed Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone. He mentioned above all the protection of human rights, the moral condemnation of war and its exclusion as a means of policy, a security concept that gives preference to the civilian components and general disarmament as the crucial questions "in which the difficult relationship between the prophetic aspect and the practical demands of life (...) comes to light." By referring to the connection between ethical norms and socio-economic policy conditions one could together with Benedict XVI point to the "strongly felt need of a reform of the United Nations Organization, and likewise of economic institutions and international finance" (Caritas in Veritate, No. 67).

But how should such a reorganisation look like? As Benedict XVI emphasized in his social encyclical, according to the Holy See since John XXIII and Paul VI the United Nations play a central role in the peaceful order of the international system. The UN is for the Holy See the supporting forum and instrument of global governance to overcome war and economic distress.

Two basic principles apply to it: The immediate factual constraint of global problems for which there is no longer any solution expertise at the national or regional level should be complemented by fundamental ethical elements, in the sense of a global governance that is also oriented towards ethical values. The recognition of the principle of subsidiarity is also fundamental for a sustainable and equitable global governance, in order to ensure on the one hand its effectiveness and reliability, and on the other hand to avoid lack of democracy and the marginalization of individual countries and societies.

John Paul II expressed the Holy See's concern regarding the UN reform in his message on the occasion of the World Day of Peace 2000 to that effect that "it was necessary to define effective instruments and modes of intervention within the framework of international law. In this regard, the United Nations Organization itself must offer all its Member States an equal opportunity to be part of the decision-making process, eliminating privileges and discriminations which weaken its role and its credibility." He thus called de facto for abolition of the veto of the five permanent members of the Security Council and its comprehensive reorganization.


For a new International Economic Order

In the Message for the World Day of Peace 2003 the Pope specified his ideas on the UN reform on the basis of three guiding principles: Firstly, it should not aim at the constitution of a global super-State. For the Holy See the idea of a "world state", which in the sense of a new state level is located above the nation states, is not attractive, because it is regarded as contrary to the subsidiarity principle of the Catholic social teaching and the self-determination of peoples. The United Nations are therefore further on conceived as a closely cooperating association of states.



Secondly, democratic forms of exercising political authority should apply to the UN, too. Democratic participation and the avoidance of domination of individual groups or states are principles that also apply to both the national and international level. Thirdly, the principle of maximum transparency and accountability applies to every level of public life. The self-determination of people should thus be ensured also in the social and political context.

Benedict XVI confirmed this position in 2006 and suggested intensifying the comprehensive and democratic representation of the member states in the Security Council. In addition, the Holy See advocates emphasizing more strongly preventive diplomacy and the states' obligation to protect human rights. According to the criteria developed by John Paul II in extreme cases the massive violation of human rights is even to entail the international community's duty to intervene, which is to be enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations.

According to the Holy See, the United Nations must therefore be in a position actually to make effective decisions and to enforce them as well. Accordingly, the mechanisms of peacekeeping and recovery in Chapter VI and VII of the UN Charter remain important. But they must be complemented by internationally recognized instruments for disarmament and arms control, and for the fight against transnational crime and terrorism. In 2005 the Holy See has proposed for it to establish a Peacebuilding Commission of the United Nations in order to work out and to implement strategies for eliminating the causes of conflict.

Regarding the reorganization of the international economic system, the Holy See has been distinguishing itself for a long time by a very critical and discriminating attitude. Particularly after the end of the Cold War John Paul II just as sharply criticized the extreme forms of Western capitalism as those of socialism. Market economy and capitalism are therefore to be judged favourably as long as they describe an economic system that recognizes the fundamental role of free human creativity in the economic sector, private property and the responsibility for the means of production associated with it. But capitalism must be condemned as soon as he is identified with the full freedom of the economic sector without restriction by a legal framework obliging it to serve human freedom as a whole, i.e. including its religious and ethical core.

What has to be done from the perspective of the Holy See against the undesirable developments of capitalism, as they can be observed in the current financial and economic crisis? The answer of John Paul II and Benedict XVI is that the fact has to be recognized that an economic system per se has no useful criteria to distinguish higher or lower human needs. This remains the task of non-economic, i.e. social and ethical elements of human life. Benedict XVI states this more precisely by referring to John Paul II's idea, also already to be found in his teachings, of strengthening the responsible-minded consumers by educating and orienting them towards ethical guidelines, in the sense of a real consumer sovereignty called "economic democracy" (Caritas in Veritate, no. 66), as counterpart to other, profit-oriented market participants.


Maximal Transparency of Financial Markets

In the area of international financial policy the attitude of the Holy See is characterized by a pronounced skepticism toward an unconditional transnational movement of capital. Excessive financial speculation is considered at least since the mid-nineties as dangerous because it had a corrupting effect in furthering the greed for wealth at any cost. In addition, the volatility of financial markets led to the undermining of common economic goals by destabilizing the entire economy. After all, the short-term financial investment and the constant threat of capital drain had a paralysing effect on the economy and led to the omission of long-term investments and socially oriented efforts.

For the Holy See the distinction between purely short-term investments and acquisitions on the one hand and long-term capital investment on the other hand is therefore crucial to avoiding the globalization-related loss of the primacy of work over the capital. For the financial markets the Holy See demands the greatest possible transparency and the primacy of the state, which has to counter the undermining of the political or social options by the market forces.

For according to the Catholic social teaching the political authorities remain indebted to the market to enforce the long-term common weal also and especially under the changing conditions of international capital markets.

From the perspective of the Holy See international economic and development policy is based on the recognition of development as a human right, which results from the community of mankind (solidarity), the equality of men, and the God-given human development capacity (personal responsibility). In this matter the Holy See follows a holistic approach beyond narrow economic-materialistic views and has therefore for a long time been calling for a change of thinking oriented towards a "new culture of solidarity", which is to stand up for harmonizing economic efficiency with political participation and social justice.



Development policy should not be limited to help inspired by humaneness and short-term assistance (food aid), or even caused by the donor countries' hope of economic advantages. It is rather to help with a development of its own and with widely developing one's personal creativity. According to the Holy See successful development policy is therefore to take its starting point from the people and (local) communities and to respect local cultures and values.


Not all Goods are Tradable

At least since the 11th September 2001 it is explicitly recognized by the Holy See that development and international security are inextricably linked. Not least for that reason it advocates increasing effectively the Official Development Assistance (ODA) of the developed countries according to the target of 0.7 per cent of the GDP proclaimed by the United Nations. The development assistance funds are therefore actually to be increased and not merely used more efficiently. The latter has admittedly also to be done, for example by eliminating bureaucratic barriers and by linking the assistance to appropriate conditions of social, economic and institutional reforms, particularly in the poorest countries in Africa. But for the Holy See it is equally important that the donor countries stop orientating their assistance towards their own interests, as they have done up to now.

Since 1985 the Holy See has been calling for a comprehensive debt relief. In the nineties, the Papal diplomats cooperated (since 1999 partially successfully) with the international financial institutions (IFIs), such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank as well as the United Nations and various NGOs, in order accordingly to influence the policy-makers of the industrial countries and to mobilize the public opinion for a debt relief. But it is emphasizing the need for further action.

Unlike more radical critics of globalization the Holy See does recognize the coherence between human rights (i.e. freedom and development) and trade. It therefore calls, inter alia, for the opening of the markets of industrial countries to the agricultural products of developing countries and for a reduction of import duties. On that occasion the social consequences of market opening must not be lost sight of. In general, protectionism is to be abolished, of which in the opinion of the Curia anyway benefit above all the privileged (i.e. the industrial countries).

But a fair structuring of the international trade regime has to take into account the different levels of development of the states, which according to this point of view leads, in the case of a simple free trade, to new injustices and puts the weaker states in a poverty trap. For the Holy See a simple market opening, as it is up to now demanded e.g. by the WTO, without taking into account the weaker competitiveness of developing countries with their deficits in infrastructure and human capital is therefore not sufficient for a sustainable, equitable development.

The world trade system is therefore to be restructured along three key principles: Firstly, the support of the developing countries in expanding their infrastructure, the technology transfer, the transfer of know-how and intellectual property, particularly in terms of biotechnology for smallholder agriculture has massively to be expanded in parallel with their opening to the world market. Secondly, the World Trade Organization is to be made more transparent and democratic.

In addition, along the lines of the United Nations, NGOs and civil society actors are increasingly to be involved in the negotiation processes of the WTO. Thirdly, the Holy See calls for the recognition of the principle that certain goods are to be regarded as non-tradable. For existential goods such as healthcare, education, water and food exemptions from the free-trade regime are to be allowed, which make possible an as necessary seen state intervention and the primacy of security of supply over freedom of trade. Furthermore, analogous exemptions are to apply to goods that should not be traded in for ethical reasons, as e.g. in cases of trafficking in human beings or forced workforce migration.

The Holy See also dedicates itself to the problem of global climate change and environmental protection. In its opinion it is necessary at last to recognize worldwide the anthropogenic causes of global warming. The development of renewable energy and the reduction of subsidies for environmentally hazardous energy sources (fossil fuels) have to be a priority in energy policy. It is also to be tried to persuade people to change their behaviour towards water consumption and to improve the water supply. For the improvement of food supply, particularly in the Third World, the use of genetically modified crops, too, is required. To get institutional support of these environmental policies, in the context of the United Nations the Holy See calls for the transformation of the UN Environment Programme into a more robust UN Environment Commission.

In the centre of the ecological perspective of the Holy See is not so much the environment in itself but rather man in his/her dependence on and his God-given responsibility for a sound environment.



From the perspective of the Holy See the issue of environmental protection is therefore not an isolated field of policy but inextricably linked with virtually all aspects of social equity. Benedict XVI formulates this attitude to the effect that "it is contrary to authentic development to view nature as something more important than the human person. (...) This having been said, it is also necessary to reject the opposite position, which aims at total technical dominion over nature, because the natural environment is more than raw material to be manipulated at our pleasure; it is a wondrous work of the Creator." (Caritas in Veritate, No. 48).

If we, summarizing our reflection on the Holy See's ideas about the reorganization of international relations, go beyond a too narrow reading of Caritas in Veritate and also include the established positions of the Catholic world church's leadership (as Benedict XVI explicitly does it), then this results in the image of a well differentiated and sometimes quite specific conception of the papal diplomacy.

That this conception cannot always do without presenting its requests in a roundabout way is, apart from the tradition of its diplomatic style, especially due to the fact that the Holy See on principle orients towards consensus in international politics and towards the self-conception of an admonishing observer and mediator that stands above the political everyday business in world politics. In this sense, Caritas in Veritate corresponds to what can be expected realistically from the Holy See's reform proposals, regardless of the person of the reigning pope.


    {*} Ralph Rotte (born in 1968), graduate political scientist and graduate economist, received his doctorate and became a professor at the Universität der Bundeswehr München and is since 2001 professor of Political Science / International Relations at the University of Aachen.


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