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Catholic Social Teaching: International Issues

Friday, June 06, 2014
On international issues, Catholic Social Teaching is fundamentally concerned with solidarity for the common good. It acknowledges the interdependence between countries and presses for greater co-operation to establish fairer economic and political structures and to defend basic human rights. In these respects, the Church shows herself to be a 'moral Great Power', not just through her teaching, her diplomacy and the visible role of the Papacy (important though these are), but also in the reality on the ground, with her humanitarian outreach in hospitals, schools, missionary outposts, and even perhaps your local parish.

The Church laments several serious problems at the international level, including unfair trade systems, the greed in the global financial system, the lack of exchange of technologies, and uneven application of international justice. Of course, the relevant international institutions and structures are not necessarily themselves to blame; often they need to be bolstered and extended; other times they require serious reform. The Church wants to see an increase in "democratic and participatory" forms of government and the "free flow of information" on which such forms are based (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (1987), §46).

More urgently, there are crippling material needs that need to be met. There is a fundamental Christian duty to meet the basic needs of our neighbour, especially to feed the hungry (Mt 25:35, 37, 42). Thus, Benedict XVI has spoken boldly of "the right to food, the right to water", based on "the fundamental right to life". He goes on to argue it is not so much the lack of material things as a "shortage of social resources" that cripples the poorest in the world. Basic human needs are not being met because we lack "a network of economic institutions" to guarantee an equitable provision of resources. There needs to be structural (hence sustainable) development - in agriculture, transport, technology, and markets systems (Caritas in Veritate (2009), §27).

Global stability will not be achieved without rich countries taking concrete steps to assist the long-term development of poorer countries, with due accountability and transparency at the receiving end. Nevertheless, international issues cannot be boiled down to economics. Economic development divorced from the moral and religious recognition of fundamental human rights will only "enslave" us, as St John Paul II warned (Sollicitudo, §46).

This means, among other things, that the religious dimension of humanity should be respected by the state. The presence of religion in public life creates an important dimension of transcendence, including the appeal to universal moral principles and to a search for ultimate truth. More basically, the state must promote religious freedom and recognise it in law as a civil right. This is not just a freedom of worship, but a freedom of conscience; it is not just religious tolerance, but true freedom; in other words, it is not just a matter of prudential law, but a principled recognition of human dignity. Indeed, the inalienable dignity of the human person is the golden thread running through all Catholic Social Teaching.

Thus, in the seminal Declaration on Religious Freedom at Vatican II (Dignitatis Humanae, 1965), the Church teaches that "the right to religious freedom has its foundation in the very dignity of the human person, as this dignity is known through the revealed Word of God and by reason itself." Certainly, we have a moral obligation to seek and promote the truth; and as Christians, the Great Commission (Mt 28:19-20) impels us to evangelise the world, to bring all people to the true religion which subsists in the Catholic Church. But truth has a force all of its own, and cannot be imposed by external coercion. Truth flourishes, not in a climate of apathetic relativism, but in an atmosphere of authentic freedom, as Milton recognised: "Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?"

In fact, this commitment to religious freedom is an ancient tradition in the Church. Indeed, it is what sustained the early Christian martyrs, who died as witnesses to a truth that the state tried to repress. They died for freedom; and they died in freedom, in "the glorious liberty of the children of God" (Rom. 8:21). In the 21st century, however, let us not forget that there are more Christian martyrs today than at any other time in history, as well as many non-Christians suffering persecution. Our very own human dignity is at stake while these atrocities continue. So we urgently need to pray and work for peace in our times.

Matthew Jarvis OP


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