John Zmirak: The Pope and Global Tyranny

Encyclical Does Not Advocate World-State

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By John Zmirak

MERRIMACK, New Hampshire, JULY 14, 2009 (Zenit.org).- 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 international government -- 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 bureaucrats."

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 government.

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 -- a civic sin. There is even a name for it, a very old Greek name: "Tyranny."

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 the scofflaw.

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) international agreements.

The current worldwide financial crisis is America's most successful export -- 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 seriously again.

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 he will 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 “higher power.”

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.

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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."