Religion's Role in International Politics

Observers Say Faith Has a Part to Play

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ROME, JAN. 8, 2005 (Zenit.org).- John Paul II's message for the recent World Day of Peace contained a somber overview of the state of affairs today. "We cannot help but note the disturbing spread of various social and political manifestations of evil: from social disorders to anarchy and war, from injustice to acts of violence and killing," the Pope wrote in No. 3 of the message.



As a response, the Holy Father called for a renewal of the "common patrimony of moral values bestowed by God himself." The Pope recalled his 1995 U.N. speech in which he referred to a "grammar" of universal moral law that unites all humans despite their cultural differences. In this year's Day of Peace message John Paul II called for an "ever greater commitment and responsibility" to this grammar.

The role of moral values in today's world was also dealt with in a recently published collection of texts by the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, titled "Justice and Peace: An Ever Present Challenge." Commenting on the role of the Church's social doctrine, the council's secretary, Bishop Giampaolo Crepaldi, stressed a twofold way in which Christians can make their presence felt in society: personal witness, and planning for an authentic humanism.

Bishop Crepaldi explained that the Church's hope is that the teaching of social doctrine will "help to produce authentic believers and inspire them to be credible witnesses, capable of changing the mechanisms of modern society by their way of thinking and acting."

He also insisted on renewing those structures that paralyze or distort social development and justice. "The Gospel logic of love must be embodied in the human and rational logic of the economy, of politics and of society."

Overcoming poverty

An important part of striving to implant this "logic of love" is the effort to ensure economic justice and to help the poor. The role of morality in the struggle against poverty was examined in a recent book, "Mind, Heart and Soul in the Fight Against Poverty." The work, edited and published by the World Bank, is based on the efforts of a team composed of people within and outside of the U.N. agency.

The book observes that faith-based organizations "are important players in many spheres of development," but it contends that their role has not been given sufficient attention in the past. In part this is because the primary concern of "faith leaders and institutions" is spiritual well-being, while development institutions focus on material concerns. Moreover, many public institutions function on the underlying assumption of a separation between church and state.

This divide has been reduced in recent years, due to a common concern over issues related to globalization and the problem of overcoming persistent poverty. An important event in bringing together the two sides was the role played by faith groups in the campaign for international debt relief prior to the Jubilee Year of 2000. Nevertheless, the book acknowledges that there exist "sharp differences" between faith and development institutions over certain issues.

Referring to the title of the book, the opening chapter explains that apart from bringing the resources of the mind to bear in the fight against poverty, there is also need for the heart, source of the passion and commitment that drives both faith and development institutions. The soul, a dimension not often considered by secular institutions, can be of use because of the religious teachings and traditions that offer a new perspective. The World Bank also noted that many of the values in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are contained in religious teachings.

Foreign policy

While faith groups have many values in common when it comes to putting ideas into practice, there are also multiple points of view on how to deal with the problem, the book explains. The experience of faith groups also varies widely from country to country, particularly with regard to their relations with government authorities.

Part of the book looks at efforts by faith organizations to deal with the HIV/AIDS problem in Africa. The World Bank acknowledged that most religious-based groups are opposed to condom use, but also recognized that the groups played a vital role through their care of the sick and the promotion of abstinence and faithfulness.

The study concludes that achieving the development goals set for coming years is a complex and arduous process. "Enormous progress on these goals is possible, but we must mobilize faith-based energy and moral authority on the world stage if we hope to make them a reality," the book states.

A much-debated theme in recent times is the relationship between faith and foreign policy. This subject was covered in another recent book, "Liberty and Power: A Dialogue on Religion and U.S. Foreign Policy in an Unjust World." The introduction notes that opposition to religion's role in international affairs stems from a twofold fear: that introducing faith will only obfuscate the debate; and that religion has been, and still is, used sometimes as an excuse for violence.

But in his contribution to the volume, Father J. Bryan Hehir, former president of Catholic Charities USA and currently a professor at Harvard University, argues that there is a growing consensus that excluding religion from the political order only "yields a distorted conception of contemporary world politics." The public and social significance of religion, he continues, must be given its due attention and weight.

Father Hehir explains that the religious tradition has much to offer to the current debates over such matters as when military intervention is justified and how to deal with humanitarian problems. Be it the human rights perspective contained in recent encyclicals, or the centuries-old ideas contained in the just war ethic, religion has a worthy point of view, he says.

Fighting terrorism

By contrast, Michael Walzer, a professor at Princeton University and author of many writings on just war and political theory, prefers to talk about morality in foreign policy. He affirmed that a foreign policy based on faith would be a bad idea because faith often leads to dogma and certainty, which can in turn override morality.

A moral foreign policy, continued Walzer, should be based on four propositions:

-- protect the lives of citizens.

-- not to inflict harm on the citizens of other states.

-- help the citizens of other states, when possible, to avoid or escape "the crimes and disasters of collective life."

-- help the citizens of other states, when they want to be helped, to build decent and non-repressive political systems.

In her contribution, Louise Richardson of Harvard University looked at the role religion plays in terrorist groups. She warned that it is crucial to avoid classifying religious terrorists as "an undifferentiated mass of religious fanatics." Understanding and combating these groups requires a detailed understanding of who they are and what their motivations are.

To fight terrorism, Richardson argued in favor of following ethical principles and concentrating on mobilizing people of all religious traditions in an effort to deny terrorists any effective base of support among the population.

The theme of this year's message for the World Day of Peace is taken from the letter of St. Paul to the Romans: "Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good" (12:21). A useful reminder of the positive role moral values can play in international affairs.