Augustine, Aquinas, or Kant? Pope Francis at the UN

One of the world’s worst-kept secrets is the Holy See’s high regard for the United Nations. Since Paul VI, popes have appeared before its General Assembly to express their “great esteem,” as Francis remarked in his recent UN address, for its work.

Not all Catholics entertain favorable views of the UN. They point, for instance, to its relentless efforts to promote gender theory nonsense and evils such as “reproductive rights.” The Holy See, however, maintains that, despite such faults, the UN is worth engaging. There are, I think, three reasons for this.

First, the Church teaches—and many Catholic natural law scholars hold—that the emergence of a “world community” as a distinct political community necessitates a corresponding “authority” (the precise parameters of which the Church has carefully avoided specifying). The second reason might be described as practical. Whether we like it or not, the argument goes, the UN exists. Hence it’s better for the Holy See to be involved, if only to help derail some truly bad ideas.

The third reason, however, is more problematic. It’s hardly original to submit that many Holy See diplomats have imbibed deeply of a continental Western European view of the world. Hence, like your average Brussels bureaucrat, they’re often influenced by ideas detailed in Immanuel Kant’s 1795 essay, “Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch,” but initially outlined by a French priest, the Abbé de Saint-Pierre. The latter’s 1713 Projet pour rendre la paix perpétuelle en Europe (A Project for Bringing about Perpetual Peace in Europe) was the first to make a systematic case for an international organization to promote and maintain universal peace.

In our time, analogous proposals can be found in the liberal internationalism associated with figures such as Woodrow Wilson. Structurally, they translate into an emphasis upon human rights and associated endeavors to concretize top-down transnational governance by people whose philosophical lodestones are invariably Kant’s secular liberal heirs, such as John Rawls. Today’s European Union and its political-bureaucratic class exemplify this outlook. The goal is to lock countries into structures that minimize conflict (at the cost of vast limitations upon nations’ freedom) and, above all, prevent war. War is effectively regarded as always the worst option—virtually unthinkable.

So what should Catholics make of this? On one level, the “Kantian-EU” viewpoint runs counter to an Augustinian understanding of the world. While holding that human nature is universal and fixed, Saint Augustine emphasized sin’s lasting effects upon this nature. No everlasting harmony should therefore be anticipated this side of eternity. Among other things, this indicates that war and other uses of force by sovereign entities can be necessary, sometimes even the good choice to make. Though he was the author of Utopia, there’s little question that Saint Thomas More’s quite realist approach to such matters was profoundly informed by Augustinian thought.

On the other hand, as Benedict XVI stated in his 2008 UN speech, the very idea of human rights was first developed by Catholics such as Francisco de Vitoria. To speak of human rights isn’t consequently at all foreign to Catholic tradition. Elements of such concepts can even be found in Aquinas’s thought. But the same tradition grounds human rights firmly upon natural reason rather than emotions or temporary democratic majorities. Vatican II’s Declaration on Religious Liberty Dignitatis Humanae, for instance, derives the right of religious liberty from natural law—not Lockean liberalism or Kantianism. As for international law, what Augustine, Aquinas, and Vitoria called the ius gentium, or the law of nations (initially formalized by Roman jurists), has been part of Catholic thought for centuries. It was seen, however, as developing primarily from the bottom-up, not top-down, and has little in common with Kant’s proposed “league of peace.”

This brings me to some concerns about Pope Francis’s UN speech. Certainly, the text itself contains many good points. These include its affirmation of the right to life as foundational to all other rights, its disputation of gender ideology, and its highlighting of the international community’s failure to stop the savage persecution of Christians by you-know-who. Francis’s condemnation of what he intriguingly called “declarationist nominalism” could even be read as an ironic censure of the UN’s bad habit—one shared by the EU and the US Supreme Court—of simply asserting rights without really explaining why certain claims are rights rather than the expression of strong feelings.

The more, however, I read the text, the more it seems characterized by (1) inattentiveness to Augustinian insights and (2) unresolved tensions between Kantian-internationalist and natural law emphases.

Though the speech acknowledges that the world’s many problems remain unresolved, it doesn’t convey a sense that sin and fallibility are constants of human existence. At times, the text infers that, with enough effort and good will, all such problems are basically fixable. That’s a position with which great Catholic minds such as Augustine and More would be ill-at-ease. They would also, I imagine, find fault with the address’s Kantianesque claim that “War is the negation of all rights.” No one should be an enthusiast for war. But the Church has long taught that war can sometimes be a just way of protecting the rights of individuals, communities, and nations.

Another manifestation of crypto-Kantianism may be found in the speech’s claim that the UN itself represents “the development and promotion of the rule of law, based on the realization that justice is an essential condition for achieving the ideal of universal fraternity.” One could perhaps read this in terms of the Christian idea of universal brotherhood. The presentation, however, of the ideal as an end realizable in the here-and-now sounds very Kantian to me.

Similar sentiments manifest themselves in the text’s insistence that government leaders must take “concrete steps and immediate measures” that will put “an end as quickly as possible to the phenomenon of social and economic exclusion.” Again, no faithful Catholic would favor the types of injustices that the pope proceeds to condemn. Yet indicating that international organizations and states can somehow eliminate evil from the face of the earth from the top-down is very dubious once you take not only sin but also human liberty seriously. That’s not an argument for complacent resignation. But it is a case against seeking to create heaven-on-earth.

All this sits uneasily with the clear appeals to natural law woven into Francis’s text. Alongside referencing the “moral law written into human nature itself,” it draws upon Pope Benedict’s tightly argued 2011 Bundestag Address. This underlined how losing sight of the truth of natural law is the fast road to tyranny. Likewise, Francis’s insistence that (1) those in poverty must be allowed “to be dignified agents of their own destiny” and (2) “integral human development and the full exercise of human dignity can never be imposed” recalls the classic natural law insight that human flourishing requires people to make free choices for the good.

This suggests two things. First, we need some space for people to make mistakes. Second, no government structure can anticipate all such possible errors; nor should it seek to direct all our choices from the top down. Such emphases, however, are hard to reconcile with the speech’s Kantian dimensions which seem to embody a vision of temporal salvation through international bureaucracies.

None of this should be considered a critique of Francis’s own thinking about these matters. Not only was his UN speech free of the provocative (and, in some cases, empirically-disprovable) claims he’s made about the global economy, but more importantly and as Francis himself specified, he was generally following his predecessors’ path as they addressed these matters.

Such a stated continuity, however, underscores the point that present Church teaching about international relations is not—as I’ve maintained elsewhere about Catholic social doctrine more generally—in good shape. Indeed, for all its strengths, Francis’s address illustrated just how much the Church’s thinking about the international order requires significant clarification and revision from the standpoint of those first principles which have apparently faded in recent decades from the heart of Church reflection upon this subject.

We await, it appears, our next Vitoria.

Samuel Gregg


Samuel Gregg is Research Director at the Acton Institute. He has authored many books including, most recently, For God and Profit: How Banking and Finance Can Serve the Common Good (2016).