George Weigel

To Sanctify the World: The Vital Legacy of Vatican II

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Archbishop Stafforad Oim


AMERICAN PURPOSE has not been hesitant to criticize those voices in the American religious community whose approach to “work for peace” has seemed to us deficient. It’s only fair, therefore, to note the good news, too. Roman Catholic Archbishop J. Francis Stafford of Denver issued a pastoral letter this past May that could help set a new standard for the religious debate over America’s right role in world affairs.

Archbishop Stafford’s letter, “This Home of Freedom,” is an extended reflection on the importance of building a community of civic virtue in the United States; but that enterprise, the archbishop suggests, has implications for U.S. foreign policy as well:

“The American third century will involve a testing of our ability to act wisely in the world for peace, freedom, and justice. Americans have traditionally been a people discontent with the burdens and responsibilities of international leadership. That discontent is an indulgence we can no longer afford. While America cannot unilaterally determine the course of peace, security, freedom, and justice in the world, the role played by the world’s principal democratic power will have much to do with the course of history.

“The Bicentennial of the Constitution, the instrument by which we have ordered our liberties so that they serve the common good, affords a unique angle of vision on America’s world responsibilities. In a 1963 reflection on Pope John XXIII’s great encyclical, Pacem in Terris, John Courtney Murray observed that the pope’s ‘. . . acute sense of the basic need of the age is evident in the word that is so often repeated in the encyclical and that sets its basic theme. I mean the word “order.” This does seem to be the contemporary issue. The process of ordering and organizing the world is at the moment going forward. The issue is not whether we shall have order in the world; the contemporary condition of chaos has become intolerable on a worldwide scale…. The question is, then, on what principles is the world going to be ordered?’ As we read the daily papers, the truth of Pope John’s, and Murray’s, observation is made ever more clear, and usually in a tragic or threatening way.

“The American people bring to this central world problem their own experience—imperfect, to be sure—of building community amidst plurality. We bring the experience, not merely the theory, of law and politics as nonviolent means of resolving conflict. We demonstrate in our national life that political community can be sustained and developed among peoples of every race and creed. We illustrate, in short, that the classic Catholic understanding of peace as ‘the tranquillity of order’ (in St. Augustine’s famous phrase), today involves democratic political community. Americans instinctively know the truth of the teaching of John Paul II when he writes that ‘Respect for… human rights constitutes the fundamental condition for peace in the modem world: peace both within individual countries and societies and in international relations.’

“I am not a specialist in foreign policy, nor is it the business of the Church to devise foreign policy for the United States. But it is the Church’s right and duty to insist that all political decisions, be they domestic or foreign in impact, have an irreducible moral component. Political reasoning is moral reasoning, according to the classic tradition of the West. And thus I suggest a moral focus for America’s action in the world: we must be a leader for ordered liberty, in and among nations. Where democrats struggle to replace tyrants of either the traditional or modem totalitarian stripe, there America’s support should be felt. Where nations work to resolve their differences through the democratic processes of negotiation, arbitration, law, and political persuasion, there America’s support should be felt as well. That support can be expressed through various means, and the calculus involved in the morality of means is complex indeed. But about ends we should be clear. One evidence that humanity is not meant for Hobbesian brutishness, for a ‘war of all against all,’ is our own national experience. The American people have shown that conflict need not lead to mass violence, when democratic law and politics provide credible alternatives for resolving conflict. Here is one expression of what John Paul II called for in his 1982 address at Hiroshima: a ‘major step forward in civilization and wisdom.’ The Holy Father, preaching at Hiroshima, knew the full and terrible danger posed by nuclear weapons. But he also taught us that a transcendent hope, not secular survivalism, is the key to facing both the threat of nuclear war and the threat of totalitarian tyranny in a world striving to make the painful transition from anarchy to community. Peace and freedom, in the classic Catholic heritage and in the catechesis of John Paul II, go together.

“In its third century, then, let America bear witness for ordered liberty in the world. Here is where the American experience, American interests, and American purpose coincide. Here, too, is where, as the Second Vatican Council taught, the ministry of the laity in the world is exercised. As the Council fathers wrote, ‘On the national and international planes the field of the apostolate is vast; and it is there that the laity more than others are the channels of Christian wisdom.’… Let there be, then, vigorous and wise lay Catholic leadership in the inseparable causes of peace, freedom, and justice in and among nations.”

Readers interested in the full text of “This Home of Freedom,” a document with implications ranging far beyond the Roman Catholic community, may obtain a copy by writing the Public Affairs Office of the Archdiocese of Denver at 200 Josephine Street, Denver, CO 80206.

George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C. and holds EPPC’s William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.


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