Karen Rupprecht: Globalization and the Vatican’s “supranational authority” might just herald a more conservative world.
Back in October, fans of subsidiarity, state sovereignty and localism received something of a shock when the Vatican’s Pontifical Council on Justice and Peace published its note on the global financial disarray of recent years. Its call for a “supranational authority” with “global reach” caught the attention of writers from Rod Dreher to George Weigel to Sam Gregg. The shock was short-lived, however, as a brief Vatican brouhaha ensued in which the Secretary of State disowned the document, and the “Justice and Peace department,” as CNBC termed the Council, was required to pass future notes by the cardinal before publication
So perhaps the transnational fear-mongering is done for the moment. But on second thought, maybe not. For Catholics, it’s hard to ignore the fact that numerous popes have issued clarion calls for transnational authorities (cf. Pope John XXIII, Pacem in Terris at 71-74, as well as Pope Benedict XVI, Caritas in Veritate, at 67, inter alia). But even beyond Catholic social teaching, what are we to make of transnationalism? By and large, conservatives tend to greet things transnational with a range of reactions spanning from a yawn to outright scorn. And this is not without reason. It is certainly tempting to dismiss any call for transnational justice as yet another naïve attempt at attaining a Kantian perpetual peace. On the scorn end of the spectrum, there is ample reason to be wary of, say, international courts’ attempts to pronounce ‘justice’ in domestic concerns as blatant violations of subsidiarity. (French philosopher Chantal Delsol has argued similarly.)
Getting terms straight
Upon closer examination, though, not only is some transnational authority inevitable, it may be desirable – even for subsidiarity advocates. To see why, we should first clear up a few matters. ‘Transnational’ often gets confused with ‘international,’ ‘supranational’ or even ‘global,’ each of which is conceptually distinct. ‘International,’ technically has to do with matters pertaining across nations, with the unit of study or action as the nation-state. The United Nations, NATO, and the British Commonwealth are international institutions. ‘Supranational,’ on the other hand, indicates a vertical relationship to national, meaning that a supranational institution claims some inherent authority over individual nation-states. The International Criminal Court does just this. ‘Global’ simply implies an effectively ubiquitous presence across the globe – English is thus said to be a global language. ‘Transnational,’ however, has to do with norms or structures that transcend the boundaries of nation-states, such that NGOs or communities or even individuals make up the primary actors. The Red Cross is an oft-touted example of a transnational organization.
Secondly, we have to ask what it is that is transnational, supranational, global, etc. ‘Government,’ ‘governance,’ ‘institutions,’ ‘authority,’ and ‘power’ are also, of course, conceptually distinct. “Transnational authority” can have a radically different meaning – and consequences – than “supranational government” and “international governance.” For example, Standard and Poor, in rating entire nations’ credit ratings, quite clearly exercises a form of authority over them by virtue of its reputation and expertise. But this is hardly a world government out to destroy state sovereignty (meriting scorn), nor is its authority something to be dismissed (with a yawn).
The Church as Transnational Authority
It is worthwhile to look at the concept of transnational authority more closely, for one of the most obvious and, dare I say, important, examples of a transnational authority is the global Church, especially (but not only) in the case of the Roman Catholic Church. As José Casanova, a leading scholar on religion and globalization, writes, “As a religious regime, Catholicism preceded and is likely to outlast the modern world system of nation-states.” Importantly, this does not exclude Protestantism from the picture, for insofar as the Christian Church is the Christian Church of the Apostles, it is rightly said to have preceded the state system as well.
In light of the tremendous moral and soteriological claims the Church makes, and not on the basis of her territorial jurisdiction, the question must be asked: Why should the locus of authority always be territorial? Is this in keeping with the principle of subsidiarity, namely, that matters ought to be handled by the lowest competent authority? What if the lowest competent authority is global or transnational? The modern Westphalian nation-state rests its authority on the idea that it is sovereign over everything and everyone within its geographical boundaries. In the original version, this included the religion of the people (cuius regio, eius religio). And the nation-state has worked quite well throughout much of modern history – the advantages of clearly demarcated authority, legal jurisdiction and identifiable armed forces are inestimable.
Still, we should keep in mind that it is, in fact, an innovation of modernity rather than an inevitable outgrowth of natural law. Furthermore, for Christians, and for anyone who believes in something higher than Caesar, it is a good thing to have limitations to state sovereignty. For to hold that state sovereignty is the end of authority is to ultimately adhere to a form of moral relativism, one which the trials at Nuremberg rejected in concluding that following state orders is no excuse for gross inhumanity. Human beings have always sought, rightly, a good that both transcends political authority, and it is for this reason that transnational authority is rightly an inevitable part of our political landscape. (As a side note, this principle of a higher authority than the state also helps to explain why battles over the use of shari’a are more than matters of Muslims versus non-Muslims.)
Of course, there is a second reason for the prominence of transnational authority and even governance today, namely, the effects of globalization. Information is readily transmitted instantly across state boundaries, and the market subsumes most of the globe. Unmanned planes directed from across the globe ‘fight’ wars, genocide all but requires intervention, and protestors against their Arab ruler make camera-visible signs entirely in English for the world to see – and to “do something.” State sovereignty over such conceptual ‘territories’ is ambiguous at best; it rarely seems competent to arbitrate justice in such globalized matters. But what kind of authority would be competent?
I suggest that sometimes, it might just take a transnational form of authority to speak competently in such matters. As Casanova writes, “Ongoing processes of globalization offer a transnational religious regime…which never felt fully at home in a system of sovereign territorial nation-states, unique opportunities…to assume a proactive in shaping some aspects of the new system.” The form that this would take remains to be seen. But even should the global Church (“transnational religious regime”) successfully exercise a high degree of transnational moral authority in molding our world order (and I fully grant that this doesn’t always look too likely), this would not be the mere exchange of one scary global power for another. In Caritas in Veritate, just after the seemingly alarming point that “there is urgent need of a true world political authority,” Pope Benedict XVI writes that “such an authority would need to be regulated by law, to observe consistently the principles of subsidiarity and solidarity, to seek to establish the common good, and to make a commitment to securing authentic integral human development inspired by the values of charity in truth” (emphasis original).
If this is the case – i.e., if transnational political authority is to commit itself to ‘authentic integral human development’ as defined by the precepts of the Christian faith, and if such authority respects the very principles of subsidiarity and solidarity that stand at the core of much Christian and conservative tradition – then perhaps a looming transnational age would be, a bit paradoxically, a return to an earlier, more conservative transnational world.
Karen Rupprecht is a doctoral student in political theory at Georgetown University.