In the winter of 2008, Jodok Troy analyzed the role of the Catholic Church (“the Church”) in international affairs. His argument is twofold. First, he discusses the normative values of the Papacy, and claims that it is a powerful player on the world stage. Second, he interprets the Church’s influence as a force for good, arguing that it is a “respectable promoter of human rights and freedom.” Although recent developments lend credence to Troy’s claims, there are several detractions that must also be addressed.
The author’s first point is certainly valid, as the Church has considerable weight on the international level. Since the election of the late Pope John Paul II in 1978, the Holy See has greatly expanded its influence on the world stage. John Paul II was a global activist, visiting 129 different countries during his time in office. He instituted World Youth Day, has been credited with helping to bring down communism in Eastern Europe, and was instrumental in evangelizing the Catholic faith. Current Pope Benedict XVI has been following in John Paul II’s footsteps; he has already published several encyclicals, encouraged dialogue with other religious groups, and expressed a strong stance on several important social and political issues. When the Pope speaks, people listen, even if they don’t always agree.
Troy’s second point – that the Church is a force for good – is a bit more controversial. While supporters may point to the fall of communism, democratization and social egalitarianism as pillars of Papal policy, dogmatic opponents may go as far back as the Crusades and the Inquisition to cite historical atrocities. However, at such extremes, Troy’s argument stands firm; today’s Church has been admirably reformed, hardly resembling its past monstrosities. However, many question the Church’s opinion on a host of other issues, including contraceptives and homosexuality.
This brings us to a few more problems with Troy’s article. The first argument concerns the foundation of the Church’s international influence. Troy argues that the Church is strong because of its “institutional stability and moral authority.” Yet both its institutions and moral authority are under intense pressure today. A prime example is the United States’ health care mandate which will require private institutions, including Catholic ones, to provide contraceptive coverage in their insurance plans. Sex abuse scandals and a struggling inter-religious dialogue make people question whether the Church is in the right. Despite all of its greatness, the Church cannot enforce its doctrine upon its followers; it can only try to persuade them. Ultimately, it is up to the individual believer to comply, and his choices cannot be judged in this world.
Globalization and technology, which Troy optimistically supports as a “fortunate development for the Church,” only further decentralizes the religious body. The free and instantaneous spread of ideas makes it much more difficult to promote a universal Catholic doctrine. Now more than ever, the strength of one’s individual beliefs is of the utmost importance to the perseverance of a Catholic identity. Yet Troy concludes his article by stressing the vital role of the Pope, arguing that it is “the Holy See’s turn to use its institutions and moral capabilities to become once more an ‘ethical reservoir’ in an age of a declared and believed ‘clash of civilizations.’”
But what is the Pope without his one billion followers? What is the Church without its people? It is nothing. How influential would the Holy See be in international affairs without citizens who respond to its call? The Church is a powerful actor, but its heart is dispersed in individuals around the globe, not in the Vatican.
Nick Fedyk is a sophomore at the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service and editorial assistant for the Georgetown Journal’s online content.