Address by the Rev. Dennis H. Holtschneider to the Church-State Breakfast Forum at the Chicago Union League Club

July 9, 2008

Thank you for your kind welcome.

The classical rhetoricians encouraged speakers to begin by establishing their credentials. The only problem is that I have none on this topic. I am neither a theologian nor an expert on foreign policy, and yet I propose to speak to you this morning in the intersection of these two intellectual worlds. Why? First and foremost, because Craig Mousin asked me, and I think the world of him. Secondly, because I have been deeply struck by Pope Benedict’s April 18 speech at the United Nations. My hope is to draw it to your attention, so that you might give it some thought as well.

As you know, Pope Benedict visited the United Stated three months ago. Certainly, he would have been expected to travel here at least once in his pontificate, but he chose this particular moment for three reasons. First, he hoped to speak directly to the American Catholic Church after the scandal of these past years. As you may have noticed, he lost no opportunity to speak directly and candidly, including a rare press interview on the plane over. Notable too were his strong words to the bishops at their private meeting at Catholic University, where he was quite clear about the responsibility of bishop-pastors to protect their flocks. But it was his surprise meeting with victims that most commanded the nation’s attention, and the U.S. Church’s evident relief.

Secondly, he came to the U.S. to mark an important set of anniversaries, namely the 200th anniversaries of the raising of Baltimore to an archdiocese, and the founding of the dioceses of Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Louisville.

Finally, he came at the invitation of the United Nations to mark yet another anniversary – the 60th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He visited only two cities while in the United States, Washington, D.C. and New York. But he said that he intended to speak to all of the U.S. from those cities. At the United Nations, however, he broadened his attention and spoke to the entire world. It is this talk upon which I wish to linger this morning. For it was in this talk that he made what is, in my opinion, a notable contribution to the body of intellectual thought known as Catholic Social Teaching.

But, first, let’s step back a bit.

In 1648 – (yes, 1648) - wars had been raging on European soil for 30 years in Germany, and for 80 years between Spain and the Netherlands. Gathering in two respective cities (one for the Protestants and another for the Catholics), the Holy Roman Emperor, Ferdinand III (Habsburg), leaders of the Kingdoms of Spain, France and Sweden, the Dutch Republic and their respective allies among the princes of the Holy Roman Empire negotiated and signed an extraordinary peace. [1]

Known as the Peace (or treaties) of Westphalia, each prince would have the right to determine the religion of his own state, the options being Catholicism, Lutheranism and now Calvinism.

Christians living in principalities where their denomination was not the established church were guaranteed the right to practice their faith in public during allotted hours and in private at their will.

Boundaries and independence were recognized for the Dutch Republic, Switzerland, France, Sweden, Bavaria, Brandenburg, Prussia, Bremen, Savoy, Milan, Genoa, Mantua, Tuscany, Lucca, Modena, and Parma, and later, boundaries between Spain and France as well.

Barriers to trade and commerce erected during the war were abolished, and 'a degree' of free navigation was guaranteed on the Rhine.

But most importantly, and most lasting, the Treaties of Westphalia established the concept of national territorial sovereignty. In truth, emperors and kings had claimed personal sovereignty - the sole right in their person to control what happened within their territories - but those territories were constantly shifting as they warred with one another, and schemed across one another’s always-shifting borders.

The Peace of Westphalia extended the notion of sovereignty from ruler to land. Those residing outside national boundaries were not to interfere within the affairs of those living within those boundaries. After centuries of interference to control the religion and commerce of neighboring territories, the Peace of Westphalia was an agreement to respect one another’s boundaries. Permanently. That concept - that appeal to the inviolability of national boundaries - has held since 1648.

Until now, that is.

When Benedict XVI walked into the United Nations three months ago, he brought with him the text of a speech that undercuts the inviolability of national boundaries and even their governments’ claims to non-interference. He came prepared to argue that boundaries have their place, but they are not absolute. He came prepared to argue that, in fact, outside nations and other interested parties had the obligation and responsibility to violate national boundaries under certain conditions. He brought a speech that laid out those conditions. His speech was, in fact, a stunning reversal of 360 years of European history and jurisprudence. But of course, he was not speaking to Europe. He was speaking to the entire world, and all of our national claims to sovereignty and non-interference.

To do that, he invoked a simple phrase: “The Responsibility to Protect.” [2]

Here are his words: “Every State has the primary duty to protect its own population from grave and sustained violations of human rights, as well as from the consequences of humanitarian crises, whether natural or man-made. If States are unable to guarantee such protection, the international community must intervene. … The action of the international community and its institutions … should never be interpreted as an unwarranted imposition or a limitation of sovereignty. On the contrary, it is indifference or the failure to intervene that do the real damage.”

Those are fighting words to nations like Darfur that frequently warn outside nations not to interfere as they systematically eliminate populations within their borders. But it was precisely situations like Darfur, as well as the Kurdish genocide in Iraq, Bosnia, Somalia, Kosovo, and others that led Kofi Annan nine years ago to challenge the nations of the world to find a basis upon which to act. He said in 1999 and again in 2000:

… If humanitarian intervention is, indeed, an unacceptable assault on sovereignty, how should we respond to a Rwanda, to a Srebrenica – to gross and systematic violations of human rights that affect every precept of our common humanity?” [3]

The government of Canada accepted Kofi Annan’s challenge and formed the “International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty.” In 2001, they released a little noticed report, titled “The Responsibility to Protect.” In it, they sketched a “new” moral principle giving the world community the right to militarily intervene for human protection purposes in carefully defined situations of (1) “large-scale loss of life, with genocidal intent or not, which is the product either of deliberate state action, or state neglect, or inability to act, or a failed state situation; or (2) large-scale ethnic cleansing.”

The report insisted that such forcible and unwelcome intervention must be an exceptional and extraordinary measure, a last resort, conducted with proportionate means, and under the sanction of right authority, which they called on the United Nations Security Council to accept and exercise.

The United Nations debated this proposal for some time, and adopted Resolution 1674 in 2006, accepting the responsibility to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. They too adopted this as a last resort, with a series of careful criteria before it can be invoked.

It was to this newly asserted “Responsibility to Protect” that Benedict decided to speak this April. His talk is a theological and moral justification of this new responsibility and a call for the world community to accept and enact its provisions.

As you heard his opening quote a moment ago, he begins by emphasizing that the principle of the “responsibility to protect” belongs first and foremost to the state itself. He continues further:

Every State has the primary duty to protect its own population from grave and sustained violations of human rights, as well as from the consequences of humanitarian crises, whether natural or man-made. If States are unable to guarantee such protection, the international community must intervene with the juridical means provided in the United Nations charter and in other international instruments.

The Pope goes on to observe that this Responsibility to Protect is consistent with the founding purposes of the U.N. and its assertion of basic inviolable human rights 60 years ago, the anniversary that is now being observed.

He suggests that it is not sufficient to speak of inviolable human rights and then sit by and watch whole populations be eliminated. If we assert inviolable rights, we are compelled to act on their behalf. To that point, he repeats the arguments of the United Nations. But then he goes further and roots this argument in two theological principles, using the opening sentence of his consideration to do so. “Recognition of the unity of the human family and attention to the innate dignity of every man and woman, today, find renewed emphasis in the principle of the responsibility to protect.”

He then rejects any characterization of this “Responsibility” of being a new concept. He directly ties it to a much more ancient legal and moral history, saying, “The principle of “responsibility to protect” was considered by the ancient ius gentium as the foundation of every action taken by those in government with regard to the governed: at the time when the concept of national sovereign States was first developing, the Dominican Friar, Francisco de Vitoria, ... described this responsibility as an aspect of natural reason shared by all nations, and the result of an international order whose task it was to regulate relations between peoples. … Since rights and the resulting duties follow naturally from human interaction, it is easy to forget that they are the fruit of a commonly held sense of justice built primarily upon solidarity among the members of society, and hence valid at all times and for all peoples.

In short, the Pope is reminding the world that we have always believed that the state has a responsibility to protect its citizens. What we are doing now is simply extending an existing and acknowledged principle from the state to the world community, in those moments when the state itself cannot effectively exercise this responsibility.

Benedict, of course, is more than an academic, and more than a theologian. He is a Pope with a profound sense of history, of his role, and a clear sense of his advanced years. It is no small matter, therefore, that he used what may be his only visit to the United Nations to make this speech to the world and its representative body.

This speech was ultimately a political act. Benedict put the worldwide Catholic Church behind this idea called the responsibility to protect. He added to the rationale by asserting both a moral argument and an historical argument for it.

The field of intellectual history is fascinating specifically for the ways in which new ideas take hold over time. This talk comes at the crossroads of two shifting ideas in contemporary intellectual history: the idea of sovereignty and the idea of human rights. The study of sovereignty is the history of a changing idea within the world community. From the sovereignty of human beings – kings and emperors – to the sovereignty of the land itself, to in time the sovereignty of the nation (the people) as defined by the revolutions of the 18th century. The notion of “inviolable human rights” takes its clearest formation in those same revolutions of the 18th century, but has seen marked extension beyond “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” to a list of rights that now includes marriage, property ownership, right to work, social security and education enshrined in a UN document 60 years ago, and whose anniversary we mark.

This crossroads of two shifting sets of ideas leads to a concept that that sovereignty is limited by the notion of human rights. Since 1648, sovereignty of borders was inviolable. Now, those same states’ borders are violable when an individual state cannot or does not protect basic human rights. Benedict understood this sea-change in political and moral thought, and clearly intended to contribute forcefully to this idea’s adoption and implementation. Time will tell if it made a difference.

Clearly, for Catholics, Benedict has now asserted that this principle is consistent with long-standing teaching within the Church. Official Church teaching has various levels, and requires varying levels of assent. Dogmatic assertions of Trinity and incarnation are central, and require assent to remain a member of the Church. Teachings on the use of technology to prolong life are less defined, less central, and more open for dissent within the Church. The Pope has not advanced “The Responsibility to Protect” in a way that demands Catholics agree or accept it. He used a speech at the United Nations rather than an encyclical to put forward this idea. As such, it remains the opinion of a Pope, and not a matter of dogma or doctrine.

It does seem, however, to be well on its way to becoming part of the body of Catholic Social Teaching in time. Pope John XXIII addressed the limits of sovereignty in Pacem in terris. The U.S. bishops addressed these limits in their 1983 pastoral letter on war and peace. John Paul II spoke about it as well in a speech to the Vatican diplomatic corps. [4]

This speech by Benedict XVI, however, is the Church’s most public pronouncement in the limits of sovereignty to date, and an unequivocal moral call for nations never to stand by and allow genocide in the name of non-interference. We are, at minimum, watching an idea take hold within the Church, and an attempt by the Church to help an idea take hold in the world order.

The Former Secretary General of the UN, Javier Perez de Cuellar, saw this day coming when he said:.

We are clearly witnessing what is probably an irresistible shift in public attitudes toward the belief that the defense of the oppressed in the name of morality should prevail over frontiers and legal documents. We must now ponder this issue in a manner that is at once prudent and bold. In a prudent manner, because the principles of sovereignty cannot be radically challenged without international chaos quickly ensuing. In a bold manner, because we have probably reached a state in the ethical and psychological evolution of Western civilization in which the massive and deliberate violation of human rights will no longer be tolerated. It falls to us, therefore, to forge a new concept, one which marries law and morality.” [5]

That forging of a new concept that marries both law and morality is precisely what Benedict was attempting this past April. I encourage you to read his talk, but more importantly to consider the larger debate. Is there indeed a responsibility to protect to transcends national boundaries and claims of sovereign governments and borders? If so, what triggers that responsibility? How should it be judged and by whom? How should it be implemented and by whom? Who becomes responsible for a failed state if our intervention tears apart a functioning, albeit immoral state?

To accept this concept – this Responsibility - is only the beginning of a new day for the world polity. But I believe we live in a hopeful moment, when the world is accepting the implications of inviolable human rights and world citizenship. The world, it seems, is flattening even in the moral sphere.

Thank you for your attention this morning. Perhaps you would be willing to share your own reflections and thoughts on this or other aspects of the Pope’s visit.


​[1] Wikipedia, “Peace of Westphalia.” July 6, 2008.

[2] Address of His Holiness Benedict XVI, Meeting with the Members of the General Assembly of the United Nations Organizations, New York, Friday, 18 April 2008.

[3] The Responsibility to Protect: Report of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty.  Government of Canada, September 2000.

[4]  Himes, Kenneth R.  (1994). “The Morality of Humanitarian Intervention,” Theological Studies, Vol 55, Issue 1.   National Conference of Catholic Bishops, The Challenge of Peace (Washington: U.S. Catholic Conference, 1983) no. 237.  John Paul II, “Address to the Diplomatic Corps Accredited to the Holy See,” L’Osservatore Romano (Weekly edition in English) 26 (20 Jan 1993) 1-2, at 2. 

[5] UN Press Release SG/SM/4560, as quoted in Himes, op cit.​​​​​​