The Catholic Church – Builder of Civilization, Episode 11: Origins of International Law

The Catholic Church – Builder of Civilization, Episode 11: Origins of International Law

We’ve heard a great deal over the years about the terrible demographic tragedy that struck the peoples of the New World in the Age of Discovery, but who were the greatest and most outspoken critics of the abuses of the natives? Catholic theologians. Let’s talk about this issue today on The Catholic Church: Builder of Civilization. (music) Welcome to The Catholic Church: Builder of Civilization. I’m Thomas Woods. Last week we talked about the Church and law, and for a good portion we talked about the Church’s role in developing the idea of natural rights. This is a central concept in Western civilization, the idea that simply by virtue of being a human being I possess certain rights that inhere in my very nature as a rational cr eature, that I have the right not to be killed, not to be expropriated, have my pr operty taken away. I have these rights by virtue of being human. And I even cited an encyclical that I consider to be sort of recent, 1891 encyclical by Pope Leo XIII, in which he specifically said that, “The right to pr operty is sacred and inviolable.” So nobody can come up with some pr etext for violating that. So these are important liberating ideas, in the best sense of the word. Today, what we’r e going to talk about is the extension of this idea of rights to the whole world and the suggestion that all the peoples of the world enjoy the same fundamental dignity. Because they’re made in the image and likeness of God and they have that rational nature, all of us identically share in a dignity that demands the recognition of rights. This is a revolutionary idea. There are not many peoples in the world who have looked around at all the diversity of people in the world and said, “Let’s bestow equal rights on everybody.” This is not exactly the most popular idea in the history of mankind. But it came right out of the heart of the Church. Now, let’s begin by looking at the exact opposite of what the Church teaches, and then we can better appreciate why the Chur ch’s message is so revolutionary. And when I look at the exact opposite of what the Chur ch teaches, I focus specifically on one of the great villains of political philosophy. In the early 16th century, a fellow named Machiavelli, who wrote an enormous amount, wr ote a small book, around 1513, called The Prince. When we look at The Prince, we find a totally secular analysis of politics. God is left out of the equation altogether. Morality is left out of the equation altogether. Sound a little bit familiar? That’s what modern political life, in effect, has been like. These things are to be banished. Governments have to do what they have to do and moral principles, you know, will suffer in the process. Now, think about how St. Thomas Aquinas would have answered the question, “What are, what is political obligation, or what is the nature of the state, or what is the function of the ruler?” And he would have thought, “Well, God’s intention in establishing these institutions was…” and then he would have gone on fr om ther e. Machiavelli has no truck with any of this. He’s not interested in God’s intention. That has no relevance to him whatsoever. Instead, Machiavelli looks at the state fr om the point of view of a cold, calculating theoretician, and in effect, what he wants to do is give advice to rulers. If you want to stay in power, you should do these things, and don’t be caught up in moral concerns…”Am I allowed to do these things?” You have to do what you have to do. Because according to Machiavelli, the worst thing that can happen is the collapse of a state. So the state has to be able to do whatever it feels necessary to do to keep itself functioning, because were it not for the state, we would all revert to a condition of civil war, of all-against-all, as, in a later century, Thomas Hobbes suggested. So therefore, the end that we have in mind, that is, keeping the state functioning and preserving the peace, is very important. So the means to that end become okay, whatever mean is necessary. So his advice to the prince is, “Do what you have to do to maintain yourself in power, even if that means lying and cheating and stealing, and even worse.” So, for example, it was a typical piece of Machiavellian advice to rulers that you should give the appearance of being gener ous, but don’t be so foolish as actually to be gener ous. Or it is good for you to be loved by your people, but much more important, if you can’t swing that, is to be feared by them. This is classic Machiavellian advice. And part of the reason that Machiavelli despised the Church and despised Christianity was that these things taught that states were subject to moral restraints. They were subject to the moral law. Machiavelli’s state is subject to nothing other than necessity, and so Machiavelli would have disdained what the Catholic Church taught, that ther e are virtues that we ought to cultivate. We ought to cultivate the cardinal virtues of prudence, temperance, fortitude, and justice. We ought to pursue the three theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity. All this falls out in Machiavelli’s system, for ther e is only one virtue for Machiavelli, and that is the ability to survive, and that trumps everything. And that extends to states, in particular. States have to survive, so they need to be able to do what they need to do. And it is unjust for a state to be held up to moral scrutiny. It won’t work. It’s impractical. And that, in effect, is Machiavelli’s message. Now, the Church condemned Machiavelli’s work in no uncertain terms. They condemned it, because they believe that ther e are such things as moral standards when it comes to, when it comes to government. Now, it’s one thing for a teenager to go ar ound saying this. This is the typical teenage morality, isn’t it? I’m not going to get my moral teaching from any of you people. I’ll just live by my own code. You know, every teenager has this view, you know, during the teenage years, and then most of them gr ow up and realize how stupid they’r e being. But the typical teenage mentality is, “I don’t need to read your Bible or listen to your preaching, or even listen to my parents. “I’ll make up my own rules, blah, blah, blah.” Now that’s bad enough when a teenager believes that, but when a government believes that, then you’re getting into something very dangerous. So what the Church teaches is that states can not only be held up for moral accountability, but they can also be held up to moral scrutiny in how they interact with other states. There are moral rules that govern how they interact with other states. They can’t just do whatever they want or whatever they think is to their passing advantage. They have to be subject to the moral law. Machiavelli would be absolutely livid at this suggestion. But the Church teaches that an absolute, unchanging standard of justice applies to all peoples alike. This, in effect, is what international law is… the idea that all states are subject to certain rules and restraints. Now, let me anticipate an objection here. The fact that you believe that there is such a thing as international law does not mean you have to be the world’s greatest cheerleader for the United Nations, because you may be saying, isn’t the United Nations made up in a large part of a bunch of bozos and dangerous and weird people, and don’t they say a lot of strange things, and we would never want to be governed by these people? I couldn’t agree more. In fact, some of you may remember Bill Buckley’s old statement that he would rather be governed by the 1 st 2000 names in the Boston Telephone Directory than by the faculty of Harvard. Why, I sort of feel that way about the United Nations General Assembly. So I don’t mean to suggest that you have to be a big cheerleader for the United Nations. The question is the principal. As long as we recognize the principle that governments are subject to some kind of moral rules, then we can leave aside, for our purposes anyway, how would you enforce those rules? Because, of course, as soon as you establish United Nations to govern the interaction of states, the question then becomes, well whose going to govern the United Nations? You haven’t really solved the problem. Who’s going to make sure the United Nations is doing the right thing? So that’s another matter. How do you enfor ce international law? And perhaps you could do it through, try to do it through moral suasion or threatening to make the offending state an international pariah with whom no one will trade. These are possibilities. Right now, I simply want to look at the principles the Church upheld. Now, in the 16th century, fr om the 15th into the 16th centuries, Spanish theologians and individuals began to get reports coming back from the New World of Spanish mistreatment of the natives ther e, and this pr ovoked a sever e crisis of conscience among Spain’s philosophers and theologians, because they began to ask themselves, “How should we interact with these new people? “Is our own government upholding the moral standards in which we claim to believe?” So, what it did was, it pr ovoked a lot of reflection about the nature of moral obligation, and in particular, the nature of moral obligation on the international sphere. So, that is to say, they began asking themselves crucial questions. “How should different peoples interact with each other? “How should governments interact with each other? “Are there absolute rules that should be observed?” Well, this interaction between Spaniards and the peoples of the New World pr ovided an unprecedented opportunity for theologians suddenly to entertain these questions, and this is where the idea of international law comes from. As these Spanish theologians are critically evaluating the behavior of their own government, they’re deciding that yes, there are morals rules and in fact, in some cases our own government is not obeying them. Now, the very fact that ther e was a crisis of conscience among Spanish theologians is itself significant because think, did Attila the Hun ever stop and say, you know, “I shouldn’t be looting and raping and pillaging like this. “I mean, how dare I do these things? “These people have rights just as I do.” Well, of course, it never even occurr ed to him to ask questions like that, or the Aztecs, for example, who engaged in human sacrifice. We have absolutely no record of any soul-searching that occurr ed in Aztec civilization, of people stepping back and impartially evaluating their own society and saying, “You know what, maybe we shouldn’t be ripping the hearts out of people. “You know, maybe this is the wr ong thing to do. “Maybe this is a barbaric custom.” We have absolutely no indication of any such critical tradition there, and yet within the Catholic Church, when Spanish theologians look at the behavior of their government in the New World, that’s exactly what they do is they begin asking these questions. And they begin saying, “Should we behave this way? “And are there, in fact, general rules we should observe that apply to all peoples?” Attila the Hun didn’t believe in rules that applied to all peoples. There wer e rules that applied to him and rules that applied to everybody else, and that has been the typical way peoples have understood their interaction with the world. “We are the good people, everybody else is a barbarian and we tr eat them accordingly.” So this is an advance of no small significance. Now, we’re coming up to the br eak, but when we come back we’r e going to meet a figure of extraordinary importance, Fr. Francisco de Vitoria, who was a professor at the University of Salamanca, to which I have referred many a time, and it was Fr. Francisco de Vitoria who gave us the very first treatise in history on international law, setting out these principles. So let’s come on back and look at that her e on The Catholic Church: Builder of Civilization. (music) (music) Thomas: Welcome back to The Catholic Church: Builder of Civilization. I’m Thomas Woods. And we’r e looking today at international law. Sounds like kind of a dry subject, but as you can see, it actually isn’t at all, because the idea of international law simply means that there are certain fixed rules that everybody has to observe and that you can’t say that, “Well, this people is more backward than we ar e or they haven’t achieved what we have, so we can just trample them,” and this and that. There’s nothing like that in what the Catholic Chur ch teaches. Now, just before the break, we were talking about what happened when people in Spain began to hear about some of the abuses toward the natives of the New World at the hands of some Spaniards, and so, in fact, Spanish theologians began thinking about all the implications and consequences of this. They began thinking about the questions they need to ask. “Are there rules that should govern the interaction of peoples? “What are those rules? “Is our own government living up to those rules?” Well, Fr. Francisco de Vitoria, whom I mentioned immediately befor e the break, was a professor at the University of Salamanca, and he has sometimes been called, along with the Dutch Protestant Hugo Grotius, who came much later, the Father of International Law. In fact, a man named James Br own Scott writing in the 1920s in a book called The Spanish Origin of International Law, tells us that, “Vitoria furnished the world of his day with its first masterpiece on the law of nations in peace as well as in war.” Now, in a separate episode we have discussed a little bit of the ins and outs of the just war theory. Now, what Vitoria was inter ested in was determining the treatment to which all human beings were entitled by right, by natural right because they were human beings, and he insisted that these rights that people had came fr om their status as human beings rather than because they were Catholics or anything else… Europeans, Spaniards. So their right not to be killed or not to be r obbed, this comes to you not because, well, you’r e Catholic, or you’re of my race. It comes to you because you’r e a human being with a rational nature and the exercise of these rights is the way in which you can live out your rational nature. You need to have a right to life, you need to have a right to own property, in order to function in the world. So these things are natural rights and they are rights that apply to everybody. So, what this means in principle… in practice as well… is that no Catholic would argue that it’s a less serious crime to kill somebody who’s not baptized and a mor e serious crime to kill a baptized person because the baptized person is more important or something like that. Absolutely not. That is not what the Church teaches. And to the contrary, Fr. Domingo De Soto, who was Vitoria’s colleague at the University of Salamanca, said this. He said, “Those who are in the grace of God, that is, good, faithful Catholics, are not a whit better off than the sinner or the pagan in what concerns natural rights.” Now again, isn’t that kind of the opposite of the impr ession I think people have about the Chur ch over the years? I think people have this impr ession that the Chur ch would be inclined to give certain favor to those who belong to the household of faith. But to the contrary, as we see here, some of her finest thinkers in the 16th century say, if not the opposite, then that state something that is true for everybody… that all these are to be enjoyed equally by everybody because we all share a common human nature. And we ar en’t, incidentally, just a clump of cells. We ar e human beings with dignity and that dignity demands these rights. Now, what does Vitoria conclude, looking at the situation of his government and the peoples of the New World? He said that the peoples of the New World, because they were human, they wer e human beings, just as we Spaniards are human beings, they were equal to us. They were equal to us in matters pertaining to natural rights. They owned their lands by the same principles that we Spaniards own our own. And he also argued that… incidentally, his fellow scholastics agreed with him, Domingo de Soto, Melina, and others… that pagan princes ruled legitimately. That is to say, if a pagan king has committed no other crime, he can’t simply be thrown out and deposed because he’s a pagan. Now that too, I think, is the opposite of what people think. People would think that the Church believes that if a ruler is non-Catholic, they can just go in and throw them out and put a Catholic ther e. Well, in a certain way, I mean, I bet in the United States we wish we could do that sometimes, but that’s not what the Church teaches. What the Church teaches and what Vitoria teaches here is that each state has the same rights as any other, the same rights to self-government, and is under an obligation to respect the rights of others. So regardless of the religion of the ruler, if that ruler has committed no other crime, nobody has a right to just topple him for no r eason other than he’s a non-Catholic. You can’t simply do that. Now, Vitoria and his supporters also believe that the idea of natural law existed not just among Christians, but among all peoples. Now, natural law, of course, is the idea that there are laws that are, in effect, written in our human heart that we simply know. When you’re a child you know, you know these laws. You know, when little childr en are running around, they’re saying, “Hey, that’s mine! Give it back.” They understand certain aspects of what it means to be just and fair, that I had this property first and it’s unjust for someone to confiscate it from me. And they understand perfectly well that if they take something fr om somebody else… they cry when you punish them, but typically they understand the punishment. They don’t say, “Mom, Dad, I have a whole philosophical argument against why you’re punishing me.” They know. They know in their heart they have done something wr ong. Well, we have these senses of what is right and wrong. We also have the Ten Commandments in our own tradition, but according to Vitoria, the Ten Commandments are r eally spelling out principles that practically any people, really, if they reflect long enough, will understand and appreciate. And because we all possess this kind of sense of right and wrong, a basic sense, then this basic sense can become the basis for international rules of conduct and these rules of conduct can morally bind even those who have never heard the Gospel or never heard of the Ten Commandments or had even rejected the Gospel, because we’r e basing ourselves on the idea that we all ultimately know that sheer conquest is wrong and looting and pillaging is wrong. We know this because God has imprinted it on our hearts. And this becomes the basis for a common understanding of international obligation. Now, that is to say that peoples such as the peoples of the New World were thought to possess this basic sense of right and wr ong summed up in the Ten Commandments and in the Golden Rule and so we could interact with them on the understanding that they understand these principles, but we have to understand and live according to them too. So what this means is that in the 16th century Spanish theologians looked at the behavior of their own civilization. They held it up to critical scrutiny and they found it wanting. They looked and said, we have failed to live up to the absolute moral standard that binds all people. They proposed that in matters of natural right the other peoples of the world were their equals and that the commonwealths even of pagan peoples were entitled to the same treatment that the nations of Christian Europe accorded to one another. Now, that is something extraordinary in the history of the world. And we in no way wish to make light of what happened to the peoples in the New World, because many of them perished, sometimes in terrible circumstances, oftentimes d ue to disease, a non-volitional source, sometimes do to overwork. And it was something terrible, in some ways, what happened to a great many of these people. But the very fact that the Spaniards could step back and say, “My people have failed to live up to an absolute standard,” is something new in the world. A historian named Lewis Hanky wrote a book called The Spanish Struggle for Justice in the C onquest of America. Now, that’s a strange title, isn’t it? But what he’s talking about is pr ecisely what we’ve seen here. The Spanish theologians’ attempt to devise rules that would bind everybody and that would establish justice in the world. And their ability, the Spaniards’ ability to look objectively at these for eign peoples and recognize their common humanity was no small achievement. In fact, this type of impartiality, this ability to look at the peoples of the world and be willing to apply the same rules to other peoples that you apply to your own and that you would abide by the same rules that you expect others to abide by… this impartiality is not exactly embedded in every civilization. In fact, we need look no further, for example, than the American Indian cultur es, which from, whatever their merits, did not possess the ability to look impartially at the world and hold themselves up to a common moral standard. The Harvard historian Samuel Eliot Morison said that the Indians of the same region or language group did not even have a common name for themselves and that each tribe called itself something like “We the People” and referr ed to its neighbors by a word that meant “the barbarians” or “sons of she-dog”, or something equally insulting. Well, if that’s your view, that you are the people and everybody else are the barbarians or sons of the she-dog, how are you going to be able to come up with impartial rules governing both you and the barbarians? It’s not going to happen. So the idea of an international order of states, some large, some small, of varying levels of civilization and refinement, operating on a principle of equality one toward the other, this could not have found fertile ground amid that kind of narrow chauvinism-a kind of chauvinism that has been all too prevalent in the history of the world. So it’s thanks to the Catholic conception of the fundamental unity of the human race that we’re able to think in terms of universal principles governing all peoples. So when we criticize Spanish excesses in the New World, ther efore, it’s largely thanks to the moral tools pr ovided by the Catholic theologians of Spain itself that we’re able to do so. The Peruvian poet Mario Vargas Llosa, when he spoke about these Spanish critics of their own government’s policy, he said this. “They fought against their fellow men and against the policies of their own country in the name of a moral principle that to them was higher than any principle of nation or state. “This self-determination, this capacity for criticism of your own civilization, could not have been possible among the Incas or any of the other pre-Hispanic cultur es. “In these cultures, as in the other great civilizations of history foreign to the West, the individual could not morally question the social organism of which he was a part.” Well, let’s conclude now by saying that we have seen that in theory, the Catholic Church has set up and established and defended these universal moral principles, and perhaps they have been observed in the br each at times, but these are the principles. And an additional principle, of course, that ther e is to be no forced conversion, that’s in Canon Law. All these things are Catholic principles. What we’r e going to see next time is an aspect of modern history that’s often been forgotten when anti-Catholic or atheistic states, in effect, establish the opposite principle, that people have the opposite of rights because they’re Catholic. Because they’re Catholic, they can be imprisoned or tortured or killed. And we ar e once again going to see this glorious witness of Catholics in the face of devastation. Join me for The Catholic Church: Builder of Civilization. (music)

10 thoughts on “The Catholic Church – Builder of Civilization, Episode 11: Origins of International Law

  1. The catholic church suppressed innovation directly. It was a limitation of European Civilization for many centuries until the slow upheaval against it with the Renaissance.

  2. In countries dominated by the Catholic church, the rate of innovation was incredibly slow. Over a THOUSAND years passed and the pace of Europe technology practically stood still! Intolerance and Xenophobia were cultured by early Christians. It many revolutions and uprisings, Micheal Angelo and Leonardo Da Vinci, to form a counter culture that accepted new ideas. See wikipedia(dot)org/wiki/Renaissance. This documentary is trying to justify the missionaries that poisoned foreign cultures.

  3. The Popes have always voiced a strong opposition to Democracy, because the laws in a Democracy are made by the people for the people and not based on Christian or Catholic values. The Spanish prompted by the Church expelled the Jews and Muslims out of the Spain that they had lived in as their homeland for 700 years. This program is dishonest and unhistorical.

  4. … very informative but the speaker was mistaken in attributing 2 things to the Catholic church:
    a) the Spanish theologians were actually being good Christians
    b) the teachings they expounded were from the Bible, not the church

  5. It's interesting to see how the Catholic colonial powers dealt with natives, as opposed to the Protestant ones, mainly the English. French Canada, Spanish America and Brazil all have reasonably good histories with natives, and African slaves, than the English. Wherever the Protestant English, and eventually Americans, went, they destroyed native populations, almost entirely in N. America and the S. Pacific, and were responsible for disgusting racial codes like the Jim Crow laws and Apartheid.

  6. It's a pity, but doesn't it just smack of the truth? No one listens to good scholarship so much as the popular opinion. And the popular opinion was not shared by the later Scholastics of the School of Salamance, so it seems. 🙁

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