The ghost at the Brexit feast

We begin with an apology for letting Semiduplex lie fallow so long. We had been accustomed to posting more regularly, but other factors have intervened, work and otherwise. We had intended on discussing the Holy Father’s recent comments, shocking to some, about the possibility of widespread nullity of marriage, and the responses of his some of his notable critics, no less shocking. But the prospect was simply too depressing. However long the Holy Father reigns—and long may he reign—the basic paradigm of his reign is pretty well set in stone. At this point, we suspect that he could give a speech consisting solely of excerpts from Pascendi, and it would still provoke outrage.

We were perhaps fortunate not to have waded into the swamps surrounding the Holy Father’s remarks, because something much, much more interesting has happened: the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, including Scotland and Wales, voted in a referendum to withdraw from the European Union. David Cameron, prime minister of the United Kingdom, has announced his intention to resign later in the near future as a result of this vote. Nicola Sturgeon, first minister of Scotland, has announced her intention to renew Scottish independence efforts. The decision comes after recent polling and betting markets showed the “remain” option edging out “leave.” It seems that, in the doing of the thing, Wales and rural England voted strongly to leave, while London and Scotland voted to remain.

In other words, not only has the United Kingdom’s future as a member of the European community been called into serious doubt but also its future as a united kingdom. It is, then, a Big Deal, even as the twenty-four-hour news cycle turns everything into a big deal.

However, Catholics ought not to cheer too loudly England’s rejection of the European Union, especially insofar as it represents a rejection of supranational government. To be sure, the technocratic, neoliberal bureaucracy in Brussels is not a good supranational government. However, Catholics ought not to object to supranational government per se. Indeed, as we will see herein, the Church has taught for some time that supranational govermnent is necessary. Thus, as Catholics process Brexit and its consequences, they ought to consider that, while the European Union did not turn out to be an especially good idea, we need something like the European Union (or the United Nations or whatever) to serve properly the common good.

This is, then, the ghost at the Brexit feast. The European Union is a problem, as we said, and countries can find ample justification for leaving the European Union. But when it comes to finding justifications for rejecting the idea of supranational government altogether, it is a different question. Indeed, as we will see, there is simply no compelling justification for rejecting supranational government altogether. Thus, we have been a little perturbed by the response to Brexit among some Catholics, especially traditionally minded Catholics.

The basic reason for supranational government is this: some problems are bigger than individual nation-states. Indeed, in an increasingly interconnected world—globalized, we suppose, is the unfortunate word for it—individual nations are simply not competent to handle certain issues. Consider, for example, international crime—the drug trade, sex trafficking, or any of a whole host of similar evils. Certainly, it is possible to address the issue in each country, but we have seen that that simply does not work. Drugs are produced in one country, trafficked across several countries, and sold in another country still. But remember the idea of subsidiarity as outlined by Leo XIII in Rerum novarum and Pius XI in Quadragesimo anno, we see that the smallest competent unit ought to handle a given issue bearing upon the common good.

Consider further international finance and banking, as we were led to do by a very sharp acquaintance of ours in another venue. The effects of Brexit upon the British economy were front and center in the argument by advocates of remaining in the European Union. Apparently, membership in the European Union makes it easier for financial firms based in England to do business on the Continent. (We’re not experts at this, so we’ll take their word for it.) And this international character makes regulating financial firms difficult. There have been efforts to do this, one way and another, but they involve bilateral agreements and the grinding work of international diplomacy. And certain countries prefer to bolster their economies by avoiding these regulations and giving financial firms an out. One hears about tax havens and offshore corporation havens and asset protection trust havens—or one hears about them whenever something especially egregious takes place involving one of them, such as the so-called Panama Papers. In other words, prescinding from illegal conduct like the drug trade, one can find it impossible to regulate coherently and consistently the lawful activities of international organizations. Thus, the nation-state, as we conceive of it today, is not the smallest competent unit. Supranational government is necessary.

Of course, American Catholics on the political right will no doubt reject the idea that supranational government is necessary. However, when they do so, they set themselves against the teaching of the good and holy popes of the modern age. Recall what Benedict XVI said in his great (and misunderstood) social encyclical, Caritas in Veritate:

In the face of the unrelenting growth of global interdependence, there is a strongly felt need, even in the midst of a global recession, for a reform of the United Nations Organization, and likewise of economic institutions and international finance, so that the concept of the family of nations can acquire real teeth. One also senses the urgent need to find innovative ways of implementing the principle of the responsibility to protect and of giving poorer nations an effective voice in shared decision-making. This seems necessary in order to arrive at a political, juridical and economic order which can increase and give direction to international cooperation for the development of all peoples in solidarity. To manage the global economy; to revive economies hit by the crisis; to avoid any deterioration of the present crisis and the greater imbalances that would result; to bring about integral and timely disarmament, food security and peace; to guarantee the protection of the environment and to regulate migration: for all this, there is urgent need of a true world political authority, as my predecessor Blessed John XXIII indicated some years ago. 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. Furthermore, such an authority would need to be universally recognized and to be vested with the effective power to ensure security for all, regard for justice, and respect for rights. Obviously it would have to have the authority to ensure compliance with its decisions from all parties, and also with the coordinated measures adopted in various international forums. Without this, despite the great progress accomplished in various sectors, international law would risk being conditioned by the balance of power among the strongest nations. The integral development of peoples and international cooperation require the establishment of a greater degree of international ordering, marked by subsidiarity, for the management of globalization. They also require the construction of a social order that at last conforms to the moral order, to the interconnection between moral and social spheres, and to the link between politics and the economic and civil spheres, as envisaged by the Charter of the United Nations.

(Emphasis supplied and footnotes omitted.) In other words, Benedict recognized that some problems are too big for any one nation-state to resolve; a given country is not the smallest unit competent to address the global economy and financial institutions, to say nothing of the environment, migration, or international peace and disarmament. In order to address these issues, all of which bear upon the common good in a very serious way, something bigger than an individual country is necessary.

In support of his argument, Benedict cited St. John XXIII’s 1963 encyclical on world peace, Pacem in Terris, in which that saintly pope observed, wisely:

In our own day, however, mutual relationships between States have undergone a far reaching change. On the one hand, the universal common good gives rise to problems of the utmost gravity, complexity and urgency—especially as regards the preservation of the security and peace of the whole world. On the other hand, the rulers of individual nations, being all on an equal footing, largely fail in their efforts to achieve this, however much they multiply their meetings and their endeavors to discover more fitting instruments of justice. And this is no reflection on their sincerity and enterprise. It is merely that their authority is not sufficiently influential.

We are thus driven to the conclusion that the shape and structure of political life in the modern world, and the influence exercised by public authority in all the nations of the world are unequal to the task of promoting the common good of all peoples. 

Connection Between the Common Good and Political Authority

Now, if one considers carefully the inner significance of the common good on the one hand, and the nature and function of public authority on the other, one cannot fail to see that there is an intrinsic connection between them. Public authority, as the means of promoting the common good in civil society, is a postulate of the moral order. But the moral order likewise requires that this authority be effective in attaining its end. Hence the civil institutions in which such authority resides, becomes operative and promotes its ends, are endowed with a certain kind of structure and efficacy: a structure and efficacy which make such institutions capable of realizing the common good by ways and means adequate to the changing historical conditions.

Today the universal common good presents us with problems which are world-wide in their dimensions; problems, therefore, which cannot be solved except by a public authority with power, organization and means co-extensive with these problems, and with a world-wide sphere of activity. Consequently the moral order itself demands the establishment of some such general form of public authority.

(Heading in original, emphasis supplied, and paragraph numbers omitted.) St. John’s argument is interesting especially since it draws a connection between the moral order, the common good, and competence. The moral order requires that an authority be competent to pursue the common good insofar as possible. This raises, we note in passing, the interesting notion that governments mired in partisan dissension and inertia contravene the moral order, as they are thereby incompetent to pursue the common good. A sobering thought for those in Congress. At any rate, one may say, with St. John, that a supranational political authority is morally necessary, in addition to being practically necessary.

No doubt American Catholics on the political right will maintain their objection, presuming they don’t dust off their old trick of declaring (heretically) that the pope has no authority to pronounce upon these matters, pointing next to intrusions on national sovereignty and self-determination and individual liberty. Ah, they say, any supranational government must necessarily become, sooner or later, the Soviet Union. But St. John identifies the solution to that objection (hint: it’s something near and dear to Pius XI’s heart, which means it’s near and dear to ours):

The same principle of subsidiarity which governs the relations between public authorities and individuals, families and intermediate societies in a single State, must also apply to the relations between the public authority of the world community and the public authorities of each political community. The special function of this universal authority must be to evaluate and find a solution to economic, social, political and cultural problems which affect the universal common good. These are problems which, because of their extreme gravity, vastness and urgency, must be considered too difficult for the rulers of individual States to solve with any degree of success.

But it is no part of the duty of universal authority to limit the sphere of action of the public authority of individual States, or to arrogate any of their functions to itself. On the contrary, its essential purpose is to create world conditions in which the public authorities of each nation, its citizens and intermediate groups, can carry out their tasks, fullfill their duties and claim their rights with greater security.

(Emphasis supplied and paragraph numbers omitted.) There are, of course, problems that do not require supranational political action. And the European Union has proved to be most alienating in its technocratic insistence upon regulating these issues, too. In other words, the European Union went beyond creating conditions under which the governments of its member states could flourish individually to attempting in some measure to replace the governments of its member states. (We recall, especially, the brutal austerity regime imposed upon Greece during its financial crisis in the not-too-distant past.) This clearly contravenes subsidiarity.

But the American Catholic on the political right might press the point, complaining, since he no doubt heard it regularly at a recent seminar, that absolute power corrupts absolutely. (A comment, by the way, about papal infallibility, we recall being told.) And this is where a point by Pater Edmund Waldstein, O.Cist., comes in. At his wonderful blog Sancrucensis, he notes that St. Pius X addressed the real problem here:

Now that Brexit has become Brexibat, and the supposed ‘direction’ of European history has been called into doubt, Pope St. Pius X (if he were still alive today) might be forgiven for saying “I told you so.” In his Apostolic Letter Notre Charge ApostoliqueSt. Pius X rejected the idea that “universal solidarity” or “fraternity”  could be established on any firm basis apart from the Catholic Faith. Fraternity founded on “the love of common interest or, beyond all philosophies and religions, on the mere notion of humanity” is soon swept away by “the passions and wild desires of the heart.” No, he writes, “there is no genuine fraternity outside Christian charity.” Indeed, even if it could succeed a fraternity merely based on enlightened self-interest and a common recognition of humanity would not even be desirable:

By separating fraternity from Christian charity thus understood, Democracy, far from being a progress, would mean a disastrous step backwards for civilization. If, as We desire with all Our heart, the highest possible peak of well being for society and its members is to be attained through fraternity or, as it is also called, universal solidarity, all minds must be united in the knowledge of Truth, all wills united in morality, and all hearts in the love of God and His Son Jesus Christ. But this union is attainable only by Catholic charity, and that is why Catholic charity alone can lead the people in the march of progress towards the ideal civilization.

(Hyperlinks in original, emphasis supplied, and block quote slightly reformatted.) When one looks, then, at failed supranational governments—the Soviet Union, the European Union perhaps—one sees, as Pater Waldstein points out at length in his essay, that they are founded not upon Christ and His Church, but upon secular notions of brotherhood.

Thus, if supranational government is to be successful—that is, if it is to live up to its obligations under the moral law—it must be founded upon Christ and His Church. Only Catholic charity, as St. Pius tells us, provides a sure foundation for the solidarity of peoples and the progress of civilization. Anything else falls far short one way and another, usually horribly, as the last hundred years have shown repeatedly.

It may well be right for Catholics to cheer Brexit, or any other withdrawal from the technocratic Brussels regime. The philosophical underpinnings of the European Union are simply inadequate to provide a framework of solidarity and progress, insofar as they are essentially secular, Enlightenment ideals. But, St. John XXIII and Benedict XVI teach us, supranational government is necessary to serve the common good, given the international character of some of the major problems confronting the common good. And St. Pius X tells us that the only sure foundation for such a government is Christ’s Church and the charity she teaches us. So, as Catholics cheer Brexit, they ought to give some thought to how to bring about the sort of supranational government the Church teaches us that we need.

It would be a big project, to say the least. Big enough to take a little bit of the edge off the celebration, no?