Mankind’s Last Great Hope

When you look at the sorry state of the United Nations these days it is hard to believe that not too long ago seemingly rational people would routinely use the phrase “mankind’s last great hope” to describe the UN’s role in the world.

Mankind’s last great hope? For what? For providing Third World poseurs a venue to bilk the United States taxpayer for their cronies’ pet projects back home? For giving UN “peacekeepers” an opportunity to sexually abuse children in West Africa? For continuing UNESCO’s promotion of abortion and euthanasia around the world? For providing opportunists like Kofi Annan’s son an opening to cut deals with shady characters to exploit the Oil for Food program? For the UN’s Commission on Human Rights, the august forum where some of the most brutal tyrants in the world lecture the United States on the evils of humiliating prisoners of war? Zimbabwe, Sudan, Cuba and Saudi Arabia are on the Commission of Human Rights this year: What else is there to say?

The Commission on Human Rights? Where is Jonathan Swift when we need him? Then again, maybe the late cartoonist Al Capp would have been the better choice to portray what goes on in that swamp. Think of the great characters the creator of L’il Abner, Mammy Yokum and Fearless Fodsick could have come up with to capture the absurdity of Fidel Castro’s and Robert Mugabe’s representatives judging violations of human rights around the world? You can’t make up this stuff.

But wait a minute? We are Catholics. Isn’t it wrong for us to pile on the UN at a time like this? Doesn’t the Church teach us to support the UN? Wasn’t that the theme of Pope John XXIII’s 1963 encyclical Pacem in Terris? An old Jesuit professor of mine at Fordham thought that was the case. This priest was no bleeding-heart liberal, but I can remember him grumbling about Catholic columnists such as William F. Buckley writing in criticism of the UN’s role in the world in the mid-1960s. The priest knew what was in Pacem in Terris, and he was from that generation of Jesuits who stood with the popes.

Pacem in Terris calls upon us to support the UN. Like it or not, it does. The encyclical states clearly that the time has passed when the “rulers of States” are “able to make sufficient provision for the universal common good through the normal diplomatic channels, or by top-level meetings and discussions, treaties and agreements; by using, that is, the ways and means suggested by the natural law, the law of nations, or international law.”

The encyclical maintains that the nuclear age presents us with challenges of a different magnitude: “The universal common good gives rise to problems of the utmost gravity, complexity and urgency — especially as regards the preservation of security and world peace,” problems “which are worldwide in their dimensions” and “which cannot be solved except by a public authority with power, organization and means co-extensive with these problems, and with a worldwide sphere of activity. Consequently the moral order itself demands the establishment of some such general form of public authority.”

That sounds like something you might find carved on the base of a statue in the UN lobby, or on a brass wall plaque mounted in the delegates lounge behind the trays of crudités and vodka martinis. Uh-oh, I’m being disrespectful again…

True, the encyclical makes clear that any organization “with worldwide power and adequate means for achieving the universal common good, cannot be imposed by force”; that it “must be set up with the consent of all nations,” and that the nations of the world are within their rights not to “submit to an authority imposed by force, established without their co-operation, and accepted without their consent.” So Pacem in Terris does not mandate that we work for an end to the nation-state system. Not entirely.

It takes into account the principle of subsidiarity: “It is no part of the duty of this universal authority to limit the sphere of action of the public authority of other States, or to arrogate any of its functions to itself. On the contrary, its essential purpose is to create world conditions in which not only the public authorities of every nation, but also its citizens and intermediate groups can carry out their tasks, fulfill their duties and claim their rights with greater authority.”

Nonetheless, the encyclical maintains that there “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. It sees the “United Nations Organization” as a good place to begin on the journey toward a “world community,” as “a step in the right direction,” and “an approximation towards the establishment of a juridical and political organization of the world community.” If that does not describe a world government as such, it describes a UN with muscle, clout, juice — an organization worthy of support and respect.

So, where does this leave us? Does it mean that we should look the other way at UNESCO’s funding of abortion clinics in Africa and India? That we should view the Oil for Food scandal as just a cost of doing business on the road to the establishment of a “juridical organization of the world community”? That we should pretend we don’t notice the double standard that the representatives of Third World dictators apply in the General Assembly when condemning Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians? (The white minority in Zimbabwe would give its eye teeth to be treated like a West-Bank Palestinian.) Does it mean that I should refrain from chuckling in disdain when I see the UN delegates’ limos parked illegally on the East Side of Manhattan, while the representatives of the world’s starving masses dine on their turbot with comté crust at Le Perigord?

The questions answer themselves: No, to all of the above. The Church teaches that the natural law is binding on nations; it rejects the extreme claims of national sovereignty that would make the nation-state an instrument of divine authority; it encourages international efforts in the name of peace and social justice and against evils such as genocide. But the Church had no way of knowing in 1963 what the United Nations would become by 2005. Pacem in Terris’s call for support of the “political organization of the world community” does not require that we support whatever organization makes the claim that it is organizing the world in the name of justice and peace. That would be ridiculous. Napoleon claimed to be establishing a new world community dedicated to justice and peace. So did Hitler and Stalin.

I know, I know: The UN is not in the same league as Hitler’s or Stalin’s regimes. Not even close. Nonetheless, if an American Catholic has concluded that the United Nations has lost its way, that it has failed its original mandate, that it has become corrupt and inefficient, he or she is free to apply prudential judgment to decide that it is no longer worthy of support. And free to apply a big, bright “Get the United States Out of the United Nations” bumper sticker to the rear of his Buick.

James Fitzpatrick's new novel, The Dead Sea Conspiracy: Teilhard de Chardin and the New American Church, is available from our online store. You can email Mr. Fitzpatrick at

(This article originally appeared in The Wanderer and is reprinted with permission. To subscribe call 651-224-5733.)

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