Nation, State, Nation-State

Peace – The fruit of justice Theological reflections on peace between individuals, peoples and nations

Cardinal Walter Kasper

Addressing the issue of people, nation and state from a theological perspective has turned out to be much more complex than I initially thought, because there is no agreement on any of these concepts. For this reason, it seems to me appropriate to clarify some fundamental concepts, above all those of dignity of the person and social justice, and then illustrate the concept of state and nation and the idea of peace as the fruit of justice.

I. Starting point and foundation: the dignity of the human person

The Bible begins with a double revolution in the story of creation in the first Book of Moses. The point is not how God created the world, whether in six days or as an evolutionary process lasting millions of years. The revolutionary message for the multi-ethnic and multi-national world, both then and today, is that God created the whole world for all of humanity. Monotheism is not exclusive, but inclusive. God is God and Father of all men and women. The world belongs to everyone and we all make up humanity.

The second revolution is that the apex of the story of creation is the creation of man in the image of God (Gn 1,27). The image of God was for the men of the ancient East the prerogative of kings. This royal prerogative is democratised in the Bible. Adam is representative of all men. Therefore, everyone has the same royal dignity: men and women, regardless of descent and origin, people and culture, race and social class, skin color or religion. Paul reiterated this statement: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female” (Gal 3:28; 1 Cor 12:13; Col 3:11).

The concept of the human being as a person thus developed from this story through a long process of encounter with Greek philosophy.[1] According to the latter, man’s sovereignty imago dei consists in the fact that each person is in command of his or her own actions, and is free and responsible for himself. Through reason, he or she is not enclosed in a restricted environment, but open to the fullness of reality. He or she is unique and ultimately unavailable. The faces of every man and woman therefore shine with divine greatness. In modern times, therefore, we speak of human dignity in this sense. According to Kant, every man is an end in himself and must never be used only as a means for other purposes.[2] This is the foundation on which all ancient Western culture is based; after the horrifying experience of the Second World War, and especially the Shoah, it merged into the Preamble of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, which deals with individual rights, which nevertheless imply the recognition of the rights of all other human beings.

II. Justice – the fundamental measure of the interpersonal dimension

The human being does not exist in the singular, but exists only in plurality. Man, as ancient philosophy claimed, is a social being.[3] Nobody can face life alone; no one can do everything, everyone depends on others.

Hence the origin of conflicts and conflicting interests. The original conflict is manifested in the story of Cain and Abel (Gn 4). Cain feels put aside and gets rid of his brother. God asks Cain: “Where is your brother?”; God does not only want freedom and equality between men and women; mere equality can lead to indifference. God wants us to be present for one another, to take responsibility for one another, and has called on us to be the guardians of our brothers and sisters. Freedom and equality also mean brotherhood.[4]

This brotherhood is expressed in the Golden Rule (Lv 19,18; Tb 4,14; Sir 31,15 LXX), which is found in all religions and cultures known to us. Jesus expressly confirmed it by summarising it as “Law and Prophets” in the Sermon on the Mount: “Whatever you wish that men would do to you, do so to them” (Mt 7,12; 22,40).[5] In the Old Testament, the Golden Rule was fundamental for coexistence with pagans; in the New Testament for coexistence between Christians and Jews (Rev 15.19 s. 29.21.25) and subsequently for coexistence between Christians and pagans. From this derived the law of nations (ius gentium), a law that applies to all nations and represents the fundamental norm of all civilised humanity.

The Decretum Gratiani, which was fundamental for Scholasticism, defines the Golden Rule as natural law.[6] Natural law or law of nature is not a code of individual rules. Rather, it states that everyone is required to do to the other what they wish for themselves; each is required not to do to the other what he does not want done to him. Thus, natural law is the law of humanity and brotherhood between men and as such, the fundamental order of peace between human beings.

In the Middle Ages, natural law was developed in the wake of Aristotle through the concept of justice.[7] The starting point is the definition of Ulpian (Roman jurist, 170-228 AD): The basic principles of law are: to live honorably, not to harm any other person, to render each his own, suum cuique. The question is: what is suum? What is yours and what is mine? Is it one’s assets? Is it one’s work? Or is it what I or the other need to live a dignified life? Thomas Aquinas replies that justice stems from what applies to everyone, therefore from international law. From his point of view, iustitia legalis does not derive from a positive human law, but from the law of nature. One’s work or assets do not count; rather, it is what we need to lead a truly human life. The fundamental law of humanity, the Golden Rule, the law of brotherhood is what applies.

Justice means recognizing the other person’s life and freedom, the other person’s right to be treated with humanity. Injustice, on the contrary, is the deprivation of life or freedom, murder (even abortion) and slavery.[8] Because they possess personal dignity, men and women must never be reified, trafficked, made the object of political and economic interests and calculations, nor can they be treated as mere workforce or sexual objects (abuse), nor can they be reduced with contempt to mere prototypes of certain groups (Jews, negroes, gypsies, etc.) or simply marginalized. Language too, through denigration and derision, can kill someone socially and push them to their death because of a shitstorm.

Human rights were born from these points of view. They were not born from the French Revolution, but already 250 years earlier through the Dominican theologians of the Salamanca School, in particular Francisco de Vitoria (1438-1546).[9] The discovery of the New World posed the question of whether natives were people and had the right to be treated as such. Francisco de Vitoria advocated the right to the self-determination of peoples and human dignity also for the indigenous populations. For Bartolomé de Las Casas (1484-1566) this was the foundation of his commitment to the rights of the indigenous. In a letter to the Council of the Indies in 1552 he spoke of the “principles of human rights”.

The idea of human rights was first formulated in the tradition of the American Pilgrim Fathers in their Declaration of Independence (1776): “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”. With the French Revolution (1789), only 25 years later came the Déclaration des Droits de l’Homme et du Citoyen. In the latter case, it was not about human rights but civil rights. No one in the Age of Enlightenment had had the idea of also applying them to the colonies.

The French Revolution ended in the Reign of Terror of the guillotine, of which numerous priests and religious representatives also fell victims. In this way it is possible to understand, to a certain extent (!), why Popes such as Gregory XVI and Pius IX refused human rights and freedom of religion and conscience. Unfortunately, it was necessary to wait until John XXIII (Pacem in terris, 1963) and the Second Vatican Council (Gaudium et spes and Dignitatis humanae) to discover that human rights are an integral part of Europe’s Christian heritage. For John Paul II, human rights represented the spearhead of the confrontation with the communist regimes; for Pope Francis brotherhood has become the foundation of dialogue with Islam.[10]

III. Tangible man - tangible justice

The Bible does not know man as an abstract being, and humanity is not the sum of individual men and women; it is unity in the plurality of populations and peoples. According to the Bible, after the construction of the tower of Babel, linguistic chaos and dispersion over the whole earth ensued (11,1.7-9; Dt 32,8; Ap 14,16 s.). Different languages imply different cultures, different ways of understanding reality, different ways of communicating with one other. For the New Testament, family, in the sense of domestic community (oikos, oikia)[11] is the basic order and school of humanity. It comes before the state and therefore benefits of its own laws, and it is the duty of the state to protect and promote it (GS 52).[12]

According to the Bible, man, gifted with a body and a soul, is a historical being with his own place in space and time. Today we know that man’s full humanity is only achieved through the so-called second socio-cultural birth.[13] One’s nation (from the Latin nasci, ‘to be born’) is the place where one was born, the homeland, the country of my paternal home where I was born and raised, which is familiar to me, where I feel at home, where people and things belong to me and I to them. When these familiar places are missing or dissolve, when family life crumbles, when there is no longer any tradition or culture of everyday life, when everything becomes simply functional and technical, the human world is no longer a place you would want to inhabit.[14] Justice is therefore justice due to a real, tangible human being. The principles of human dignity conferred by God certainly apply always and everywhere; they apply to everyone in all circumstances. But it was the wise vision of Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas that indicated how the application of universal principles cannot be determined in a logical and deductive way. Tangible application takes place from their point of view thanks to the virtue of practical intelligence, that is, wisdom, or prudence, which applies generic law to a specific situation.[15] A merely abstract application would lead to the summum ius summa iniuria instead.[16]

This tangible justice flows in a certain sense into mercy; it is real justice for man in a real situation of need and it is, therefore, the highest form of the Golden Rule. Thomas Aquinas said: “mercy without justice is the mother of dissolution, while justice without mercy is cruelty”.[17] From this point of view, John Paul II (Dives in misericordia, 1980) spoke of mercy as true justice. According to Benedict XVI, justice is the minimum of love and love is the maximum of justice (Caritas in veritate, 2009). With his call to mercy (Misericordia et misera, 2016), Pope Francis therefore continues a great tradition.

IV. The modern nation state

So far we have talked about the primordial order of humanity in the family, peoples and cultures born of history. We have not yet encountered the concept of state for a simple reason: the concepts of state connected to nation are only found in the modern European era, starting from the end of the eighteenth century.[18]

Modern states evolved after the Protestant Reformation and subsequent religious wars, particularly the Thirty Years War. That was when the religious unity of the medieval corpus christianum was broken. The Peace of Westphalia (1648) was made possible only by decreeing religion as a private affair and the political order as founded no longer on religion but on reason, common to all. Later, temporal authority withdrew from the religious sphere, then from science, economics and culture. This led to a distinction between state and civil society. The existing authority therefore lost its competence in all matters and the pluralist liberal state was no longer a societas perfecta in the medieval sense of the term.

When the early European order shattered during the Napoleonic wars following the French Revolution, people had to take fate into their own hands and give themselves a new order of peace based on the late medieval idea of popular sovereignty. The state was no longer an authority imposed by God, and citizens were no longer subordinates. In this context the concept of nation took on a political connotation; from a cultural nation it became a national state, and from belonging to a people to the citizenship of a state. The characteristics of a national state include: a sovereign people, a demarcated state territory and an organised state authority which claims the monopoly of power. In essence, a modern national state is not a natural event, it is not a historically matured cultural state and it is certainly not a metaphysical entity (Fichte, Hegel).[19] It is linked to a specific historical era and it is historically sought and evolved. This development led to a change in the Christian concept of state.

V. Updating the Christian concept of state

Christianity approves secular authority. The prophet Jeremiah writes to those who were taken captive to Babylon: “Promote the welfare of the city to which I have exiled you; pray for it to the Lord, for upon its welfare depends your own.” (Jer 29.5-7). The decisive word belongs to Jesus: “Repay to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God” (Mt 22,21). Jesus does not claim any political power for himself (Jn 18:36); however, he recognises the authority of Pilate, conferred on him from above (Jn 19:11).

Paul writes to the Romans: “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established”. It is at God’s service for your own good; not in vain does it carry the sword. A Christian is therefore held to obedience not only because of punishment, but out of conscience (Rom 13.1-5; similarly 1 Pt 2.13-17). Only when it comes to faith and the moral order given by God is it necessary to obey him before men (Acts 5:29).

The surprising thing about this statement is the fact that already at that time Christians knew that Jesus had been condemned to die as an innocent man on the cross by the hand of a superior authority and that the disciples themselves had already experienced persecutions. The Bible’s response to persecutions is therefore not an incitement to rebellion or resistance, but an exhortation to pray for the rulers (1 Tim 2:1 s.; 1 Clem 60,4-61,2). Defense in persecutions against Christians is: we Christians do not worship the emperor but we pray for him. Yes, we rely on his protection.[20] Thus Paul with some pride could define himself before the tribunal as a civis romanus by appealing to the emperor and placing himself under his tutelage (Acts 21.39; 22.25-29; 23.27).

The question is: how do we relate to these texts today?[21] In today’s exegesis the prevailing idea is that in Rom 13 these statements are conditioned by the situation at that particular time, and should not be carried directly to the present, because the authority referred to in the Bible no longer exists in today’s democratic state. Rulers today are elected by the sovereign people and respond to the people; thanks to the division of powers, they no longer hold the sword in their own hands, but are also subject to an independent judicial authority.

The Second Vatican Council took this into account. On the one hand, it noted that political community and public authority are founded on human nature; however, the order established by God leaves the determination of the form of government and the choice of rulers to the free will of the citizens. Church doctrine does not prescribe any specific form of state, but leaves it to the people’s free choice (GS 74). The Council therefore complies with the social order founded in human nature, but the concrete form is left to our free will. In this way, unlike the social contract promoted by Rousseau, the free will of the people is not constitutive of the essence but of its practical application.[22]

It follows that the evaluation of a state does not take place on the basis of the criterion of the practical form of its constitution, but rather assessing whether it is capable of achieving its objective and essential purpose. The state is not an end in itself, it is at the service of men and women and at the service of justice among them. In this sense, it must not only protect the freedom of the individual. It also has the task of operating in the service of the common good. The common good is defined as the totality of premises that allow and promote a free life for individuals, families and social groups (GS 74). This includes the two well-known principles of subsidiarity and solidarity. The state should not decide by itself; rather, it is the smaller units that stand before the state that must do their best; however, everyone should consider the good of the whole, especially of its weaker members.

The idea of justice for the common good refers to the ancient teaching of distributive justice, that is, the fair distribution of natural goods that commonly belong to everyone. Fair distribution, as Thomas Aquinas says, must take place in order to achieve the citizen’s goals.[23] Distributive justice is therefore not only a top-down process; it also requires accepting a bottom-up one. When social justice is seriously damaged and state authority becomes tyrannical, there is a right of resistance because the citizen is also sovereign.[24]

This is the advantage of the democratic rule of law which includes, from the beginning, forms of peaceful resistance: regularly held free elections, division of powers, the right to express a public opinion, the right to demonstrate and strike. All this gives the democratic rule of law a considerable capacity for adaptation and integration. It is, therefore, the best of the worst possibilities (Winston Churchill). So far, humanity has been unable to find anything better. Nevertheless, since it is born of history, the democratic rule of law does not guarantee its existence for eternity. Today it is facing great challenges.

VI. Current challenges of the nation state

I would like to start with the fundamental challenge. There is a famous quote that says: “The liberal, secularised state lives from preconditions it itself cannot guarantee”.[25] This implies that the majority of citizens recognises the dignity, freedom and rights of all others, acts in a peaceful and tolerant way, is capable of consensus and compromise, and respects the decisions of the majority. However, it cannot guarantee these premises with the means of legal coercion if it does not want to become an authoritarian or even totalitarian state.

The democratic rule of law founded on these assumptions arose, not exclusively but substantially, from a Christian basis. However, fundamental Christian beliefs are currently being eroded in Europe, while in the non-Western world they are still completely lacking. Most non-Western countries have adopted the formal structures of the democratic state; however, indigenous cultural values are emerging in Africa and Asia following a spiritual and cultural decolonisation. The problem is acutely felt with the integration of Islam, whether or not this can guarantee true religious freedom. We Europeans have taken a long time to obtain it and we too have often betrayed and trampled on human dignity.

The second challenge is the following: in the last century we saw how the approval of the nation can turn into ideological nationalism and replace religion. Nationalism has caused immeasurable pain in Europe and the world in the two World Wars. Supranational institutions (UN, European integration, etc.) were created in the second half of the 20th century precisely to avoid this danger. Various forms of bilateral and multilateral interconnection have also arisen in the globalised world. Today a nation state alone is no longer able to carry out its tasks in an autarchic way; it is dependent on international and multilateral cooperation.

In this transition from independence to the interdependence of states, citizens are increasingly moving further away from the decision-making process. Decisions become so complex that ordinary citizens can no longer understand them. This creates insecurity and fear for the future, and this is what neo-nationalist populist ideologies exploit with their xenophobic slogans and claims for ethnic and cultural homogeneity. Instead of an identity open to dialogue and cooperation, a closed and withdrawn identity emerges behind the walls of isolation and marginalisation. Neo-nationalism needs an enemy to ensure its identity and to hide its weaknesses. This calls into question the good achievements of modernity and leads to a split in society, as well as to new, dangerous international conflicts.

A third problem arises from the asymmetrical economic development between rich and poor nations. Global capitalism has borne some fruit through world trade and the plan to extend development: nevertheless, the gap between the many poor and the wealthy few is hardly bearable and the distribution of the planet’s resources is extremely unfair. This is why peace in the world today has become a question of justice for the common good and the fair distribution of creatural goods on a global level. Pope Paul VI wrote in Populorum progressio (1967): “Development is the new name for peace” and appealed for a fair balance between developed and developing countries. Pope Francis in turn expanded this global approach and in Laudato si’ (2015) recognised the care of creation as a social problem and a matter of world peace.

VII. Christian ethics of peace in today’s world

The Christian ethics of peace has undergone a turning point in recent decades, moving from the theory of just war to the question of just peace.[26] In this sense it can refer to the prophetic tradition of the eschatological pilgrimage of peoples (Is 2,1-5; Mic 4,1-3). “Peace is the fruit of justice” (Is 32.17). “Justice and peace will kiss each other” (Ps 85.11). The biblical idea of peace (shalom) is not just the absence of war, but rather the integrity, healing and salvation of all reality, life in harmony with God, with oneself, with other men and women, within one’s own people, among peoples and with nature.[27] During his sermon in Sarajevo on June 5, 2015, Pope Francis said: “Peace is God’s dream, his plan for humanity, for history, for all creation.”

Ultimately, the vision of a just peace goes back to Saint Augustine: “Remove justice, and what are kingdoms but gangs of criminals on a large scale?  What are criminal gangs but petty kingdoms? A gang is a group of men under the command of a leader, bound by a compact of association, in which the plunder is divided according to an agreed convention”.[28]

Today it is believed that the ethics of peace is based on four pillars. The first is the global protection of fundamental human rights, which also includes the protection of the human dignity of minorities. The second is the promotion of democracy and the building of the rule of law with its structures, which allows forms of participation and decision-making for all. The third is peacekeeping through scientific cooperation, global trade, promoting development and fighting poverty. The fourth pillar is the maintenance of peace through the expansion of interstate and supra-state relations and mandatory international arbitration.

I think this is important, but not sufficient. The past century has shown us that the utopia of unstoppable progress has failed.[29] We had to painfully understand that there may also be a risk of a degeneration of civilisation into the worst brutality. Democracy and the rule of law can also be in danger and fail. They are grounded not only on economic assumptions, but also and above all on spiritual ones. There is no economic globalisation without spiritual globalisation. Herein lies the importance of ecumenism not only in the confessional sense, but also in the interreligious sense and in the dialogue with all men and women of good will. This is the vision of the Second Vatican Council, which to date is only half accomplished. This is the primary contribution that the Church and all the Christians can give for peace in the world, which is the fruit of justice for all.



[1] HWPH 5 (1980) 1059-1105; 7 (1989) 269-338; LThK 8 (1999) 42-52; W. Pannenberg, Person und Subjekt, in: Grundfragen systematischer Theologie. Ges. Aufsätze, Bd. 2, Göttingen 1980, 80-95.
[2] I. Kant, Kritik der praktischen Vernunft BA 66 f.
[3] Aristotle Pol I 1253 a 1; Thomas, De regimine principum I, 1.
[4] See A.M. Baccio, La sfida della fraternità, in Oss. Rom. 16/1/2019, p. 4 f.
[5] TRE 24 (1994) 582-587: HWPH 8 (1992) 450-464; LThK. 4 (1995) 821-823.
[6] Graziano, Concordia discordantium canonum (1140) I dist. 1. ed. Friedberg, Leipzig 1879.
[7] HWPH 3 (1974) 329-338; LThK 4 (1995) 498-507; dalla prospettiva tomistica: J. Pieper, Das Viergespann, München 1964, 65-161; discussione recente: J. Rawls, Eine Theorie der Gerechtigkeit, Frankfurt a. M. 1979.
[8] The path to reach this vision has been long: Aristotle Pol I, 6 and to a limited extent also St. Thomas, II / II 57,3 ad 2 tried to justify slavery from the point of view of natural law as ius gentium.
[9] J. Höffner, Christentum und Menschenwürde. Das Anliegen der spanischen Kolonialethik im Goldenen Zeitalter, Trier 1947; B. Tierney, The Idea of Natural Rights. Studies on Natural Rights, Natural Law and Church Law. 1150-1625, Cambridge 1997.
[10] Document on human brotherhood, in Oss. Rom. 4-5 february 2019, 6 f.
[11] ThWNT 5 (1954) 122-124. 132 f.
[12] As already Aristotle, Nik. Ethik VII 1162 (Nicomachean Ethics) Cr. G. Augustin/R. Kirchdörfer (Hg), Familie. Auslaufmodell oder Garant unserer Zukunft, Freiburg i. Br. 2014.
[13] See die Philosophische Anthropologie von A. Portmann, A. Gehlen, H. Plessner, F.J. Buytendijk. W. Pannenberg, Anthropologie in theologischer Perspektive, Göttingen 1983.
[14] John Paul II, Laborem exercens, 1981, 10.3. On the cultural dimension GS 53-62. See also the Argentine theology of the people.
[15] Aristotle, St Thomas II/II 47,1 s.; J. Pieper, Viergespann, 13-64. Sull’ermeneutica dell'applicazione: W. Gadamer, Wahrheit und Methode, Tübingen 2 1965, 290-323.
[16] Aristotle, Nik. Ethik V 1138a (Etica nicomachea); Cicero, De officiis, I, 10,33.
[17] Commentary on the Gospel of Matthew 5,2; see Deutsche Thomasausgabe, Bd. 13, 734.
[18] On what follows StL (1995) 133-157; LThK 9 (2000) 890-898.
[19] Hegel, Grundlinien der Philosophie der Rechts: “Der Staat ist göttlicher Wille als gegenwärtiger, sich zur wirklichen Gestalt und Organisation einer Welt entfaltender Geist” (§ 270; ed. Hoffmeister, 222) (Outlines of the Philosophy of Right).
[20] Theophilus, Apol. to Autolykum, I, 11 (Apology to Autolycus). See already 1 Pt 2,17.
[21] It is not possible to elaborate here; see LThK 10 (2001) 1139-42.
[22] StL 5 (1985) 160.
[23] St. Thomas II/II 61, 1 ad 3. Thomas advocates a mixed form of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy; he therefore already knows, unlike Luther's doctrine on authority, the meaning of the democratic element. See I/II 95.4; 105.1.
[24] StL 5 (1989) 989-993; LThK 19 (2001) 1139-1142.
[25] E.W. Böckenförde, Staat Gesellschaft Freiheit. Studien zur Staatstheorie und zum Verfassungsrecht, Frankfurt a. M. 1976, 60; J. Habermas, Vorpolitische Grundlagen des demokratischen Rechtsstaates? In: Zwischen Naturalismus und Religion, Frankfurt a. M. 2005, 106-118.
[26] E. Schockenhoff, Kein Ende der Gewalt? Friedensethik für eine globalisierte Welt, Freiburg i. Br. 2018.
[27] ThWNT 2 (1935) 398-416; LThK 4 (1995) 137-141.
[28] Augustine, De civitate Dei 4,4.
[29] M. Horkheimer/Th. W. Adorno, Dialektik der Aufklärung, Frankfurt a. M. 1969; J. Habermas/J. Ratzinger, Dialektik der Säkularisierung. Über Vernunft und Religion, Freiburg i. Br. 2005.


Nazione, Stato, Stato Nazione

Sessione Plenaria 1-3 maggio 2019 | Nota concettuale – Oggi il mondo si trova ad... Continua

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