ONE OF THE SOBERING THINGS about trying to teach Moral Theology in almost any context, including a parish, is the realisation that a lot of Catholics think that the Church should only be concerned about issues such as sex, the family or some aspects of the sanctity of life. If you say that our moral teaching extends to every aspect of day to day life and the life of the world, the eyes glaze over. The suggestion that the Catholic life is about the whole of our lives is rather daunting and threatening to many.

I suspect that in the current political climate if you claim that the Church has something to say about international law you get the same bewildered or even angry response from some Catholics, let alone others. This makes it even more urgent that we should remind ourselves of this part of our teaching. As Christians we do not see the basic concept of ‘law’ as something oppressive or constricting: we see the ‘moral law’ as something liberating, and indeed given to us by God. In the Old Testament, for example, the Ten Commandments and the rest of Torah are seen as a sign of God’s favour towards his chosen people. The way the people are expected to live according to what God reveals to them is something which sets them apart from others. Of course laws can be oppressive, if they infringe human dignity or are imposed without democratic mandate, but human societies have always needed laws and regulations, to guard against sin.

This applies not simply to individual people, but to whole societies. The moral law is wide-ranging, and it applies both to how societies should be ordered and to relationships between countries: there’s no such thing as the ‘law of the jungle’; we’re not created by God, in his image, to live like that. Someone who understands this very well is Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, who came to this country ten years ago this week: here he is depicted greeting hundreds of pupils from Catholic schools on the running track of St Mary’s University. A year before he came here he wrote his last full encyclical, Caritas in Veritate (‘Love in Truth’) which addresses the world financial crisis in the years after 2008 and also marked the fortieth anniversary of the first papal letter about world development issues in the 1960s.

When a person signs an agreement, or when a country signs a treaty, you voluntarily create a binding obligation, a restriction on your freedom to do whatever you like. An international treaty therefore has both moral and legal force, in the interests of both parties who sign, their Common Good. In his 2009 letter Pope Benedict not only recognised the importance of this but called for more international agreements with binding force; here he is writing about the need to have international laws with real ‘teeth’ to regulate both the financial system and avert environmental damage: ‘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 co-operation 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 pre-decessor 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’ (section 67)

It’s all about selfishness really: countries which break international treaties are a bit like people who refuse to wear masks or socially distance.