It’s summer, which means that the superhero genre gets to enjoy a little more than its typical share of box-office revenue and media buzz. The appeal of the superhero is a rather interesting phenomenon, though perhaps not too surprising, since man dreams of excellence. It is only natural, then, that he would wonder at what might be achieved beyond the realms of human excellence.
While the amazing feats of the superhero, such as single-handedly undermining an evil empire, may not be achievable by any individual human person, they can be accomplished by communities of persons acting together to achieve a common goal. Of course, such an allegorical reading is not unfamiliar to this genre, such as Captain America’s battle against Fascism and Communism. Still, it can be helpful to reflect on the superhero’s commitment to the good that is beyond his self-interest, particularly in light of international politics, which can easily become far abstracted from typical human experience. The superhero helps bridge the gap between personal experience and collective action. He is (something like) a human being performing (something like) the deeds of the state; he’s an entire army wrapped up in one person.
This analogy may be helpful in understanding the Church’s teaching on the role of the state in international affairs. Is each state an entirely free agent, or are there broader, necessary bonds of human fellowship? As early as the Acts of the Apostles, the Church has pointed to the “divine plan of unity that involves the entire human race” (Acts 17:26). Of course, this plan is none other than the salvation wrought by the Lord Jesus Christ. But, at the level of God himself—indeed, in imitation of God himself—the Christian message sets forth a message of unity that reflects the most intimate life of the Trinity as a union of one God in three Persons (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church §§431-432). Thus, the Church advocates for an international order that promotes the common good, while respecting the sovereign rights of nations (Compendium §441).
The level of magisterial reflection offered by the Church thus far does not provide more specific guidance on certain political aspects of the divine plan of unity for the entire human race. What are the limits of the common good? Is there a distinction between Christian and non-Christian nations? What exactly are the “rights of nations”? While the Church does provide invaluable insight into the dynamics of international affairs, it is not fair to look for specific direction in what is meant to be general guidance. The Church points to general principles and seeks to provide guidance, whereas individual states must act on their own initiative in concrete cases and must take responsibility for the consequences.
Nevertheless, the Church’s teaching remains relevant, and the Church can (and does) provide invaluable insight regarding these general principles of international politics. For example, in Centesimus annus, Pope John Paul II notes that beyond the need for international structures (such as the UN) in the struggle for peace, there exists a critical role for culture, which contextualizes all human activity and binds these international structures (CA §§27, 51). Culture not only unites peoples within specific states or regions, but it can also transcend these limits.
Moreover, through this teaching, the Church provides an interesting response to the superhero analogy. For its ultimate salvation, the world must look to someone who possesses powers beyond the normal human capacity: namely, Jesus Christ. But, for what the lived expression of that salvation entails now, the world does not need to look to human activities that are completely alien or foreign. The normal activities of human beings provide opportunities for salvific unification. Through the development of culture, whether it be through economic means or even the World Cup, normal people can act in extraordinary (even “super”) ways that ultimately bring us closer to realizing that divine plan of unity that mirrors, though dimly, the perfect unity and love of the Trinity.