Discover more from Vulgar Marxism
Sanctions That Cry Out to Heaven for Vengeance
America's second Catholic president has imposed sanctions on Afghanistan that defy the Church's teachings on the transcendent dignity of the human person.
Joe Biden is the second Catholic to serve as president of the United States, much to the dismay of Church conservatives. Elected in 1960, John F. Kennedy was spared from having to contend with issues like abortion and gay rights, which polarize the faithful today but were virtually absent from public discourse during his presidency. The first Catholic president to openly support abortion access, Biden has drawn furious rebuke from hardline elements within the Church. Conservative bishops flirted with denying him the sacrament of Holy Communion in June of last year, but backed down under pressure from the Vatican.
By contrast, Catholic liberals are heartened by the fact that the most religiously observant president since Jimmy Carter is one of their own. A year ago, the New York Times said that “with Mr. Biden, a different, more liberal Christianity is ascendant: less focused on sexual politics and more on combating poverty, climate change and racial inequality.” But if these are the goals toward which President Biden orients his faith, then liberal Catholics shouldn’t be so quick to claim him either - and not only for his administration’s underwhelming track record here at home.
As a result of American policy, a humanitarian cataclysm is unfolding in Afghanistan that not only shocks the secular conscience, but defies Church teachings on everything from economic sanctions to international development and the obligations of the rich toward the poor. And the silence from conservative and liberal Catholics alike on this appalling crime reveals that concern for the integrity of the Church probably isn’t what truly motivates their feud.
I. Church, State, and International Relations
The Church teaches that all of us enjoy a unique relationship with God, that salvation is a question of personal agency, and that we possess certain individual rights rooted in our innate dignity as people. However, it also teaches that human nature requires us to live in community with others, and that various forms of collective life - such as the family and the state - are both necessary and desirable. This latter perspective was first articulated by Aristotle and transmitted to the Church via Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century. But Aquinas added that because God is the author of human nature, the social institutions that arise from it reflect His will for how we’re meant to live on earth.
For this reason, the Church has developed an extensive body of teachings on these institutions, from the family and society to the state and the community of nations. While each exists to manage a particular aspect of collective life, the Church affirms that all of them must be oriented towards the goal of human flourishing. This goal is achieved both through the fulfillment of our earthly needs and the pursuit of our spiritual vocation - namely, communion with God. Institutions that do their part to facilitate human flourishing for all those subject to their authority can be said to have achieved “the common good.”
When it comes to the state, the Church teaches that the role of civic authorities in bringing about the common good is - at a minimum - to guarantee its three essential preconditions: 1) respect for individual rights, 2) the material well-being of the community, and 3) peace and security. The common good is closely tied to another major concept in Catholicism - namely, social justice. “A just society can become a reality only when it is based on the respect of the transcendent dignity of the human person,” the Church explains, and is possible only when all its members “consider every neighbor without exception as another self, taking into account first of all his life and the means necessary for living it with dignity.”
While the family and the state have existed since ancient times, the advent of modernity has produced new forms of social organization that the Church has also come to recognize as rooted in human nature. Perhaps the most consequential is the international community. The Church teaches that just as national institutions must be oriented toward the common good and social justice in their management of the relationships between individuals, so too must the international order be oriented toward those same ends in its management of the relationships between states. As the social doctrine affirms: “the same moral law that governs the life of men must also regulate relations among states.”
This means that the call to promote the common good and social justice for all the nations of the world is not morally optional; it’s an obligation rooted in the equal dignity inherent in every human being, which flows directly from God. This contrasts with other ideas in the field of international relations, such as that the “national interest” permits - or even demands - that states privilege the well-being of their citizens over the shared flourishing of humanity, or that the security of one people can only be achieved through the subjugation of another. From a Catholic perspective, this is heresy.
II. Catholic Perspectives on Economic Sanctions
In addition to laying out the broad principles that should govern the international order, the Church has elaborated on how those principles apply to numerous specific topics, including the issue of economic sanctions. According to the Church, sanctions may be licit as a means of correcting the behavior of a state committing grievous harm against others. However, it calls for careful discernment in their use. From the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church:
“The purpose of these sanctions must be clearly defined and the measures adopted must from time to time be objectively evaluated by the competent bodies of the international community as to their effectiveness and their real impact on the civilian population. The true objective of such measures is to open the way to negotiation and dialogue.
Sanctions must never be used as a means for the direct punishment of an entire population: it is not licit that entire populations, and above all their most vulnerable members, be made to suffer because of such sanctions…An economic embargo must be of limited duration and cannot be justified when the resulting effects are indiscriminate.”
In the past half-century, the Church has indicated that sanctions may be licit in only a handful of exceptionally grave cases. The most notable was the international campaign in the 1980s to isolate South Africa to force a negotiated end to apartheid. But for the most part, the Church has explicitly condemned the recourse to sanctions, including those levied by both Republican and Democratic administrations in the United States.
For example, in March 1988, the Reagan administration imposed sanctions on Panama in an effort to topple the dictatorship of Manuel Noriega. In April, the leadership of the country’s Catholic Church denounced the impact that the measures were having on civilians. In May, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops wrote to the Secretary of State expressing their support for their Panamanian counterparts’ position. In December 1989, with Noriega still in power and the US contemplating even more extreme measures - which it ultimately took by invading Panama to depose Noriega by force later that month - the USCCB wrote to the government once again to condemn the sanctions and oppose military intervention.
In 1990, after the US expelled Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein from Kuwait following his invasion in August, the world imposed an apocalyptic sanctions regime on Iraq that led to the deaths of more than a million civilians over the next decade, including 500,000 children. In 1995, the Vatican began lobbying at the United Nations for an end to the embargo, but to no avail. Pope John Paul II condemned their callousness in his Christmas address later that year. In June 1998, Cardinal Roger Etchegaray, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, traveled to Baghdad for a conference where he observed: "The embargo, by its perverse and uncontrollable effects, is destroying the soul of the Iraqi people, who desperately see its cultural and moral patrimony decaying and its social tissue breaking down."
Sadly, while the Vatican honored its duty to bear witness to the truth in the case of Iraq, certain segments within the Church did not. At their annual meeting in November 1997, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops voted down a motion introduced by the Bishop of Detroit - the noted Catholic radical Thomas Gumbleton - to publicly condemn the embargo. To their great credit, 54 American bishops spoke out anyway in January 1998, stating plainly: “We’re killing people, and it needs to stop.” Gumbleton himself called sanctions “a weapon of mass destruction,” and in May he led a delegation of activists to Iraq that brought with it a huge shipment of humanitarian relief in public defiance of the American government.
The Church has made its views on this subject known on many other occasions as well. In 1998, Pope John Paul II traveled to Cuba and denounced the US embargo, echoing the long-held view of the Church’s American and Cuban leadership. In 2018, the Armenian Catholic Church of Iran rebuked the US for reinstating sanctions following its withdrawal from their nuclear treaty. The Vatican said that it also opposed the sanctions and would work to minimize their impact. In 2021, the Catholic Church in Syria implored the US to end sanctions against their country, a plea echoed by Syria’s papal envoy. Pope Francis has also called on the West to relax outstanding sanctions regimes in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.
III. The Crisis in Afghanistan
Free from occupation for the first time in 20 years, Afghanistan now finds itself on the brink of another humanitarian catastrophe. A liquidity crisis in the banking sector will soon trigger the collapse of the entire national economy. The UN calculates that in the worst-case scenario, the country’s poverty rate - now at 72 percent of the population - could climb as high as 97 percent; in other words: universal destitution. Already, markets are filled with food, but spiraling prices and accelerating unemployment have left many unable to afford any. Families are selling the last of their possessions, including their children, to feed themselves. Without immediate action, 22 million people - including over a million children - may starve before the spring. But why?
After the US deposed the Taliban in 2001, the international community imposed sanctions that made it impossible for any legitimate entity to do business with the group - an uncontroversial move when it was a stateless insurgency. But after the withdrawal of US forces this summer, the Taliban recaptured the country almost immediately. With the sanctions still in place, the group now finds itself unable to discharge routine functions of government that require access to the international banking system and global markets. For a country as poor as Afghanistan, that means all of them. From the New York Times:
“Even though U.S. Treasury Department officials say that the central bank of Afghanistan is not under sanctions, financial institutions around the world are treating it as if was. Foreign banks are refusing to wire money to Afghanistan, not only because they don’t want to deal with the reputational risk, but also because they fear that the long arm of the U.S. Treasury might one day punish them for it. Many banks say it is not worth the hassle. As a result, it has been difficult to get cash into the country.
That means shopkeepers can’t open lines of credit to import goods, and farmers can’t receive payment for their crops through international banks. Aid is not enough. Commercial activity is what feeds a nation.”
Under these conditions, full-blown economic implosion is inevitable. Theoretically, the country’s central bank could draw on its $10 billion in reserves to inject liquidity into the banking sector, which would allow the economy to continue functioning for now. But as the occupying power for the past two decades, the United States insisted on holding the Afghan central bank’s assets in the US Treasury. Now that American forces have departed, the Biden administration is refusing to give Afghanistan its money back, saying this is tantamount to funding the Taliban. It’s also pressuring international institutions to maintain the blockade until the Taliban adopts a more “inclusive government.”
It must be emphasized that this is not US taxpayer money; it is the property of the Afghan people. Without access to its own reserves, not only does the government lack the means to bail out struggling sectors of the economy, it’s unable to pay the salaries of practically any state employees. Teachers have been working without pay for months, but have reached the limit of their ability to keep the country’s schools open as they go hungry. From a Catholic theological perspective, the moral evil of this situation is not only extreme, but multilayered.
Narrowly speaking, the Biden administration’s actions run counter to the Church’s teachings on economic embargoes. Recall that even if all the other criteria to justify it are met, an embargo “must be of limited duration and cannot be justified when the resulting effects are indiscriminate.” Not only has this one immiserated the entire population, but the US has said it will be enforced indefinitely unless the Afghan government complies with its demands.
More broadly, the US is shirking its responsibility to promote equitable economic development for the Global South. The Church is clear that wealthy countries have a duty to help poorer ones achieve sustainable development. Not only is restricting access to the international banking system contrary to this goal, but by rendering the country’s own central bank nonfunctional, the US has made it impossible for Afghanistan even to subsist on its own resources - a perverse inversion of its moral obligations. From the Catechism:
“Rich nations have a grave moral responsibility toward those which are unable to ensure the means of their development by themselves or have been prevented from doing so by tragic historical events. It is a duty in solidarity and charity; it is also an obligation in justice if the prosperity of the rich nations has come from resources that have not been paid for fairly.
Direct aid is an appropriate response to immediate, extraordinary needs caused by natural catastrophes, epidemics, and the like. But it does not suffice to repair the grave damage resulting from destitution or to provide a lasting solution to a country's needs. It is also necessary to reform international economic and financial institutions so that they will better promote equitable relationships with less advanced countries.”
Relatedly, the Biden administration insists that the limited humanitarian aid it has already authorized is sufficiently generous, defying Catholic perspectives on the duty of the privileged to alleviate suffering. Regardless of how it happened or who was responsible, the Church holds that the mere fact that there are people at risk of death and with no way to sustain themselves is offensive to human dignity, and calls on those with more than they need to provide what they owe. The Catechism emphasizes that this is not charity or generosity, but an obligation under the moral law:
“St. John Chrysostom vigorously recalls this: ‘Not to enable the poor to share in our goods is to steal from them and deprive them of life. The goods we possess are not ours, but theirs…The demands of justice must be satisfied first of all; that which is already due in justice is not to be offered as a gift of charity.’
When we attend to the needs of those in want, we give them what is theirs, not ours. More than performing works of mercy, we are paying a debt of justice.”
To grasp the full moral weight of the Biden administration’s actions, it’s useful to draw on one of the Church’s most vividly branded concepts: the Sins That Cry Out to Heaven for Vengeance. In Catholic hamartiology - the philosophy of sin - there are four transgressions that cause a unique kind of spiritual injury, which is why the Bible describes the cries of their victims on earth as being physically heard by God in Heaven. They are: murder, sodomy, injustice toward the poor and vulnerable, and injustice toward laborers. From First Things:
“Aristotle identifies man as a social animal that naturally forms a number of communities, including the family and political society. Murder is extreme anti-social behavior, a negation of man’s natural tendency to collaborate with others for the sake of achieving common goods. Sodomy, or perverse sexual activity more broadly, is a violation of the natural order of procreation, for it makes barren humanity’s natural fruitfulness.
Aristotle rejected usury, or the making of profit from a loan of money…Since it is usually the poor who require loans, usury makes profit from those who already do not have enough…Defrauding workers of their wages also violates the idea of a just exchange. A worker has a right to the fruits of his labor.
[Such acts] are sins against nature and against the fraternal justice required for a human society to function harmoniously.”
Catholic liberals and conservatives have gone back and forth over what exactly counts as “sodomy” or “fraud,” typically in defense of whichever one they prefer (don’t cancel me, I’m pro-sodomy). But rather than quibble over the details, it’s more useful to grapple with the logic behind this eclectic list, which has a deeper truth to offer us.
The Church affirms that man is a rational, social, productive, and creative being. It’s in our nature to seek knowledge about the world around us, to build families and communities, to sustain ourselves through labor, and to express our passions. It also teaches that while we all share these traits in common, each of us is still unique; we have “talents” that make us especially suited for certain endeavors and especially unsuited for others. God created us this way, the Church explains, so that we’d need each other. Harmonious communities free us to pursue our own vocations, and in doing so, they free us to seek God too. This is why the fullness of human flourishing is possible only in the context of social harmony, and why the Biden administration’s sanctions against Afghanistan are so profoundly wicked.
Every day, fewer people are able to work and sustain themselves as the economy crumbles. Rising scarcity is causing communities to rupture as neighbors turn on each other to survive. Family life is withering as parents contemplate tragic and unnatural acts, like abandoning one child to save another. No one can seek knowledge about the world when schools are empty, or encounter its beauty in a landscape filled with death and hunger. This embargo is doing more than piling misery on top of misery, which the human spirit might still endure through the grace of God. It’s annihilating the conditions that enable people to express their humanity at all.
American policy in Afghanistan is now a catalog of every sin that cries out to heaven for vengeance, and others that heaven surely hears as well. Our Catholic president should remember that while the Church counsels humans to practice mercy in light of our own sinful nature, God - in His perfection - can practice righteous vengeance. And he should take special heed of what the Bible says about the fate of rich oppressors who corrupt the social harmony required for God’s children to flourish:
“Come now, you rich, weep and howl for the miseries that are coming upon you. Your riches have rotted and your garments are moth-eaten. Your gold and silver have rusted, and their rust will be evidence against you and will eat your flesh like fire. You have laid up treasure for the last days. Behold, the wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out; and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts.” (James 5:1-6)