The Catholic Church and International Law

Posted: 26 Oct 2017

See all articles by Elizabeth Heger Boyle

Elizabeth Heger Boyle

University of Minnesota - Twin Cities

Shannon Golden

University of Notre Dame

Wenjie Liao

North Carolina State University

Date Written: October 2017


Since the 1960s, the Catholic Church has been immensely influential in shaping international law. It provides a compelling example of how nonstate actors, relying on principled positions rather than resources, can alter the course of global policy making. The Church's authority rests on three distinct features: (a) independence from the nation-state system; (b) a centralized transnational bureaucracy; and (c) its enduring ideology. In this review, we elaborate on the Church's role in promoting peace, serving the poor, and blocking the institutionalization of access to contraception and abortion. Church ideology finds strong secular counterparts in the cases of promoting peace and support for the poor. It is on shakier ground when it ventures into gender issues, which it has done with zeal in recent years. Its primary allies on gender issues have been other religious organizations and Islamic states, reinforcing the religious rather than human rights basis for Church positions. The Church's role as the moral authority in the secular United Nations system is therefore less clear when it speaks about gender and sexuality.

Suggested Citation

Boyle, Elizabeth Heger and Golden, Shannon and Liao, Wenjie, The Catholic Church and International Law (October 2017). Annual Review of Law and Social Science, Vol. 13, pp. 395-411, 2017. Available at SSRN: or

Elizabeth Heger Boyle (Contact Author)

University of Minnesota - Twin Cities ( email )

Sociology Dept, 909 Social Sciences Bldg
267 19th Avenue South
Minneapolis, MN 55455
United States


Shannon Golden

University of Notre Dame ( email )

Kroc Institute for International Peace Studies
100 Hesburgh Center for International Studies
Notre Dame, IN 46556
United States

Wenjie Liao

North Carolina State University ( email )

Hillsborough Street
Raleigh, NC 27695
United States

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