The Heritage Abandoned?
Peter Steinfels May 5, 2011 - 5:28pm
There is a conventional view of American Catholic thinking on questions of war and peace. It goes something like this: Throughout most of its history, the U.S. church had little to say on such questions. Critical impulses were subordinated to a nationalism that sprang from a combination of the immigrants’ enthusiasm for their new land and insecurity about their place in it. Through World War II, the Cold War, and well into the Vietnam war years, Catholic attitudes appeared to be well represented by New York’s Francis Cardinal Spellman, militantly promoting an undifferentiated “crusade against Communism” and wholeheartedly supporting American military forces wherever they were engaged. A few voices sounded different notes: Jesuit theologian John Ford protested the obliteration bombing of World War II; so did Commonweal, which also condemned the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker preached and practiced pacifism. A considerable number of liberal Catholics resisted the anti-Communist fevers of the fifties. But only after the Vatican Council did these voices seem more than marginal. A distinctive Catholic peace movement finally emerged in opposition to the war in Vietnam. The bishops lagged behind both this movement and the shift in general Catholic opinion away from support of the war. Eventually, however, the bishops condemned the war they had previously endorsed. Another decade of uneasiness with U.S. foreign policy, above all with new waves of nuclear armaments, would precede the bishops’ pastoral letter on war and peace. Despite shortcomings that the bishops themselves acknowledged, the letter—and the discussion it provoked—indicated a new, impressive confidence, competence, and maturity in the American church’s approach to war-and-peace issues.
This, as I said, is the conventional view of the matter. It is a view shared by non-Catholics as well as Catholics, by many with significant reservations about the bishops’ letter as well as many largely in agreement with it. Now along comes a book arguing that this view is completely backwards. The older Catholic thinking on war and peace was not a frail reed, mostly honored in the breech. Even, or especially, in its American expression, it was a sophisticated, comprehensive approach that should have equipped American Catholics to confront successfully the twin dangers of the century, totalitarian oppression and total war. Rather than undergoing genuine appropriation and development by the American church since Vatican II, this “classic Catholic heritage” actually peaked in the late fifties and early sixties with the writings of John Courtney Murray. Since then it has been almost entirely abandoned by American Catholic moral and intellectual elites, i.e., by bishops, theologians, social activists, and the sort of people who read and write for Commonweal, America, and the National Catholic Reporter. The pastoral is less a culmination of efforts to give life, at long last, to the Catholic heritage than it is a crystallization of that heritage’s abandonment.
The sheer audacity of such an argument is challenging. All the more so when it comes in a highly detailed account, some five hundred pages long, and backed by 1,500 reference notes. Tranquillitas Ordinis: The Present Failure and Future Promise of American Catholic Thought on War and Peace (Oxford) is the work of George Weigel, a neoconservative Catholic intellectual who has written a number of critiques of both the “peace bishops” and the pastoral letter. Weigel is now the president of the James Madison Foundation, one of the many fledgling not-for-profit groups whose efforts to uproot what they see as entrenched liberal ideology have flourished under the current administration. The publisher of the Madison Foundation’s newsletter is the husband of Jeane Kirkpatrick, and the foundation has received a $91,400 government grant to “raise the level of public debate,” explains Weigel, on religion and foreign policy. According to a report in the March 2 New Republic, this means countering “the influence of the left in U.S. divinity schools. Among the concepts the Madison Foundation seeks to salvage are the ‘just war’ theory and the morality of Star Wars and third-world interventionism.”
The reader who approaches Tranquillitas Ordinis suspecting a strong political spin on its theological argument will not be mistaken. Weigel has already attracted a good number of conservative readers simply looking for ammunition in this famous “war of ideas” between left and right to which neoconservative field commanders like Peter Berger, Irving Kristol, and Michael Novak have been devoting their intellects. Such readers are not likely to be overly curious about whether Weigel’s account is actually true. That it confirms their existing political preferences is sufficient. Taken in this manner, Tranquillitas Ordinis will be ultimately destructive—destructive not so much of political positions that I would wish to defend and Weigel might not, but of the very goal he professes, to strengthen the “Catholic heritage” regarding issues of war and peace. Taken with a good deal more discrimination, however, the book may prove a boon in a dialogue that badly needs to take place. Weigel points to some very real problems, and at the core of his book there is a crucial proposal for the future development of Catholic thinking on war and pieace. Even where he is most off-target—and I will make no bones about how far off-target I believe he is—his accusations may provoke Catholic peace activists to some useful rethinking.
The argument of Tranquillitas Ordinis has three prongs, one political, one historical, one theological. Only the first two will occupy me here; the third will be the subject of a separate article.
The political prong of Tranquillitas Ordinis is never frankly acknowledged, but it is evident to anyone even mildly conversant with current foreign-policy debates. George Weigel shares the conservative and neoconservative view of international politics. The East-West conflict dominates all other issues, and the key to the East-West conflict is the inherently aggressive and expansionist character of the Soviet regime. With the Reagan administration, he wants to break “the vicelike grip of arms-control theory” in favor of genuine “arms reduction.” He favors “linkage” of disarmament to progress on human rights and other East-West questions. He sees strategic defense systems as playing an essential role in facilitating arms reduction and protecting against nuclear terrorists or “outlaw nations” as well as accidental war. He would welcome a more receptive attitude toward the “discriminate and proportionate use of military force” in regional conflicts, for countering terrorism, and defeating Marxist-Leninist guerrilla forces. He endorses a strategy of not only resisting the external policies of the Soviet Union but of deliberately and visibly exerting pressure to transform its internal regime.
Weigel believes these positions are not only consonant with Catholic thought on way and peace but flow naturally from it. He also believes that he is not promoting a particular political agenda but using the resources of Catholic tradition to push beyond the present polarizations of policy debates. This is disingenuous. First, his idea of pushing beyond current polarizations appears to consist in accepting premises that can be described alternatively as neoconservative, Reaganite, or liberal interventionist, then suggesting their refinement, e.g., strategic defense systems are inevitable but should be developed in a “mutual or common security framework.” Second, if one reads this book with an eye not only to the principles proposed but to the examples given (or omitted) and the sources cited, the congruence with either the policies of the White House or Commentary magazine is overwhelming. Obviously something else is at work besides an extrapolation of Catholic teaching. Weigel is doing precisely what he accuses, with some justification, many peace activists of doing: using Catholic teaching to support specific prudential judgments that rest not on the teaching alone but on additional “political” readings of fact and history. It would have been much better if he had frankly avowed his political outlook and then done his best to distinguish, as the Catholic bishops did, his own prudential applications of Catholic teaching from the general direction of the teaching itself.
The second, longest, and sharpest prong of Tranquillas Ordinis is historical. Approximately 70 percent of the book traces the rise and decline of Catholic thinking on war and peace, and over two-thirds of that 70 percent is concerned with decline. Besides a brief interpretive summary of “the heritage” from Augustine through Aquinas to the neo-Scholastics, Weigel surveys the American episcopacy’s pre–Vatican II statements, the work of John Courtney Murray, and the discussions provoked by John XXIII’s Pacem in terris and the Council’s Gaudium et spes. He traces the “abandonment” of the heritage by Catholic elites during the years of controversy over Vietnam and, more recently, Central America. He sketches six profiles of individuals influential in Catholic peace ranks: Dorothy Day, Gordon Zahn, Thomas Merton, the Berrigans, James Douglass, and J. Bryan Hehir. And he provides a critical portrayal of the emergence of the bishops’ pastoral letter.
Obviously a tremendous amount of work has gone into this aspect of the book. With the help of two research assistants, Weigel has surveyed an imposing mass of literature. All this effort is impressive—and some of it is valuable. A great deal of it, however, is waste. The quality of a meal is not assured by the number of ingredients, nor is historical accuracy guaranteed by the quantity of notes. The reliability of Weigel’s historical account is no light matter, because these are no light accusations that he brings against the American Catholic elites. Vatican II had urged that the problem of war be evaluated “with an entirely new attitude.” According to Weigel, that certainly occurred, but all to the worse. The framework of traditional Catholic thinking about war and peace had been the ideal of tranquillitas ordinis—rightly ordered political community based on assent and, in modern times, reconciling conflicting interests through democracy. For that down-to-earth political concept, Catholic elites had “substituted a host of confusions,” from shalom, the full peace of Christ, to personal conversion and psychological harmony, even to New Left-derived visions of postrevolutionary utopia. The elites had turned away from a heritage of internationalism for neo-isolationism. They became less concerned with totalitarianism, including the persecution of the church in Communist lands, and the Soviet threat to peace and justice than with dampening the fervor of anti-Communism. They could barely imagine any “morally appropriate use of military force,” preferring a biblically literalist pacifism to classic just-war reasoning. They were in thrall to third-world or New-Left perspectives, and minimized national obligation in favor of “global citizenship.” Most decisively of all, picturing America as greedy, racist, violent, imperialist, paranoiac, or otherwise corrupt and deranged, they would conclude that the American experiment was not morally worthy. Indeed, “American Catholic intellectuals...would be in the forefront of that radical assault on the moral worth of the American experiment.”
A sweeping indictment, and Weigel repeats it, with slight variations, dozens of times throughout the book. This is what his hundreds of references primarily to America and Commonweal are supposed to document. Commonweal is mentioned early in the book, in connection with the Catholic press’s support for Franco in the 1930s. Noting that only Commonweal and the Catholic Worker dissented from this support, Weigel adds that “both…seemed more perturbed by the prospects of a fascist Spain than by the possibility of a Soviet-leaning regime in Iberia.” Not only does this gratuitous suggestion of Commonweal (and Catholic Worker) complacency about the role of Communists in Spain have no basis in fact, the very page Weigel cites as his source emphasizes that Commonweal's anti-Franco position did not imply a pro-Loyalist one.
This point about the Spanish Civil War was peripheral to Weigel’s thesis. But it suggested something about his methods. I began checking not all but a sizable number of his citations from Commonweal. What I found appalled me. Between pp. 206 and 215, for example, there are twenty-eight references to Commonweal articles. Twenty-five of them allegedly illustrate two dimensions of the abandonment of the Catholic heritage, namely the abandonment of its anti-Communism and realism toward the Soviet Union and the rejection of its faith in the moral worthiness of the American experiment. Of these I find that only five provided an unquestionably fair representation of the material referred to or quoted. At the other end of the spectrum, a similar number of Weigel’s references are hopeless misrepresentations: e.g., a column by Thomas Powers, said to ascribe the arms race to “an action-reaction cycle” spurred by the U.S., did no such thing; e.g., a report blamed for quoting some extravagant praise of Karl Marx “without criticism” actually was explicitly anti-Communist, anti-Soviet, and skeptical about the fulsome praise quoted; e.g., an article Weigel describes as “an essay on the flower children” was nothing of the sort, but instead argued a provocative case linking American violence to the self-assertiveness that was a national virtue. In other instances, Weigel proceeds like a hanging judge, managing to pass negative sentences even on articles whose main point he does not question. Though he obviously does not disagree with a column by William Pfaff stressing the glaring bankruptcy of Lenin’s revolutionary legacy in Russia, Pfaff did not “think through what such restiveness within Soviet elites might mean in terms of Western policy.” Pfaff, of course, had written explicitly on that topic elsewhere. My own scorecard for these twenty-five references to Commonweal comes up something like: Blatant Misrepresentations: 7; Significant Misrepresentations: 3; Moderate Misrepresentations: 2; Fair Representations with Qualifications: 5; Unquestionably Fair Representations: 5. Give or take 2 or 3 in the middle categories. I don’t think that would earn Weigel a passing grade in a graduate history seminar.
A history seminar might have warned him about a number of other problems that affect not just these pages but his whole account:
Double standard. Pre–Vatican II statements by the American bishops, despite obvious instances of wishful thinking and purely verbal solutions, receive the best possible reading. Post-conciliar statements, by contrast, are subjected to severe scrutiny. The tone of the earlier era’s discussion of war and peace is represented by John Courtney Murray’s “cool and dry” academic discourse, and contrasted unfavorably with the warmer rhetoric of the later period’s weekly journalism. The fact that real adherence to just-war teaching, indeed even awareness of it, was much more limited in the earlier period than the later one is acknowledged but never genuinely factored into Weigel’s comparison.
Selectivity. Although Weigel appears to be systematically citing texts from Commonweal and America to back his points, in reality he regularly ignores contradictory evidence appearing in those journals. On one occasion, I found him making an important point by conveniently relying on the editorial treatment of a topic in one journal and neglecting the quite different treatment in the other journal. In numerous cases, articles running against his argument appear in proximity to articles he does cite. Indeed, articles cited to support one Weigel thesis frequently contain material—unmentioned, to be sure—contradicting some other Weigel thesis.
Schematization. Weigel almost never focuses on actual historical episodes or follows out a line of argument in detail. Instead, he presents his historical material as illustrations of interpretive categories (“Human Nature and War,” “The Question of Intervention”) that he has already announced. Thus there is no examination of the extended internal debate in Commonweal that culminated in the magazine’s shift from qualified support of the war in Vietnam to outright opposition, and only a cursory glance at the same process, which took place at a very different pace, at America. Nor are there detailed examinations of Catholic reaction to single episodes like the My Lai massacre. As Weigel skips from article to article, briefly summarizing and quoting a highly charged phrase or sentence, insubtantial items are equated with major essays; everything is flattened into a series of shrill, nagging points, nearly as indistinguishable as passing cars on an endless freight train. The underlying premise that the Catholic heritage was “abandoned” rather than, say, “corrected” or “developed” rests heavily on the impression this technique gives that the material under consideration is essentially superficial. Many of the columns and essays that Weigel pigeonholes so brusquely were actually thoughtful and well informed, and cannot be dismissed without an analysis that is not forthcoming in his book.
Meanings, moreover, are frequently forced to fit the schema. Weigel contends, for example, that America’s Vietnam policy eventually led Catholic thinkers to consider America itself to be “illegitimate.” Now this was a view that probably every anti-war activist entertained in some moments of anger or frustration but which, outside of the Berrigans, very few fully embraced. Nonetheless, Weigel can write, “Themes of delegitimation came to the fore in 1967”—and follow this with several paragraphs quoting material from Commonweal, all very critical of U.S. policy but none bearing specifically on “delegitimation.” A close reader of the pages that follow in the book will notice that despite much quotation of bitter and sometimes (although not always) unjustified attacks on U.S. policy and policy makers, there is virtually nothing demonstrating that American Catholic elites had actually concluded the U.S. or its government was “illegitimate.” This conclusion is nothing but Weigel’s assertion by schema.
Context. One would never know that Catholic critics of the Vietnam war were writing against the background of Cardinal Spellman’s highly visible support of the war. Weigel’s treatment of changing attitudes toward the Soviet Union never adverts to the Pact that it was China, not the USSR, that Washington proclaimed as the chief threat to peace and the justification for our Vietnam stand. And what can one make of a treatment of Catholic reaction to the conflicts in Central America that overlooks the four murdered churchwomen? It is like an account of Carter’s last years that left out the hostages in Iran.
“Stretching.” There is a disturbing way in which Weigel alters terms slightly but significantly. He begins a paragraph, “In a similar vein,” and then cites an economic explanation of the Vietnam war which was not, in fact, at all “in a similar vein” to what had preceded it. He first writes that the view of the Viet Cong as independent of the North Vietnamese was a “recurring theme” in Catholic discussions of the war, then states that this assumption “dominated” the debate—although neither of the key Commonweal and America editorials condemning the war, which he cites, makes that assumption.
All these techniques can be seen operating together in what Weigel himself proposes as the “decisive” change in the outlook of American Catholic thinkers, their alleged loss of faith in the moral worthiness of America. Weigel’s formulations back and fill somewhat, but it is clear that he is charging Catholic intellectuals and religious with a root-and-branch rejection not just of American performance but of American promise: they became and “remain convinced of the fundamental moral dubiousness of the American experiment and experience.” To indicate the end point of the change in Catholic attitudes, Weigel repeatedly uses the German spelling “Amerika,” which the extreme New Left had employed to equate the U.S. with Nazi Germany.
Now this is a very serious accusation, and one notices that Weigel waffles occasionally by saying that the Catholic elites were open or tolerant or vulnerable toward “anti-Amerika currents of thought,” or that they would “countenance…'Amerika.'” Then, finally, he has to admit, “That spelling does not appear in any of the essays from the prestige American Catholic press reviewed above; but the message was similar.”
The message was not similar. The Catholic press Weigel surveyed was filled with severe criticisms of many aspects of American life. Amidst racial conflict, urban rioting, assassinations, and prolonged war, there was a widespread feeling that the fault lines in American civilization went much deeper than the society had assumed a decade earlier. New skepticism arose about the capacity of the nation to carry out its foreign policy skillfully and justly. There were numerous calls for “limits.” Commonweal writers, and I dare say America writers too, may have feared that the American experiment might not succeed—as had John Courtney Murray himself, and in calmer times. But virtually none believed that the experiment had failed decisively, or that it should fail, which is what the sixties spelling “Amerika” was presumably about. The operating assumptions of those journals toward, say, participation in American electoral politics were utterly different from those of the extreme New Left, and Commonweal regularly published sharp criticism of what could rightly be called anti-Amerika currents of thought. Some of this criticism is contained in essays Weigel cites but for other purposes.
Weigel’s use of evidence here is a case study in irresponsibility. For example, to illustrate declining Catholic faith in the moral worthiness of the American experiment, he sums up a 1972 Commonweal article by writing, “Raymond Schroth believed that Calley symbolized an America off course, intoxicated by power, and debased by a sense of manifest destiny that had made it abandon its respect for human life.” In truth, Schroth had based his whole concern with My Lai on “what radical critics would deny, that the American nation is an organic whole... with deep spiritual resources, the deepest of which is respect—based on humanitarianism and Christian theology—for human rights and the dignity of every individual” (March 17, 1972). Schroth’s article represented not a rejection of the American experiment but the very opposite, a passionate determination that it should succeed.
Weigel orchestrates his case not only by twisting the meaning of substantial essays like Schroth’s. He picks at minor items as well. Following the Christmas bombing of Hanoi (the context goes unmentioned by Weigel), a Commonweal columnist quoted a sermon in which the Nixon administration was linked to “the same spirit of Antichrist” that primitive Christians had opposed in the Roman state. Weigel deftly refashions this, “America as Antichrist.” (My italics.) In 1976, another Commonweal columnist, in Swiftian fashion, compared the American propensity for arming other nations to a social disease spread by a “hooker with...no notion at all of hygiene.” Again, unmentioned context: the columnist referred to scandals involving bribery of leading officials in several allied nations by U.S. arms manufacturers—an episode having lingering effects on Japanese politics even in 1987. Weigel is mortified not by the phenomenon but by the metaphor which, to be sure, he refashions: “America as whore.” (Once again, my italics.) So finally he can sum up, in forlorn tone, the whole awful decline from the heights of John Courtney Murray: “From America as Proposition, to America as Amerika, to America as Antichrist, to America as whore: all in one generation.” A well-turned peroration—and it takes you a moment to realize that not a single one of those equations of America with Amerika, Antichrist, or whore, actually appeared in the material Weigel cites. It is Weigel who imposes, here as with many less vehement passages, those extreme meanings.
There is something very puzzling here. Merely to read the first dozen or so pages of Tranquillitas Ordinis is to recognize an intelligence at work not common in much current Catholic discussion. Those who have heard the author at public meetings or even, like myself, engaged him in debate know him as an amiable, reasonable interlocutor, apparently serious about the requirements of civil discourse and Christian charity. How then explain the distortions and animus of his historical account, especially as it culminates in something as baseless as charging Catholic moral and intellectual leadership with radical rejection of the American experiment?
I would like to hazard a guess in a further article. But I would also like to attempt the more important task of seeing how Weigel’s historical account affects the third, and most valuable, prong of his argument, the theological discussion of tranquillitas ordinis itself.
[This part originally appeared in the September 25, 1987, issue of Commonweal.]
George Weigel’s Tranquillitas Ordinis: The Present Failure and Future Promise of American Catholic Thought on War and Peace (Oxford) is a book of politics, history, and theology. As politics, it takes the side of the Reaganites and liberal interventionists about the centrality of the East-West conflict and the appropriate role of U.S. military force in international affairs. As history, it purports to describe the post-conciliar “abandonment” by American Catholic religious leadership of a heritage of thinking on war and peace that should have specially equipped the U.S. church for dealing with the twin problems of totalitarianism and total war. Theologically, it strives to reassert that heritage in a particular American form.
In the first part of this article, I touched briefly on the politics of Weigel’s book but concentrated on the distortions in its historical account—the accumulated misrepresentations, one-sided comparisons, biased selection of evidence, forcing of material into inappropriate and extreme categories, and the neglect of context. Even if this bad history had no further effect on Weigel’s argument, it should not go unchallenged. Indeed, even if the overall picture of Catholic war-peace discussions were to conform to Weigel’s description, the specific writers whose names dot his text and notes deserve not to have their thoughts disfigured in what may easily be taken for a scholarly account.
Why has this author, whose intelligence as well as industry are evident throughout Tranquillitas Ordinis, produced a history of this sort? The only explanation I can hazard takes us from the historical aspect of the book back to the political. Notice that terms like “anti-Amerika,” “anti-anti-Communist,” and “neo-isolationism,” which play a prominent role in Weigel’s analysis, are not coinages native to Catholic discussions about just-war theory, pacifism, liberation theology, or social justice. Whatever their value, they are imports. They descend from sixties debates between different factions of the anti-war movement, debates which, going back, reflected ancient divisions over Stalinism among secular leftists and, going forward, fed into the polemics of ex-radical neoconservatives and “Cold War liberals” against post-Vietnam liberalism generally. Thus a critique originally dealing with developments in the New Left, the anti-war movement, and liberalism is here applied to the Catholic world. The application is not completely fanciful. A significant number of Catholic peace activists echo New Left and secular anti-war themes. In encountering such views, Weigel may well have felt the relevance of this critique to be confirmed. Was he then psychologically primed to extend it ready-made to “Catholic elites,” scouring Commonweal and America for the necessary “proof texts,” committing them to index cards, and then dealing them out to fit the preexisting categories of the critique?
I am, of course, only speculating. But this speculation has the merit of not only explaining the gap between the intelligence at work here and the routine bending of evidence, it also helps explain the gap between the book’s occasional pleas for constructive rethinking and its otherwise harsh prosecutorial tone. Internecine debates on the left have never been distinguished for fastidiousness or generosity. Since opponents are viewed as either morally corrupt or morally obtuse, and at stake is the preservation of true doctrine, the object has usually been to discredit more than persuade. (A Catholic would not imagine that this attitude is unique to the ideological left.) Ex-radical neoconservatives have imported this furor polemicus into their current “war of ideas.” Fundamentally, they believe that existing liberal elites mast be thoroughly discredited—ideologically run out of town, so to speak—and replaced by conservative ones. They like to refer to Pareto’s “circulation of elites,” although the spirit is no different from Lenin’ s scornful assignment of certain groups to the “dustbin of history.” There is not much room for distinctions or niceties in such a process, and the resort to branding adversaries “anti-American” or “totalitarian” has become positively casual. For reasons, I believe, of faith and temperament, Weigel certainly stops short of traveling all the way down this road. But he has allowed the ideological matrix of his analysis to propel him farther than he should have. If the positions of his Catholic moral and intellectual elites are truly as monolithic, extreme, and ill-founded as he suggests, then there is really no hope for dialogue until the whole bunch, from bishops and their staff members to peace activists and journalists, are swept out and replaced.
Unfortunately, it is not only in tone but in substance that these historical exaggerations and distortions have an impact on the third (and potentially the most useful) prong of Weigel’s work—the theological.
This theological argument is basic but crucial: just-war theory must again be seen in relation to the larger framework which gives it moral life. That framework is the belief in tranquillitas ordinis, a rightly ordered political community, which allows the human conflicts that are inevitable in this world to be resolved nonviolently and even channeled in creative ways while works of justice and love go forward. Such a political community, in this vision, neither rejects the use of power as though the harmony of the Kingdom had already been achieved nor reduces the use of power to violence and cunning in a Hobbesian or Machiavellian vision. In this contrasting vision of “moderate realism,” power must be directed and circumscribed by law, by a “tradition of reason,” by prudent calculations of the relationships between ends and means, and by practical wisdom. Furthermore, the American experiment in democratic pluralism and the resolution of conflict through public debate and electoral processes provide a so-far unsurpassed model of such rightly ordered political community. In this sense, Weigel argues, current Catholic approaches to war and peace do not need “to be depoliticized so much as repoliticized.” Those approaches, he believes, currently assume that the fullness of biblical shalom can be achieved now or they translate political conflicts into psychological quests for inner serenity and personal understanding. Catholic war-peace thinking thus becomes essentially apolitical. It needs instead to recapture the centrality of this-worldly political life and the institutions and habits which support it; it “requires a recommitment to the moral necessity of politics.”
The moral necessity of politics. It cannot be emphasized too much that Weigel is presenting the Catholic understanding of tranquillitas ordinis as a moral vision and one morally surpassing the various forms of pacifism or anti-war activism he sees dominating the American church. Why is this so important? And why, as I suggested much earlier, could it prove a boon in a badly needed dialogue?
There have in fact been major changes in Catholic attitudes on war, peace, and morality over the last two decades, even if they are neither so drastic nor so unnuanced as Weigel describes them. Certainly Catholic intellectuals and religious thinkers no longer give the Soviet challenge to the West the centrality it had in the fifties and early sixties, before Communist ideology had lost its moral allure in Western Europe and the Sino-Soviet split indicated that even Communist successes did not necessarily equal Soviet ones. The legacy of Vietnam was nothing so sweeping as a rejection of the “moral worth of the American experiment”—to recall Weigel’s formula—but the war did implant a deep and practical skepticism about the employment of military force as a “shield” for establishing democracy in the third world. These developments rested on political facts and analyses which Weigel does not confront except by way of caricature. They did not in themselves constitute an abandonment of the just-war heritage but are quite compatible with it.
The growth of pacifism is quite another matter. Obviously it does constitute a challenge to the just-war heritage. Catholic pacifists readily acknowledge, even celebrate, the fact that adopting their position would be a radical turning point in Catholic history. Of course, just-war teaching is too entrenched in Catholic teaching to be abandoned by the bishops. And the ordinary Catholics in the pews are at most mildly dovish, not at all inclined toward pacifism or even nuclear unilateralism. It is, instead, the middle levels of active Catholics, especially those exerting leadership on issues of social justice who increasingly lean to pacifism. No, even that may overstate the matter: except at the nuclear level, most of these activists might still hesitate to pronounce themselves in principle opposed to any resort whatsoever to an armed defense. Yet pacifist discourse, a pacifist agenda, and a pacifist style dominate their public discussions. Opposition to armaments and military programs are prominently and sympathetically featured in the National Catholic Reporter. Even in non-pacifist journals like Commonweal or America, a good word for nuclear deterrence or simply for strengthening NATO’s conventional forces (a step noted by the bishops as a means of implementing a “no-first-use” policy in Europe) comes rarely enough that many readers seem to be taken by surprise. There are undoubtedly a large number of thoughtful Catholics who believe, perhaps reluctantly, that a sufficient deterrent or a strong NATO are the best means for preserving peace, but at least in activist circles they maintain a discreet silence. An unwillingness to abet the military enthusiasms of the present administration may go some way toward explaining this reticence, but the matter, I think, goes beyond that.
What may well be emerging is a form of institutional schizophrenia, a church adhering to just-war doctrine at the top and (with luck) at the bottom, while the middle strata, which interpret and transmit the teaching, have their hearts and minds in a different place. We already see some of this schizophrenia in regard to the bishops’ pastoral letter on war and peace. The pastoral is, after all, basically a just-war document. Although it insists, in an unprecedented way, on the legitimacy of the pacifist option for individual Catholics, it reiterates the church’s teaching that “governments threatened by armed, unjust aggression must defend their people” and “this includes defense by armed force if necessary as a last resort.” Yet what remains at bottom an application for our day of just-war teachings has been most actively promoted (to their credit, one might add) by Catholics whose conception of peacemaking is drawn largely, if not totally, from the pacifist tradition. Even where the latter have made a determined effort to be exact in representing the pastoral, a certain confusion, not unexpectedly, has been the result. The just-war teaching of the pastoral is frequently treated as a kind of pacifism manque. It is a halfway house where the bishops, belatedly released from the prison of uncritical nationalism, have lodged themselves until they (or their flocks) are ready to enter the truly Christian world of pacifism. The pastoral’s just-war theory is a concession to inertia or pastoral prudence rather than an authentically moral posture demanding a serious response. All the more so the bishops’ conditional moral acceptance of nuclear deterrence. Even some of the bishops have acquiesced in this view, defending their pastoral as simply “realistic” rather than right.
It should be obvious, then, why Weigel’s thesis is, valuable. It makes clear that the dialogue between pacifism and just-war principles involves not a genuinely moral position versus one that is “merely” political or practical. The choice is between two contending moral visions. But does this picture of an emerging Catholic schizophrenia on war-peace questions backtrack on my earlier criticism of Weigel’s historical account? Quite the contrary. Weigel is right to see that there is considerable confusion in the church on these questions. But his historical account actually puts a strait jacket on his theological argument. It misses the chief reason that “established” just-war opinion (e.g., in America and Commonweal), while holding to its distinct convictions, nonetheless has given a low priority to pressing its differences with pacifism. Both schools of thought share a presumption against the resort to violence, and both believe that individual Catholics must reach some conscientious judgment in regard to war based on moral principle rather than simply on national feeling or government command. It has been natural, although perhaps unwise, not to pursue differences as long as it seems doubtful that these common premises are widely and firmly held among Catholics.
Still more important, Weigel’s exaggerated and inaccurate history does not do justice to the real grounds for pacifism’s appeal. One is the return to biblical sources urged by Vatican II. Weigel discusses this but almost always critically, repeatedly dismissing scripturally-based pacifism as “fundamentalist” or “literalist.” This won’t do. Much Catholic pacifism draws strength not from literal readings of “proof texts” but from comprehensive understandings of the words and deeds of Jesus, whose name, by the way, appears rather infrequently in Weigel’s pages. What Weigel calls the classic Catholic heritage has been a natural-law ethic in a one-sided way, cut off from scriptural and liturgical expression.
A second factor in the appeal of pacifism was suggested by a “friendly critic” of John Courtney Murray who wrote that the real question was not what are the ethical principles that could fix moral limits to war but where are those principles. In other words, where is “the community which is the living repository” of such principles? Murray replied that the ancient tradition of reason lives. “within the Catholic church,” but he immediately granted that this answer was not very satisfactory since that community was then doing little to apply this tradition to foreign affairs “beyond its contribution in sustaining the domestic mood of anti-Communism.” On the other hand, a great many, even though not all, pacifists have acted within living communities of service that lend particular persuasiveness to pacifist principles.
The third basis for pacifism’s increased appeal is the unprecedented character of nuclear war and the near intractability in traditional Catholic moral terms of the problem of nuclear deterrence. About the latter Weigel says relatively little. About the former, he can only warn at several points against the sin of “survivalism.”
Weigel insists that Catholics “must think harder” about pacifism, and he is right; I tried to urge this point two years ago in an essay, “Appointment with Hitler” (Commonweal, July 12, 1985). Catholic pacifism has never passed through the kind of critique its Protestant counterpart received from the Niebuhrians. Its experience is brave but historically limited; it remains innocent of serious reflection on even so obvious a topic as the morality of the anti-Nazi war in Europe. It is rich in commitment and personal spirituality, much less so in rigorously thought-out theology and politics.
But the current pacifist “edge” strongly reflects the weaknesses—notwithstanding the many near-hagiographic references these days to John Courtney Murray—of the just-war heritage. Just-war analysis remains the preserve of political scientists and international affairs specialists. It has little touch with the living words of Scripture and liturgy. Its practicality, either as a guide for statesmen or for ordinary citizens, has been criticized, and even its theoretical capacities have been severely tested by nuclear deterrence.
unfortunately, Tranquillitas Ordinis does not explore these issues. Even more unfortunate is its negative tone toward the one document that does try to place pacifism and just-war theory in some kind of dialogue—the bishops’ pastoral. Weigel does offer a number of useful proposals for the church’s peacemaking, from urging greater attention to Communist persecution to warning against investing undue energy in specific policy proposals. Weigel rightly insists that the quality of religious teaching on war and peace should be judged not by its stridency or purity of intention but by its truth. The need for the church to create opportunities for civic debate on the larger background or “contextual” issues, the importance of genuine inculcation of the church’s social teaching, respect for lay competence, the potential of cooperation with Protestant evangelicals, the wisdom of emphasizing “core rights” in human-rights campaigns, the importance of attending to the positive relationships between democracy and economic development—though some of Weigel’s emphases may reflect his political agenda, the points can be well taken.”
Actually, Weigel’s politics also shape his conception of tranquillitas ordinis, which often smacks suspiciously of Wilsonian idealism. I detect the assumption that the world should properly be moving toward something resembling American constitutional parliamentarianism writ large, a world order of nations enjoying relatively similar and democratic domestic regimes. That is an inspiring vision but it may also be an unrealistic one. Those who advocate less ambitious, provisional, or makeshift notions of world order, in which maintaining certain “rules of the game” among nations may take priority over implanting democratic institutions, should not be charged, on those grounds, with “abandoning” the Catholic heritage.
If that heritage is to be secured, it won’t be done by shaving down its terms to fit our own policy choices, important as these maybe. Tranquillitas Ordinis is valuable because it reasserts the moral necessity of politics. It undercuts its own case when, in a polemic disguised as scholarship, it tries to proscribe all politics but the author’s.
Related: Fabricating Bernardin, by Peter Steinfels
About the Author
Peter Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal, is co-director of the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture. He wrote the "Beliefs" column for the New York Times from 1990 to 2010.