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Iraq, just war & the bishops' critics.

Peter Steinfels's "Beliefs" column on Saturday offered a preview of Commonweal's April 20 editorial, which will be available on our Web site this afternoon (I'll bump it here):

For over four years, George Weigel, staunch supporter of President Bush and biographer of Pope John Paul II, has never ceased to insist that the war in Iraq meets all the traditional moral criteria for a just war. And most leaders and thinkers among Mr. Weigels fellow Roman Catholics, along with many non-Catholic proponents of just-war thinking, have never ceased to disagree.

Now there is a fresh surge in this debate, with combat concentrated not only on how to apply these venerable moral principles to this particular war but also on how the principles should be understood in the first place.


Mr. Weigels elucidation of this moral tradition has been notable for two emphases. For years, he has scolded the Catholic bishops and other just-war proponents for claiming that the teaching begins with a presumption against war. On the contrary, Mr. Weigel has argued, the classic doctrine treated war not as a moral anomaly that had to run a gantlet of moral tests before it could be justified but as a moral category, a neutral instrument of statecraft that could be used for good or ill. The tradition should never be removed from the obligation of nations (like the United States in Iraq) to assure security, justice and freedom.

Second, in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, Mr. Weigel insisted that religious leaders should exercise political modesty in the public debate, recognizing that government officials are more fully informed about the relevant facts. Employing the term charism, usually associated with saints who founded religious orders, he proposed that government officials enjoyed a charism of political discernment that was not shared by bishops, stated clerks, rabbis, imams, or ecumenical and interreligious agencies.

The thrust of these emphases was of course to undercut the moral objections of many religious leaders about the potential human and political costs of invading Iraq.

In his latest essay, Mr. Weigel grapples with the fact that those costs have become painfully evident, and the larger concerns of security, justice and freedom increasingly elusory. Now his case for war scarcely mentions the earlier suspicion of weapons of mass destruction but stresses a need to defeat jihadi terrorism and establish responsible government and peace throughout the Middle East.

He laments mistakes made by analysts and U.S. policy makers, who remain unidentified except for the convenient scapegoat, Donald H. Rumsfeld. Finally, he defends the administrations latest strategy against an alternative that he defines simply as were out.

In all this, he merely alludes to his earlier critique of the presumption against war and makes no mention of the charism of political discernment. But his animus toward antiwar religious leaders is unabated.

Which is what struck the editors of Commonweal, who have consistently opposed the war. In contrast to the second thoughts of many liberals originally convinced of the Iraq wars necessity, the editors note, no such admissions of error, or even regret, have been issued by outspoken Catholic neoconservatives. Does Mr. Weigels long list of American miscalculations, they wonder, cast doubt on his claim about the governments charism of political discernment? Reviewing the prudential warnings and moral qualms issued by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, it is hard not to conclude, the editors write, that the bishops charism, rather than the presidents, has better served the nation.

Read the rest of Peter's column right here. And be sure to check back later to read the full editorial.

About the Author

Grant Gallicho is an associate editor of Commonweal. You can follow him on Facebook and Twitter.



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The idea that George W. or any one else in this governement or any government has a "charism of political discernment" is so absurd that one can only wonder...

An interesting read in light of America at Crossroads last night on PBS (continues tonight on my station).Apparently, Osama bin Laden is delighted that we are spending lives and money on Iraq, and he hopes to keep creating hot spots that will further drain our resources and make us suffer.So much for discernment, charismatic or otherwise.

What is one to think of Georg Weigel? Perhaps that the circus is in town and that is the only explanation. Along with his fellow bombast, RJN, he loses his reason as Peter Steinfels points out so well. So John Paul II is the "Peoples Choice", Weigels new book. But he was wrong about the Iraq war the way Benedict XVI. I guess you can have it both ways and your cake too. As is pointed out he makes no mention today of "a charism of political discernment."

It doesn't seem fair, to give Weigel so much of the credit for this mess. If the bishops wanted to make themselves heard, they certainly had the means (maybe cassette tapes?).

It's hard to argue with Craig Kelly's observation that if the bishops had wanted to make themselves heard, they would have done so. Perhaps there is room for disagreement about the application of just war criteria to the war in Iraq. But how do we explain the near silence on the issue of torturing prisoners?

For some people, there will always be a case for war, especially if arguing the contrary position exposes their manifest incompetence or lack of discernment, political or otherwise, for the last four going on five years. Here's the only analogy I can think of: when you deal with those accused of white collar crimes, you often encounter a person who simply denies that they could ever be convicted because, by definition, people "like them" are not criminals. People like Weigel will never own up that his analysis was wrong because people "like him" are never wrong. He and his ilk are so corrupted by their own self-esteem that it's not worth reading them anymore.

I agree with Joseph Gannon. The idea of anybody in the Bush administration being endowed with a "charism of political discernment" seems like a cosmic joke. Weigel has really jumped the shark on this one.

I have little doubt that Bush II will be judged as one of the most ineffective presidents in U.S. history. It would take a miracle during his remaining term in offfice to elevate him above such denizens of the presidential deep as Andrew Johnson, James Buchanan, John Tyler, Millard Fillmore, and Warren Harding.

A "charism of political discernment"?Perhaps Weigel meant to say a "charism of political discouragement." ;)

Hello All,I agree wholeheartedly with Barbara, and I could not have stated my sentiments better than she has. I have already expressed my opinion of Mr. Weigel previously on this web log, and I have not read his writing for some time for reasons similar to Barbara's. So I thank Grant and Peter for giving me a quick refresher course on how Weigel tries to establish that the Iraq war is a just war.I found one passage from Peter's column particularly striking:*Mr. Weigel insisted that religious leaders should exercise political modesty in the public debate, recognizing that government officials are more fully informed about the relevant facts. Employing the term charism, usually associated with saints who founded religious orders, he proposed that government officials enjoyed a charism of political discernment that was not shared by bishops, stated clerks, rabbis, imams, or ecumenical and interreligious agencies.I can't help but wonder. Maybe it's just the philosopher in me, but. . . I would certainly like to ask Mr. Weigel if he would recommend that I (Peter V.) insist that religious leaders should exercise psychological modesty in the public debate regarding homosexuality, recognizing that professional psychiatrists are more fully informed about the relevant facts.. Employing the term charism, usually associated with saints who founded religious orders, should I propose that psychiatrists enjoy a charism of psychological discernment that is not shared by bishops, stated clerks, rabbis, imams, or ecumenical and interreligious agencies.? And would it then follow that I should trust the positions of the American Psychiatric Association, and not the positions of bishops, on certain questions regarding homosexuality?Oh shut up Peter. That would be asking George Weigel to consider a sensible question seriously.

Hello Again All,I realized I might have been confusing in my last post. The "Peter" to whom I refer in the last sentence of my last post is myself, not Peter Steinfels. I again want to express my thanks to Peter Steinfels for his helpful column. Take care all, ~P.

Could it be that Weigel, Neuhaus, Novak, et al. have been feeding this rubbish about a charism of political discernment to Bush? That might explain his glazed insistence in so many televised appearances that he, after all is THE DECIDERas though that guaranteed some foolish course of action to be wiser than it seemed. As to the Bishops, they did eventually come up with a good statement on the war, but they didnt follow through with appropriate urgency to rouse public opinion on the issue. And they were remarkably quiet (given the shocking nature of the problem) on kidnapping and torture.

Perhaps the bishops were caught in a dilemma. They did not want to miss a chance to agree with John Paul, but they were uneasy about seeming unpatriotic. Was it not Cardinal Spellman who said "My country right or wrong?" If the Pro-choice position could be made to appear patriotic what would the bishops do?

Correction: "My country right or wrong"?

There is no question in my mind that Neuhaus has been feeding this illusion of God is talking through me Grandeur that W emits. Neuhaus has been anointing presidents from the time of Jimmy Carter. But W took Neuhaus most seriously.The failure of the bishops on the war issue puts another nail in the coffin to the American episcopacy which has been appointed by a restorationist Vatican. The Vatican got them to be obedient and they lost their soul in the meantime. The problem is that they could not rebuke their fellow theocons whom they are wed to with right to life and same sex marriage.

Peter V is vexed, as are many of you, about Weigel's use of the term "charism" for the unique insight that governmental leaders are given in matters of war. Of course, you are being a tad disingenuous since Weigel is not referring to a divinely given charism but a charism that comes with the exercise of office. Even when John Paul the Great was criticizing President Bush over Iraq he recognized that in matters of war there is a unique charism given to political leaders since they have the most information about the situation. Peter V goes on to have a good chuckle about how the bishops should stand aside and allow the charism of the psychiatric establishment hold sway over the question of homosexuality. In fact, that is precisely what happened in the homosexual scandals among the priesthood. The Bishops were told by the psychiatric establishment that the homosexual compulsion toward young boys was treatable. In fact, the former head of the American Psychiatric Association told me that this is still held by the psychiatric establishment. The bottom line, I do not want US foriegn policy directed by the USCCB or by the Vatican Secretariat of State precisely becuase it is not their competence.And yes, nether JP the Great of Benedict said the Iraq war was or is unjust.

Austin,Your use of the word "charism" seems rather odd. Perhaps you could explain?

A charism is a gift of the Holy Spirit (see Cor 12). Weigel and Ruse's use is idiosyncratic at best. John Allen has reported extensively on the Holy See's position on the war in Iraq. Here's an excerpt:"On Sept. 21, 2002, L'Avvenire, the official newspaper of the Italian bishops, published the text of an address by Ratzinger at a conference in Trieste. Asked if the war in Iraq could be justified, Ratzinger said bluntly: 'In this situation, certainly not.'"'There is the United Nations,' Ratzinger continued. 'It is the authority that should make the decisive choice. It's necessary that the choice be made by the community of peoples, not a single power. The fact that the United Nations is seeking a way to avoid the war seems to me to demonstrate with sufficient proof that the damages which would result [from the war] are greater than the values it would seek to save.'"Ratzinger criticized the new Bush doctrine of preventive war."'The concept of preventive war does not appear in the Catechism,' Ratzinger said. 'One cannot simply say that the Catechism does not legitimate war, but it's true that the Catechism has developed a doctrine such that, on the one hand, there may be values and populations to defend in certain circumstances, but on the other, it proposes a very precise doctrine on the limits of these possibilities.'"The point is that moral rejection of the war in Iraq was not a personal idiosyncrasy of John Paul II; it was the corporate position of the Holy See, with Ratzinger very much included."To repeat:"Asked if the war in Iraq could be justified, Ratzinger said bluntly: 'In this situation, certainly not.'"

Hello Again All,In my previous two posts, I certainly did not claim that bishops should simply defer to the authority of members of the psychiatric profession over certain questions regarding homosexuality. What I did claim is that if I accept Weigel's "argument" and agree that the bishops should defer to government officials on the question of the justness of the Iraq war, then I am also committed to the claim of the previous sentence. In other words, I am trying to show why I think Weigel has presented a characteristically poor argument. I give no opinions here regarding what I think bishops should be doing.

What puzzles me is the idea that political leaders, even if they have a certain constitutional legitimacy, can be assumed to have what theologians would call a charisma, and that this gives them a special insight. That a political leader may have better "intelligence" in a certain area than that Bishop of Rome does is obvious. That a theologian would attribute this to a charisma, a gracious gift freely given by God, I find rather odd.

For all those quivering with confusion about the charism of office given to political leaders, go to, gee, any dictionary (even

Yes, good idea Austin. From the eleventh edition of Merriam-Webster:charism: "an extraordinary power (as of healing) given a Christian by the Holy Spirit for the good of the church." That is the only definition for the word in Merriam 11--the definitive dictionary for professional copyeditors.

There is of course the degenerate sense of "charisma" or at least of "charismatic" that can be traced to Max Weber and was carefully examined and severely criticized in a posthumous work (recently published) by Philp Rieff. In this degenerate sense one might speak of A. Hitler's "charisma", just to cite one case. For the New Testament usage start with A Greek Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature by Walter Baum et al.

But that isn't the word Weigel deploys. He claims a "charism of political discernment" for our elected officials. This is surprisingly shoddy theological thinking.

OK dueling definitions:"The special virture of an office, function, position that confers or is thought to confer o the person holding it an unusual ability for leadership..." (Random House Webster's Unabridged 2nd EditionBut itn't this silly, because each of you knows that Weigel did not mean that the President is Divinely inspired by a gift of teh Holy Spirit to make war. It is an unfortunate aspect of our present day politics that opponents on right and left do not give each other the common courtesy of understanding plain meaning and prefer to descend into a kind of game of semantical gotcha. Weigel's point remains true and was something that John Paul said even while he was criticizing the war: civil authorities are in a special position to make decisions on war, positions not occupied by the Pope or the Bishops. Weigel referred to this as a charism. It could be called a competence. And, this charism or competence does not also confer infallibility. Still it is there for civil authorities and not for the ordained.

Even if one accepts the Random House Webster definition, what of the "special virtue" component? Should that be understood as referring to "special knowledge" or the "special position" Austin Ruse mentions? Was the point simply to emphasize the "special position" political leaders hold with respect to the decision to launch a war?That couldn't be more obvious, which is why I suspect deploying "charism," a theological term used by a writer who calls himself a theologian, was intended to convey something more than "special position" or "special knowledge." (Apparently the Catholic neocons who have supported the war from the beginning also share in this charism--or perhaps their special contribution is simply, "trust your leaders.") Of course, it is now clear that whatever "charism of political discernment" George W. Bush may have held, it hasn't been particularly helpful. The U.S. bishops, John Paul II, and then-Cardinal Ratzinger were right.

Austin, Weigel's word, at the very least, strongly suggests exactly what everyone here--including yourself--knows it does. Now that you've been called on it, you dismiss definitions as mere "semantic gotcha," although consulting a dictionary was your own idea. Everyone *else* is disingenuous, quibbling, politically motivated, etc., right? I'm no expert on dictionary editions, publishers, etc., but I checked my own (which also bills itself as Websters and unabridged, yet is published by Random House). It has the EXACT SAME definition you give above! Problem is: it's the third of three definitions (and in place of your ellipsis, continues on with ", worthiness of veration, or the like"). Assuming we have the same, or nearly same, dictionary, let's give everyone the first two definitions: 1. Theol. a divinely conferred gift or power. 2. that special spiritual power or personal quality that gives an individual influence or authority over large numbers of people."Disingenuous," you said? "Common courtesy?" "Plain meaning?" Right!

correction: "veneration" (not veration)

This is just not a serious conversation. You want us to believe that Weigel believes that President Bush has been given a gift of the Holy Spirit to discern properly the of war. Not serious, guys, not serious.

What, don't you believe your dictionary anymore?

My point was not that there was only one definition. That is the point of Weigel's enemies on this blog; that there is only one definition andthat what Weigel meant was that the Prez has a divinely given gift to discern peace and war. in fact, there are more than one definition which I have shown. The repeated assertion that Weigel meant what you say is just silly, not serous. We owe each other something more honest, especially in dialogue and that is hearing someone and understanding what they meant. That so many on this thread refuse to do this with Weigel is a measure of their dreadful and sorrowful lack of seriousness.

So, Austin, a self-described theologian uses an obviously theological term in an ecumenical journal, several people in this thread find fault with that use, and we're supposed to take your word for it that what was really intended was a tertiary definition in a second-rate dictionary? Who's failing to be serious?

When "charism" ends up being a synonym for "competence" what are we to expect next?

Hello All,In fact, I assumed all along that Mr. Weigel was using the term "charism" as a synonym for "competence". (Why Mr. Weigel did not simply use the term "competence" just escapes me.) I did not say so before because it is unnecessary to say so. On any reading of the term "charism" considered here, the argument remains a poor argument. As I tried to make clear above, if I accept this argument then I am at once committed to various positions that Mr. Weigel would never accept. And (pardon my cynicism) I think Mr. Weigel surely knows this. He is far too intelligent not to be aware of what such an elementary argument implies.

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