Madness Abounding

Therefore, government authorities and those who share public responsibility have the duty to protect the welfare of the people entrusted to their care and to conduct such grave matters soberly.

To this reasonable conclusion, drawn from the tradition of just war thinking, I should only like to add — “and may all discuss such grave matters soberly.” With madness abounding on all sides this is no easy charge. On the one side are the consequentialists who hold that the goal of defense justifies any means, including the possible direct mass destruction of innocent civilians. This doctrine is appropriately named “M.A.D.” for “mutual assured destruction.” On the other side are the pacifists who reject all forms of military force. As Elizabeth Anscombe notes, their vision “is an illusion, which would be fantastic if it were not so familiar.” The just war tradition provides the only framework for sober discussion and responsible action. Yet, perhaps in response to one extreme, some Catholics, including some bishops, are abandoning the tradition and embracing the other extreme of pacifism. Granted, the pastoral letter is not decisively pacifist. But the influence of the new Catholic pacifism is markedly felt. It declares pacifism to be an equally valid position or perspective within the Church. And as with many cases of supposed neutral pluralism, under its cloak a new norm is being propagated and established. In many dioceses the new pacifist norm is being propagated with great vigor through the newspapers, bulletins, pulpits, and other educational means. Thus for the bishops to put pacifism on equal par with the just war tradition is a grave mistake. It has become a pedagogical subterfuge, as noted. But also, pacifism as such is an illogical and untenable moral position. It yields a type of extremism which injects more confusion and madness into an already difficult problem. The pastoral letter must make clear the priority of the just war teaching; and further, spell out the limits of the non-violent “option”, i.e., an individual may decide in conscience not to bear arms, but pacifism is not a binding norm for all.

The new Catholic pacifism faces a hard dilemma. Pacifism teaches that all use of lethal force is immoral or that “any use of military force is incompatible with the Christian vocation.” The just war tradition teaches that “some use of lethal force is not immoral” or that “some use of military force is not incompatible with the Christian vocation.” The positions are contradictory so both cannot be true. Elementary logic requires that one position is true and that the other one is false. Thus the dilemma. On the one hand, the pacifist may say that both are valid perspectives and equally true. This approach, however, entails giving up the truth claims of moral discourse and embracing moral relativism. This is unacceptable for a Catholic moralist. On the other hand, the pacifist may say that his position is true and the just war tradition false. This approach entails a grave problem with the continuity of Catholic tradition and doctrine. Specifically, it means the Church has taught error for the great part of her history, including the recent documents of Vatican II! The great weight of tradition is almost overwhelmingly against pacifism, as C. S. Lewis notes in his article “Why I am Not a Pacifist.” Moreover, the truth of pacifism probably entails a great shift in ecclesiology which is alien to the Catholic tradition. To be consistent, it seems the pacifists should withdraw from the temporal order and political action; for coercion and force are essential to the fabric of political life in our fallen world. Political action based on persuasion alone requires that all men live by pure reason. This is hardly the case. Both implications are unacceptable. The dilemma of Catholic pacifism surely indicates its deficiency; Anscombe and Lewis have decisively refuted pacifism as a tenable moral position. Until otherwise established, it should not be given moral legitimacy as a moral norm.

If rational argument has not been forthcoming for the new pacifism, rhetorical devices have been its only counter. The pacifists accuse the people of “idolatry” for trusting in arms and not in God. Usually the accusation is unfair and gets its power from another logical fallacy. In my experience, it is the rare individual who actually believes that force of arms is sufficient for a country’s well being and/or individual salvation. Force of arms is not sufficient; but this does not imply that arms are unnecessary. Force is a necessary background for the very diplomacy, negotiation, and mutual restraint so highly praised by the pacifists. The structure of diplomacy and negotiation would collapse like a house of cards without a balance of power. It is not idolatrous to attend to necessities. Nevertheless, the Church should indeed remind the citizens that force of arms is not sufficient. But such a reminder cuts two ways. Recall Solzhenitsyn’s Harvard Address: “No weapons, no matter how powerful, can help the West, until it overcomes its loss of will-power. To defend oneself, one must be ready to die; there is little such readiness in a society raised in the cult of material well-being.” This gets to the heart of the matter; it is no mere logical problem, but a spiritual one. The new Catholic pacifists prey on the psychological weakness of the West and mock its last tatters of courage. The pastoral letter does little to counteract them. Yes, it acknowledges the goods of freedom, order, rights. But “we castrate and bid the gelding be fruitful.”

The wisdom of Catholic teaching is dissipated by this specious pluralism. The doctrinal pacifists should be kept on the margins as we proceed with the firm truth of the just war tradition. Then we may focus our efforts. Our clear focus should be the strategy of M.A.D. There is reason to believe that Reagan will continue the shift away from M.A.D. begun by the previous administration. Further, advances in technology, e.g., “high frontier,” may make M.A.D. a thing of the past. But we must go forward with strength and caution as the new developments emerge. Our goal should be a strong deterrent not based on the intention to directly slaughter the innocent civilians in enemy territory. Such a defense could gain the support of all American Catholics.

Most of all, the Catholic witness can help to dispel the poisons of hatred and fear. Blind hatred encourages the madness of militarism and immoral strategies. Blind fear encourages the madness of pacifism, capitulation, and “peace” at any price. The truth of the faith gives strength of soul and clarity of vision. With a sense of just purpose, sober deliberation, and courage, we can assist our political leaders to meet their solemn duty to protect the welfare of the people. And with God’s grace abounding, have we not a reasonable hope?


  • John Hittinger

    John Hittinger is a professor in the Center for Thomistic Studies at the University of St Thomas, Houston and the author of Liberty, Wisdom and Grace: Thomism and Democratic Political Theory. He is the founder and director of the Pope John Paul II Forum for the Church in the Modern World and president of the International Catholic University, founded by Ralph McInerny (1929-2010), the co-founder of Crisis Magazine. He is also developing a MA in John Paul II studies at the University of St. Thomas in Houston.

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