Madness Abounding?

I do not believe that Professor Hittinger’s way of construing the issues of the Catholic Church’s teaching on war is very helpful. Recall that he locates the just war position as the Central position between the extremes of nuclear madness and pacifism and considers the just war teaching “the only framework for sober discussion and responsible action.” Hittinger is worried that a new sentiment for pacifism is undermining or at least claiming equal legitimacy with the traditional Catholic just war teaching. He views this sentiment as particularly unsettling because pacifism is “an illogical and untenable moral position” which “injects more confusion and madness into an already difficult problem.” Many Catholic bishops, we are told, preach the pacifist position.

A judgment of the “extreme” location of any position is, of course, dependent upon one’s own position. Those who have eschewed violence throughout the history of Christianity have most probably been judged to be extremists in the view of other Christians. But we know that throughout the tradition pacifism has also been highly esteemed. Christianity has never been without those who advocate the non-violent option, from early church Fathers such as Tertullian and Origen to 16th century Protestant churches striving for the ethical purity of the early church, to many Catholics in the modern period. We have always had to take seriously the challenge of pacifism when confronting violence from the perspective of faith. The American bishops are not doing something new in the history of the Church.

Professor Hittinger faults pacifism on three counts, all of which require response. First, he argues that pacifism is a threat to the truth which Catholicism teaches since pacifists deny any legitimate use of lethal force while the Catholic just war teaching allows for some legitimate use of force. If both positions could be entertained as true then the Catholic claim that there is only one truth in this matter is contradicted, he argues. The question he raises is this: does pacifism’s claim introduce an unacceptable moral relativism into Catholic teaching on war and violence? The answer would be yes only if the disagreement involved (here it concerns whether some or no violence is permissible) went to the heart of the Church’s claim to the truth in its moral teachings. For moral relativism denies that there is one truth for all. However, the long-standing disagreement between just war advocates and pacifists does not center on either a moral principle or the Church’s claim to know and teach it. Indeed, there is fundamental agreement that we have an obligation not to kill or injure others. There is disagreement over the possibility of exceptions to the prohibition and over the kinds of strategies Christians ought to follow in order to resist injustices and other evils in the world, but not the kind of disagreement that can be taken as a denial of the Church’s moral teaching on the prohibition against killing and injuring. What we confront in the disagreement between pacifists and just war practitioners is not moral relativism but a difference of conviction among people who, we hope, live and act in good faith, taking with utmost seriousness the prohibition against killing.

A second argument of Hittinger must also be rejected. The argument is simply that pacifism is not in continuity with the Catholic tradition and therefore cannot be a correct position to hold. We would indeed be required to agree with him if it were true that the just war position was and is the only Catholic position and pacifism has had no place within the Catholic tradition. But there are reputable Church historians who tell us otherwise (e.g., Roland Bainton, J-M Hornus, C. H. Cadoux, G. H. C. MacGregor). Hittinger owes it to his readers to demonstrate that he is acquainted with the history of the tradition; it is insufficient that he prefers the just war position and finds that C. S. Lewis did too.

A third point Hittinger makes is that pacifism counsels political withdrawal that is irresponsible since “coercion and force are essential to the fabric of political life in our fallen world.” Granted, coercion and force are essential. But the issue is less that of maintaining the social fabric — we are talking about relations between not within states — than of curbing violence bred by international fear, hatred and war. Pacifism need not be a withdrawal from political questions which do entail raising the issue of force. To be in the world but not of it leads pacifists to envision better institutions in which authority and power are harmonized and violence minimized. Non-violent witnesses like Gandhi, King and Dorothy Day spent their lives exhorting others to political responsibility that refused violent means. Christians have always to take care that they do not make coercion their guarantor of the truth. Jesus is our truth, our way, and our life. Even on this side of the Parousia we are called to be disciples of him who trusted and obeyed the Father.

In whatever final form it takes, the Bishops’ letter on war and peace should be an occasion for reflection within the Church. It should not be hostilely dismissed by anyone. A Catholic theologian recently wrote that the just war and pacifist positions need one another. If that is true then we need to understand better whichever position we understand less — which for many will mean becoming familiar with both positions! In a forthcoming article I argue that the just war position is easily corrupted unless it takes seriously the theological and moral claims of pacifism (or, better “non-violent resistance”). Non-violent resistance requires the learning of certain virtues, virtues which the just war position ought to entail equally. I do not expect that all other committed Catholics will necessarily share my understanding of the Gospel proclamation at every point or the way I believe it should be applied in every historical occasion. Still, I am confident that there is much on which we do agree.

It is not enough for adherents of the just war teaching merely to proclaim it as the Catholic teaching without offering further justification. Just war theories existed prior to Christianity. We must know why and how Christianity adopted (and adapted) them. If not understood by every generation of Catholics just war teaching will surely be unheeded as well. The burden of justification continues to belong to those who would evaluate wars as just. A contemporary scholar of just war theory suggests the extent of the challenge for all who hold the just war position:

I (have) identified several unresolved issues in the application of just-war criteria, particularly their order, priorities, and weight. Theorists . . . need to pay more attention to numerous issues including the bases, interrelations, and functions of their criteria. Otherwise they will appear merely to posit traditional criteria without foundation and coherence. Of course, such issues constitute only part of the total agenda for just- war theorists in this age. Other critical issues of relevance and application also require attention, but they cannot be adequately addressed if we are not willing to face some of the ethical, philosophical, and theological questions that war raises. (James Childress, “Just War Theories,” in Theological Studies Vol. 39, No. 3 (1978), pp. 444-445)

This must become a time of fruitful dialogue within the Catholic Church. Catholic citizens, military personnel, politicians, bishops and theologians must explore their tradition together. The bishops have begun that process.

Two of the several quarters in which it might well continue is within this journal and among the theology, philosophy, and ROTC faculties within Catholic universities.


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