Magisterium as Temptation: The Bishops and the Bomb

Do the bishops adequately understand how our political leaders achieve that status?

I write these words as an individual Catholic citizen, representing no other person or thing.

These are not words about throw weights, targeting strategies, first strike capacity, or any such matters. Rather, they are words about the limits of competence of those who have a special, authoritative, teaching capacity in matters of faith and morals. These words are not written for government, which will treat the bishops like any other small pressure group. They are written for the bishops who bear the magisterial burden and are exposed to its temptations; for those journalists who have imagined that the bishops on nuclear strategy “represent the Church of 50,000,000 American Catholics” when in fact they represent only themselves; and for Catholic citizens in the hope that, though in this instance they see the bishops abusing their limited authority by overextending their competence as bishops, they will see also that such succumbing to temptation only shows the bishops’ humanness. It should not destroy their credibility generally, one hopes, for the argument for magisterial preference flows from scripture, not from immaculate use of that preference.

None of what follows will prove the bishops’ second draft pastoral on nuclear policy wrong or right on substantive tactical or strategic questions. Rather, what it will point to is the remoteness of the bishops from anything like a credal core or clear Gospel warrant when they move as far down the road of contingent reasoning as their draft takes them. When the president of those bishops is prepared to say, e.g., “I reject the idea that a freeze would undermine administration efforts” he should also acknowledge that he has no Gospel warrant for a statement so laden with particular facts and particular judgments, that it is simply a citizen’s prudential judgment. To put forth the pastoral on nuclear policy, filled as it is with countless particular political choices, without clearly establishing the warrant, without clearly acknowledging the remoteness from authoritative teaching capacity, is simply to abuse the office of bishop. A bishop or bishops may develop a competence on nuclear strategy, of course, but that requires its own special analysis and sets its own demands for such competence. It does not come with the bishop’s miter.

The Good Samaritan story can illustrate the point, perhaps. That story seems clearly, reasonably, to suggest two conclusions to a common sense reader. First, it seems clearly to suggest we are obliged to help those who need help. Second, it seems clearly to suggest that right disposition is not enough, but must be implemented by rational means — means ordained to truly helping. Thus, we find the Samaritain binding wounds, rather than rubbing salt in them; we find the wounded man carried rather than dragged.

But as is obvious and often noted, the story does not answer other questions. Especially for our purposes, it does not answer the question of what the Samaritain should have done had he come to the scene when the attack was starting. Intervened? With force, if he had force sufficient to the task? Waited until the onslaught had subsided, then proceeded as we know he did, if by chance there was a survivor still able to be helped?

Since the Gospel account was written, some have said pacifism would be the appropriate response to the unanswered question. Most have said force would be legitimately used in the event. But whichever one said, one could not say the Gospel demanded it, as we rightly say it made clear that rational help was called for because a person clearly was in need. The latter is a clear Gospel inference, the other question is a question not answered. To speak of them without acknowledging the difference in degree of scripture’ authority is to speak wrongly. Similarly, on a trip to Marquette last year, Mother Teresa was asked to comment on liberation theology, and her response was worthy of a clear mind: “I do not find it in the Gospel.” The point was not that liberation theology is necessarily legitimate o: illegitimate, but that its Christian warrant cannot be inferred simply from the Gospel. Granted, of course, that argument will continue as to what is clear and what is not, common sense still makes evident that there is a common sense difference between some things clearly implicit in the gospel, and countless other things which, to be warranted, require an extended trip into evidence-gathering, analysis, amalgamation of conflicting values — in short, require an acknowledgment of their gray and contingent character, and a pronouncedly subdued endorsement of their choice-worthiness.

Against this general background, why pick on the bishops’ pastoral on nuclear policy? Simply because, as I see the second draft, it violates intelligence, prudence, logical consistency, and in some respects the trust placed in the bishops by the Catholic people. Following are just a few of the larger problems from which the draft pastoral suffers.


The bishops fail to explain their understanding of competence of knowledge, by which right action may be known; and competence of authority, by which right actors may be known. Accordingly, they really provide no reason for anyone to listen to them. They do not establish the credal core or scriptural base from which their particular positions may be inferred and against which they may be measured.

A few hours of study on nuclear strategy, let alone many years of such study, will make clear to anyone that right action on this matter is not known by direct Gospel inference, is not ethically simple. One will be reminded by such study that one’s competence of knowledge on nuclears comes not from simple doctrinal reflection but from the specialized work which may yield such competence. Even if one goes to the trouble of developing such mastery, he can only offer that knowledge, without presumption or hubris, to those who have the competence of authority, the burden of decision, the duty of saying “do this, not that, now, not then.”

The bishops’ statement is not modest, it is not marked by an established competence distinguishing itself from any other statement on nuclears, and it is presumptuous in giving an appearance of being a Church document speaking for all Catholics rather than simply a document supported by a few hundred American bishops. One of the champions of the pastoral, writing glowingly of it in his own archdiocesan newspaper, said: “Suddenly the Church of the United States has become aware of the risks of living under the possibility of total annihilation.” This is a remarkably illogical observation from a man who routinely says the Church is the People of God, for the statement ignores and thereby maligns the innumerable Catholic people who have been quite aware of the nuclear problem since 1945, and quite active in trying to comprehend and control it. It is remarkably illogical, that is, unless the “Church” he refers to is not the People of God at all, but simply the late-arriving and somewhat out-of-breath bishops.

In its reference to “suddenly” as well as its apparent presumption that this most contingent and pock-marked document could speak for Catholics as a body, this bishop’s statement reflects perfectly the spirit of the pastoral itself. The pastoral refers to nuclear concerns as “now,” when for anyone alert they have for long been “then” as much as “now.” And it routinely refers to “the Catholic position” when, in fact, there is not one such position but as many as there are thoughtful Catholics exercising their citizenship.


The bishops’ pastoral fails to understand politics in its most fundamental aspects. It is premised on a fatal dualism, in which the bishops imagine there is a political politics that includes most of the political spectrum, and then a morality politics which involves that allegedly rare issue wherein transcendent values are at stake. It is this dualism which permits them to think that they can intrude deeply on a matter of crucial importance such as American military policy without raising inevitably the question of their potential to intrude into any and all politics as they see fit. The flaw in their thinking – the fatal dualism to which I referred – is a flaw which some religious spokesmen have proven themselves susceptible to over and over again. It is their failure to understand that politics in all its essential respects is a moral doing, a moral endeavor. There are not political issues without important human choices to be made. There are not important human choices without moral ramifications. This failure to grasp the permeative relation of morality to politics and to remember that politics is just a branch of ethics after all, betrays the depth of the bishops’ misunderstanding.

The bishops share with many of the political theologians of our day a utopian belief that in the teaching of the Church there is a force, unspecified but real, that will overcome political division among the believers.

There is a companion flaw of equal magnitude. The bishops share with many of the political theologians of our day a utopian belief that in the teaching of the Church there is a force, unspecified but real, that will overcome political division among the believers. They are fond of saying that their concern for politics is not a partisan concern as if nonpartisanship avoided the central choice-making that is the reality of politics itself. Party and partisan are only forms of politics, not politics itself. The divisive character of politics, the choosing among alternative approaches, whether greater goods or lesser evils, cannot be avoided. If one elects then to become politically specific, as the bishops have become in this document, to move as far toward particularization as they have, there is no way to pretend that such is not divisive in the political order and back into the religious community from which they come.


The bishops’ pastoral fails to grasp the operational implications of and the human worth of democratic politics as a species of politics itself. When democracy came to this globe it created a new role and capacity for religion in the political order. Religion’s rightful potential resides essentially in the believer-as-citizen, if the Church can credibly teach sustaining and transcending principles and values to its faithful; and if a core part of that teaching is the person’s obligation to integrate religious principles and values into life’s actual conduct. The democratic system in which such believers-as-citizens can function is not a closed system. It is not a Poland or a Soviet Union or a Cuba or even an Argentina where prudentially a Church representative may conclude, for practical purposes and on a calculated basis, that the closed political system in which he resides, in view of the general silence it exacts from its populace, necessitates his particular voice. It may even justify his passing himself off as a voice of a Church Political.

But that accidental model, that liberation presumption, has no pertinence in a system designed for open communications, open discourse, open argument, and peaceful change. (It has no pertinence unless, perhaps, one imagines, as an economic determinist might, that such democratic forms just mask a nonrepresentative reality.) It simply does not follow that the so-called prophetic voice can be addressed against a nonexistent remote regime (“rulers,” as the document inaptly quotes John Paul II) when the regime in fact is us, the people. To the extent that the government of a given day is not representative of us the people, let us the people change the government. To the extent that a religious or another voice is uncomfortable with the policies and politics of any such government, let it urge changing the government or even the governmental system. Let such voices move to the opposition, let them bring about the alterations they wish. But what they cannot be permitted to do is to pretend that somewhere in this political order there is a regime “out there” that must be thundered against — a regime that is in any fundamental sense different from or removed from the people themselves.

It simply does not follow that the so- called prophetic voice can be addressed against a nonexistent remote regime (“rulers,” as the document inaptly quotes John Paul II) when the regime in fact is us, the people.

Not only is there this failure of perception regarding democracy and its operations, but there is also a substantial failure to articulate and acknowledge the human and Christian values that democracy offers to humankind. Without such articulation of that which we defend, there is no intelligible way to evaluate the means and extent of legitimate defense. The achievement of democracy, after all, is rare, very precious and relatively delicate. It does not follow that if an American Catholic rejects the teachings of the bishops on matters such as nuclear policy he is therefore and thereby jingoistic or hypernationalistic. Quite to the contrary, that person may be doing nothing more than recognizing what the bishops seem unable to recognize with clarity: that the democratic system is itself a profound value worth great sacrifice and not lightly to be endangered.

The failure of the bishops explicitly and with substantial articulation to discuss the dangers to democracy that could stem from strategic weakness is a fatal flaw in the document they are now considering. It is essentially a document devoted to repetitive articulation of the horrors of nuclear war. It provides insufficient attention to the other horrors available to mankind, such as a slide into weakness that might result in the abandonment of the democratic experiment and untold subjugation of populations, the extinguishing of the free alternative, the blowing out of the democratic candle. That such might flow from a precipitous self-weakening is perhaps more likely than a nuclear exchange flowing from a continuation of current policies. The nuclear horror is horrible indeed. It is a ghastly specter, as it was called long ago. It is not, however, the only ghastly specter, and proper management of the nuclear monster cannot be grasped without pointed awareness of all monsters.

Elemental Prudence and Proportionality

There are repeated instances in the document in which the bishops simply failed to test their positions against the elemental demands of logic and prudence. The segment of their paper that has drawn most comment in this regard is that amazing sequence of sentences in which, in effect, they say “You may hold nuclears for deterrence purposes but you may not contemplate their use,” as if in fact there were any way to deter with an instrument that you have decided can never be used. But that is not an isolated instance. They also, quite without reason, rule out in an a priori sense the possible limiting of nuclear uses once nuclear conflict has begun. I would imagine that nuclear exchanges, once begun, have a very substantial likelihood of escalation to catastrophic proportions. But there is no way in the world that one can look at the choice-making capacity of human beings and rule out the possibility of a controlled exchange.

There is also the blatant failure to address seriously such issues as the inadequacy of bilateral, let alone unilateral, actions on the nuclear front. How can anyone talk about the U.S. and U.S.S.R. as if they had a monopoly of destructive potential? How indeed can anyone talk even about Britain, France, the Soviet Union, China, the United States and other allegedly mature and responsible powers? How can anyone talk about the threat of nuclears without acknowledging that the threat in its most fundamental sense came from science and technology themselves, from a quite unintended but inexorable development of human capacity, and that once that particular horse is out of that particular barn there is no way to put it back? Irrational leaders of unstable regimes abound, as does the easily-transferable technology permitting rapid nuclearization. There is no way in the world to pretend that the most dramatic imaginable disarming action by the Soviets and the United States would in fact solve the nuclear problem. Indeed, it is possible to imagine that such action by the U.S. and U.S.S.R. could be an invitation to human disaster.

There is no way in the world to pretend that the most dramatic imaginable disarming action by the Soviets and the United States would in fact solve the nuclear problem.

Dozens of questionable elements and problems in the bishops’ pastoral are here exemplified by just a few general categories of difficulty. Taken together, what all the problems show is simply the impossibility and unacceptability of the bishops’ efforts to pass off as “American Catholic thinking” that which is, in fact, just a position paper reflecting the judgment of some bishops and their staff. They have as much right as the next person to issue such position papers, and they can have as much competence, if they develop it. But they have no right to pretend authoritativeness of a religious sort, and they have no competence to represent the flock on political particulars far removed from the credal core and clear Gospel inference. If they reflect on the draft pastoral, trim it to what can credibly be presented as core Church principles, and exhort the nation’s Catholics to vivify and specify those principles in the political life of the nation, they still have a chance for efficacious impact on a crucially important national issue. If, on the other hand, they persist in the second draft’s effort to interchange credal core and peripheral judgments, clear Gospel inference and fifth-level analysis, they will assuredly be ignored by government and judged incredible by the bulk of the Catholic populace — reasonably and correctly so.


  • Quentin L. Quade

    Quentin L. Quade, when he wrote this article, was the Executive Vice-President of Marquette University. He later went on to open the Blum Center in 1992 for the purpose of collecting, organizing, synthesizing, and distributing information regarding school choice efforts across the country.

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