Ten Years After: The Bishops (Again) on War and Peace

In the fall of 1989, David Hollenbach, S.J., the prominent Catholic social ethicist who in the early 1980s had vigorously defended the theological and political acuity of the bishops’ controversial pastoral letter “The Challenge of Peace” (TCOP), noted that the document seemed “already dated.” Father Hollenbach attributed TCOP’S brief shelf-life to the extraordinary pace of events in world politics since May 1983; he referred ‘in particular to the rapid and previously “impossible to imagine” transformation of the Cold War under Mikhail Gorbachev—a transformation which soon led to the collapse of European communism and, indeed, of Mr. Gorbachev’s state, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The very fact that the bishops have now appointed an ad hoc committee charged with preparing a new letter on peacemaking in the post-Cold War world suggests their agreement with the claims that the world has changed dramatically since 1983, and that those changes require a careful moral reflection on world politics and America’s role in them. Moreover, I expect that the committee may share Father Hollenbach’s judgment of three years ago, namely that the rapidity and nature of the changed Weltproblematik accounts for the fact that TCOP is, in some serious sense, “dated.”

However, I do not agree that TCOP is “dated” simply because of the drama of recent history; TCOP seems “dated” because its moral analysis was flawed. By holding its focus so intently on the dangers posed by nuclear weapons, and by paying insufficient attention to the ideological—and, indeed, moral—dimension of the Cold War, TCOP failed to grasp what events have now made abundantly clear: first, that the central

threat in the nuclear age was not the brute fact of nuclear weapons themselves, but the nature of the regime(s) that possessed them; and second, that the key to “reducing the threat of nuclear war” lay in changing the nature of those regimes through a process of pluralization and, ultimately, democratization. The point, of course, is not that the bishops’ drafting committee in 1983 should have predicted in detail the changes that have restructured the world political scene over the past decade. The point is that TCOP did not articulate a moral understanding of the dynamics of world politics in which such changes could be understood as the key to the “challenge of peace” in the 1980s.

The historical, strategic, and political analysis of the document was one problem, dependent as it was on the orthodoxies then prevalent in the arms control community. But TCOP was hardly alone in misreading the signs of the times through those particular lenses. No, the explanation for TCOP’s vulnerability to premature “datedness” lies, not so much in politics or strategy, but in the pastoral letter’s reading (some would say, misreading) of the classic Catholic tradition of peace.

Political Neglect

That tradition, from Saint Augustine through the great scholastic commentators and on to the Second Vatican Council, held that the peace to be sought among nations and states was political in character. It was a matter of rightly-ordered political communities, in a rightly-ordered relationship with each other. It was not Shalom, the eschatological peace of the Kingdom to come at a time of God’s choosing and through God’s action (a “peace” that we experience, eucharistically and proleptically, in the Church). Nor was it the interior peace of spiritual harmony between creature and Creator. Rather, it was, as Saint Augustine put it, the peace of tranquillitas ordinis, the “tranquillity of order.”

TCOP’S relative neglect of this distinctive and classic Catholic understanding of “peace” was the chief flaw that led to other problems in the document, including what was taken to be its tacit endorsement of certain forms of evangelical pacifism whose more traditional locus had been the ecclesial communities of the radical Reformation. Most importantly, this flaw led to a failure to articulate the crucial relationship between the public architecture of freedom—including the defense of religious freedom and other basic human rights—and the pursuit of peace. And this, in turn, led to the unhappy fact that TCOP (like many other official documents of the time from other ecclesial communities) failed to take sufficient account of the main point urged by the brave dissidents and human rights activists of Central and Eastern Europe: namely, that the cause of freedom within their societies was the key to the pursuit of peace between “East” and “West,” given the ideological/moral core of the Cold War and the perverse nature of the Yalta imperial system.

This failure was shaped in part by TCOP’S vulnerability, not to soft forms of Marxism (as the letter’s fringe critics charged), but to the anti-anticommunism prevalent in prominent American political circles in the post-Vietnam period. But Catholic anti-anticommunism (which was widespread in the Church’s American opinion elite in the early 1980s) itself bespoke the lack of a firm hold on the Catholic concept of “peace” as the tranquillity of order, a dynamic tranquillity to be achieved through the right ordering of legal and political relations within and among nations and peoples. Tranquillitas ordinis and “democratic centralism” of the Marxist-Leninist sort are (and were) antinomies. A failure to grasp the full import of the former led to a lack of sufficient attention to the moral and political character of the problem posed by the latter. And thus TCOP misapprehended—perhaps better stated, TCOP failed to prepare much of the Church to grasp—the key to the latter’s demise.

Thanks be to God, the “threat of nuclear war” has been diminished dramatically over the past decade. This has happened, not because of the kinds of “arms control” that TCOP seemed to favor, but because the Revolution of 1989 in Central and Eastern Europe and the New Russian Revolution of 1991 made real arms reduction possible, and because the Revolution of 1989 and the New Russian Revolution put into place regimes with which serious peacemaking could be done. Conversely, and reinforcing the same point along the via negativa, the threat of nuclear war exists where it does today because of the nature of the regimes that possess nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction. No Frenchman loses sleep because of the British nuclear force, but many people in Seoul, Tokyo, and Tel Aviv are justifiably concerned about a nuclear-armed Kim Il-Sung or Saddam Hussein.

The classic Catholic concept of peace, with its emphasis on politics and law as the worldly alternatives to mass violence or the violent adjudication of international conflict, should have predisposed the bishops’ conference to grasp this central “regime” factor in Cold War-era peace making, and should also have provided a prophylaxis against the temptation to regard nuclear weapons as a kind of independent variable in world affairs. That TCOP did not make that factor clear should serve as a cautionary tale about the committee’s work.

This emphasis arises from my conviction that the Church best speaks to the world of public affairs when it speaks as Church out of the font of classic wisdom of which it is the unique bearer. To speak as Church does not mean that we ignore or meanly deprecate the worlds of strategic and political analysis. It means, instead, that we read, ponder, and adopt or reject that worldly wisdom through a very distinctive analytic lens.

A Moral Horizon for the Twenty-first Century

“Centuries” do not always follow the conventions of our system of dating. For example, the “eighteenth century” ran for some 126 years, from the beginning of the great wars between France and England (of which the American Revolution was an episode) until Waterloo. The “nineteenth century” really got underway in 1815 with the defeat of Napoleon, and it ended in 1914 with the outbreak of World War I. The guns of August 1914 opened the “twentieth century,” which ended in August 1991, with the conclusion of the great Fifty-Five Years’ War against totalitarianism.

And so, the conventional calendar notwithstanding, we are now experiencing the overture to the “twenty-first century”—which, as the Holy Father regularly reminds us, marks the beginning of the third millennium of the Christian era. What is to be the American task in world politics of the twenty-first century? What does the Catholic Church in the United States have to say to the country, as it deliberates that grand strategic question?

The country does not need from the Church, nor should the Church’s bishops offer the government, detailed instruction on the fine points of foreign policy. For the Church to expect otherwise would be to reduce the Church and its leadership to the condition of those sundry interest groups which are beating on the doors and clogging up the fax machines of offices all over Washington. Moreover, according to the teaching of Vatican II, detailed policy prescription is not among the tasks of the episcopal leadership of the Church—the charisms conferred by episcopal ordination are not to be understood as somehow parallel to the competencies acknowledged by election, senatorial confirmation, or executive appointment. Rather, the role of the Church and its bishops, as Pope John Paul II has insisted, is to teach the “truth about man” that is revealed in its fullness by the truth of the Gospel, and to suggest how the moral norms derivative from the “truth about man” can illumine and discipline the policymaker’s task. Put another way, the task of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops is to help form, through the arts of religious and moral teaching and persuasion, the moral horizon against which the foreign policy of the United States is shaped, and toward which America’s action in the world is directed. Happily, this is precisely what the country needs.

The first order of business today, therefore, may not be to devise a new “master concept” like “containment,” but to clarify the intellectual building blocks out of which a new template might later emerge. The National Conference of Catholic Bishops (NCCB) could play a major role in illuminating the moral dimension of this new policy calculus were it to focus its primary attention on three key foundational questions.

Why Us?

The first and most important thing that the bishops’ conference could teach about peacemaking ten years after “The Challenge of Peace” is the moral impossibility of isolationism in its Old Right, New Left, or libertarian forms. Put another way, the most urgent moral question to be answered in America today, when the topic turns to foreign policy, is Why engage?

There are many reasons why the new isolationist impulse—whether articulated by aging refugees from the radicalisms of the 1960s, nostalgic (and sometimes xenophobic) celebrants of America First, or buttoned-down scholars from the Cato Institute—should be resisted. It is strategic foolish of a very high order: in a world of proliferating ballistic missile technology where deranged or evil tyrants can acquire weapons of mass destruction and the means to deliver them over thousands of miles, the concept of “Fortress America” is a sorry (and dangerous) fiction. It also is politically dangerous: as the debacle in ex-Yugoslavia has shown, absent American leadership the new world order will be characterized by murderous chaos, not by a self-expanding web of collective security. Isolationism also is a recipe for global economic catastrophe and gross human suffering, because isolationism, translated into attempts at economic autarky, would almost certainly yield a chain-reaction world-wide trade war whose likely results may be discerned from a brief meditation on the 1930s. Moreover, the new isolationism, with its call to tend our own republican garden, misconceives the sources of our domestic woes: SAT scores are not too low, or teenage pregnancy rates too high, because there has been an insufficient reallocation of resources from the Pentagon to the Department of Education or the Department of Health and Human Services, respectively. (When Pat Buchanan and The Nation agree on the general outlines of a course of action—or, in this case, inaction—one can be certain morally that the prescription is wrong.)

To articulate a persuasive moral rationale for responsible internationalism, the bishops would have to make clear why the moral duties of nations cannot be understood simply as analogous to the moral responsibilities of individuals. Moreover, the bishops would have to articulate a vision of American moral responsibility in the world that does not smack of unwarranted hubris or national messianism. But these temptations are, in truth, far less pressing at the moment than the temptation to say, “We did our job; we saved the world from Hitler and from Stalin and his epigones; it’s time to take care of business at home.” Public weariness—or worse, a crabbed, narrow, and selfish view of the American role in the world—must be answered by a realistic, yet more capacious, construal of our duties beyond our borders. If that answer is not given, the result will be greater danger and suffering in the world—and, I fear, a crabbed, narrow, and selfish construal of the American possibility at home.

America’s international duties are not infinite in number. There are limits to our capacities, as there are limits to our wisdom. But the bishops would help reorient the national debate in a more helpful direction were they to provide a compelling moral argument for the inevitable and unavoidable exercise of American international responsibility in a unipolar world.

“Interest” and “Purpose”

“Toward what ends?” is the second question on the new agenda. At one abstract level, we know of course (or should know) the answer: U.S. foreign policy, measured by the norms of Catholic social ethics, should serve the ends of justice, freedom, security (order), the general welfare, and peace—the classic ends of politics in the Western tradition as developed by Christian philosophers and theologians. But the invocation of those grand ends does not automatically ensure a coherent and responsible policy.

A fruitful approach would be to think about these classic ends of politics with regard to the “national interest.” Few phrases are deployed so frequently—as debates over Somalia and ex-Yugoslavia attest. But “national interest” more frequently is an incantation, a rhetorical trump card against an opposing position, than a term of analytic and strategic (much less moral) art.

The bishops could do the country and the Church a great service were they to help rid the notion of “national interest” of the cobwebs of amoralism that have grown about it since Hans Morgenthau first published Politics Among Nations. For whatever Professor Morgenthau’s own intentions, the sorry fact is that more than a few of his soi-disant disciples have taken the “national interest” to be a category devoid of moral content. Indeed, for many policy “realists” today, the “national interest” can be almost mathematically defined in terms of certain key indices of economic and military power. The result has been a schizophrenic foreign policy debate in which too often it is assumed—in the “policy community”—that a great gulf is fixed between the worlds of statecraft and morality that no man can cross. This, in turn, has further distanced the government from a citizenry which remains profoundly uncomfortable with rationales for policy that are grounded solely on the canons of Realpolitik. The confusion is further deepened by the media’s tendency to caricature the debate as a contest between “tough-minded realists” and “soft-hearted idealists.”

But, as John Courtney Murray argued two generations ago, the unsatisfactory quality of the “morality and foreign policy debate” in the United States has less to do with differences over concrete applications than with impoverished notions of morality that usually inform (and deform) our public life. Put with drastic brevity, the circularity and intractability of the morality-and-foreign-pol-icy debate reflect the continual dominance, as a kind of cultural residue, of certain American evangelical Protestant notions of “morality” which sought to apply the norms guiding private life to the exigencies of international public life. Again this moralism, Morgenthau and other “realist” critics reacted by trying to “demoralize” the debate, so to speak. But moralism of this sort ought not be confused with moral reasoning of the classic Catholic tradition.

In Catholic tradition (and in other natural law traditions), there is only one human universe for reflection and action: a universe that is at once moral and political. Which means, as the philosopher Charles Frankel used to insist, that Realpolitik (especially in its Bismarckian form) is not an escape from morality; rather, it is a deficient and debased form of morality. The real choice, then, is not between moralism and amorality, but between wiser and dumber forms of moral reasoning.

The classic Catholic insistence that moral decisions are inextricably involved in political choices means, inter alia, that the very definition of the “national interest” is itself an exercise in moral reasoning. Frankel expressed the situation in terms that Murray would have applauded:

The heart of the decision-making process… is not finding the best means to serve a national interest already perfectly known and understood. It is the determining of that interest itself: the reassessment of the nation’s resources, needs, commitments, traditions, and political and cultural horizons—in short, its calendar of values.

In the Catholic tradition, “interest” (like “power”) is not a four-letter word. Moreover, democratic political leaders have a fiduciary moral responsibility to defend the interests of those whom they represent. That responsibility is best exercised when the notion of “national interest” in married to a concept of American purpose. Father Murray put it like this, speaking out of the natural law tradition which he believed was crucially formative of the political tradition of the West:

The tradition of reason requires, with particular stringency today, that national interest, remaining always valid and omnipresent as a motive, be given only a relative and proximate status as an end of national action…. The national interest, rightly understood, is successfully achieved only at the interior, as it were, of the growing international order to which the pursuit of the national interest can and must contribute.

For a concrete and successful exemplification of this Catholic claim, we need look no farther than President Reagan’s epochal 1982 address to the British Parliament in Westminster Hall which led to the creation of the National Endowment for Democracy—which, in its turn, helped support and sustain the forces which eventually led the nonviolent Revolution of 1989.

What “Peace”?

The third foundational building block that the NCCB could help cement into our post-Cold War thinking about foreign policy is the aforementioned concept of “peace” as rightly-ordered and dynamic political community. As a brief glance through American Catholic newspapers and magazines will readily attest, there remain deep confusions in the Church over the meaning of the “peace” that is to be sought in the politics of nations. But in addition to the confusions (generally found a gauche) about peace as the Shalom kingdom, to be built by human hands, other confusions have recently been added off the starboard beam. These new confusions portray “peace” as the absence of American participation in violent conflict. Finally, there are the various New Age (and essentially gnostic) understandings of “peace” as a matter of psychological healing.

Yet the drama of the Revolution of 1989 and the New Russian Revolution of 1991 should have taught us that “peace” between and within nations is, at bottom, a matter of just legal and political orders, capable of mediating the enduring argument over “Who rules?” These structures permit the exercise of human freedom, including the fundamental right of religious freedom, and create the circumstances in which the kind of “free economy” endorsed by John Paul II can develop. Further, these structures permit conflicts over justice to be resolved without the threat or use of mass violence.

The bishops were frequently accused, in 1983, of “politicizing” their witness. This charge was true only in the narrow sense that many Catholic political activists seized TCOP as a weapon in their bellum contra Reagan. But the real problem was that TCOP depoliticized the Catholic debate over the pursuit of peace because it failed to make clear that, in the Catholic understanding of these things, international “peace” is a matter of structures, politics, and law. If that lacuna were repaired in a new document, both the Catholic debate and the wider national debate would be set on a morally sturdy footing.

There are at least five other issues the bishops should explore: first, the structure of the international order. Catholic social teaching, as embodied in the allocutions of Pius XI, in John XXIII’s Pacem in Terris, and in the Second Vatican Council’s Gaudium et Spes, has been traditionally favorable to the notion of an international public authority. John Courtney Murray once described such an authority as a matter of building “juridical institutions in the international field that [would] control, not destroy, national sovereignties.” Such “juridical institutions” would be able to deploy “coercive power adequate to protect the [international] juridical order and to vindicate it… in the interests of the [international] common good.” If that sounds something like what is going on in Somalia, but isn’t occurring in Bosnia, the harmony is not merely accidental.

The relative success of the United Nations in meeting the threat of Saddam Hussein and in brokering several other settlements in recent years has elicited euphoria among some regarding the possibilities of collective security. But collective security is not a matter of political parthenogenesis; it does not give birth to itself. Rather, collective security works when there is leadership forcing it to work. In large measure, the U.N. system remains today what it has been since 1945: a stage on which a script written elsewhere is played out. At present, American leadership is the sine qua non for the effective use of collective security measures against violators of international law or (as President Clinton has put it) against those who trample on the “conscience of the international community.” Over time, the experience of making collective security work through the U.N. system may permit the United Nations to acquire a degree of its own integrity and authority. For the moment, however, the traditional Catholic concern for effective international legal and political institutions cannot be disentangled from the foundational question of responsible American internationalism.

“Collective security,” the Somali disaster, and the unfolding tragedy of the Balkans also remind us of two related issues laden with moral content: the question of the boundaries of sovereignty, and the question of the “right of self-determination.”

The Problem of Sovereignty

Classic Catholic theory always has considered sovereignty a relative value—not an absolute one. In this sense, Catholic social ethics has been out-of-step with the post-Westphalian evolution of international law, in which the inviolability of sovereignty is the overriding norm. Catholic theorists have, therefore, been less reluctant than some others to admit a range of exceptions to the claims of sovereignty, particularly in terms of human rights violations within sovereign states.

The fact is that, for complex historic, political, and/or economic reasons, some nations cannot be states. And some nations formerly denied an independent state can legitimately claim the status. Few would argue such claims by Lithuania or Ukraine. The difficulty (and the violence) often comes in the “middle cases”—for example, the Kurds. Developing a moral/political calculus by which claims to “self-determination” can be weighed, and thinking through the intermediate arrangements (forms of sub-nationality and federalism, for example) that could provide cultural security to nations which cannot become full-fledged states, is essential. The growth of a measure of “order” in international public life may well require the revival of some form of the trusteeship system first developed by the League of Nations.

Somalia, Bosnia, and Haiti also raise the question of “humanitarian intervention” now being pressed urgently by the Holy See in international fora. The moral and legal rules capable of guiding such actions require considerable clarification. The present “rule,” such as it is, seems to be the “CNN Rule”: when the pictures on television become awful, the time to intervene has come. This is clearly unacceptable, on moral and political grounds.

When terrible crimes don’t get regularly televised (e.g., the genocide of the Christian tribes of the southern Sudan), they don’t get attention. Moreover, the “CNN Rule” precludes pre-emptive intervention to prevent the kind of starvation that took place in Somalia.

One difficulty in establishing a responsible pattern of “humanitarian intervention” is that the burden of intervention falls primarily on the United States. This fact not only creates political difficulties abroad, it feeds isolationist sentiment at home. Though it is true that, absent U.S. leadership, difficult situations are going to be left unattended, it also is true that “burden-sharing” is essential to the evolution of genuine collective security.

The fecklessness of Western European states in the face of the outrages being committed in ex-Yugoslavia is an obvious illustration of the problem which has persisted despite the pleas of the Holy Father. Thus the NCCB, in the context of a call for responsible internationalism by the United States, might well consider challenging fraternal national conferences of bishops in Europe to a parallel address to their governments.

Economic Development

Following the lead of Pope John Paul II in Sollicitudo Rei Socialis and Centesimus Annus, the NCCB might well raise some useful questions to the U.N. and to the U.S. government about models of economic development and developmental assistance in the Third World. As the Holy Father taught in Sollicitudo, and as the weight of empirical evidence suggests, the key to successful “takeoff” is a situation in which the individual’s “right of economic initiative” is respected, and its exercise fostered, by government. Morally, the “right of economic initiative” is one dimension of the “truth about man” which is the foundation of the Church’s social teaching; empirically, the evidence is overwhelming that capitalistic development works economically (and, ultimately, in terms of democratization) and that socialistic development does not. The refusal of certain national and international ecumenical and denominational agencies to accept this empirical evidence is a moral scandal. The NCCB could help put a firm period on the end of a long process of ecumenical and denominational irresponsibility by reminding Americans of the teaching of Sollicitudo and Centesimus Annus, and by suggesting appropriate applications to the work of U.N. development agencies, international lending institutions, and the U.S. Agency for International Development.

Religious Freedom and Other Human Rights

Pope John Paul II’s insistence on the direct relationship between the defense of religious freedom and the pursuit of peace in the world ought to loom large in any American Catholic analysis of peacemaking after the Cold War. Our own national experience bears witness to the truth of the Holy Father’s insight, as does the experience of the “resistance Church” in Central and Eastern Europe in preparing the moral and political groundwork for the nonviolent Revolution of 1989 and the New Russian Revolution of 1991. As there can be no love without justice, there can be no peace without religious freedom.

Probing for religious tolerance within “Islamic societies” and in Latin America and Eastern Europe (where, to use shorthand, the Pentecostal Revolution has created grave ecumenical complications) must be encouraged and engaged in even as the NCCB, like other national conferences of bishops, continues to support the Holy Father’s insistence that religious freedom is the first of human rights.

A Community of Prayer

With the end of the Cold War, humankind seemed poised to take what Pope John Paul II proposed in 1981: “a major step forward in civilization and wisdom.” The moral realism of the Catholic tradition, rooted in the Church’s incarnational humanism, is a powerful instrument for discerning the “oughts” that are deeply embedded in the political decisions that either drive us along the path toward “civilization and wisdom”—or push us back toward the barbarism of a Hobbesian world in which all are at war with all.

But the Church would be remiss in her public duties if she is not—first and foremost—a community of prayer for peace. The extraordinary witness of the resistance Church in Central and Eastern Europe has been a powerful reminder of the potency of prayer both within the Church and on the world of affairs. Indeed, in the underground prayer of the resistance Church during the long, dark night of communist persecution, we can see a contemporary illustration of the truth first enunciated about prayer in the medieval mystical text, The Cloud of Unknowing: “The whole of mankind is wonderfully helped by what you are doing, in ways you do not understand.”


  • George Weigel

    George Weigel is a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., and the author, most recently, of The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform (Basic Books, 2019).

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