Exchange — The Bishops’ Pastoral: Beginning, Not End

American Catholicism has been convulsed by the national Conference of Catholic Bishops’ pastoral letter on war and peace in a way not seen since the proclamation of the birth control encyclical Humanae Vitae in 1968. It is not a mild violation of the Second Commandment, but simply a fact, to assert that God only knows what the long-term results, ecclesiastical and political, of the process leading up to the overwhelming passage of “The Challenge of Peace” will be. The signals at present are mixed, even as there seems to be widespread appreciation for the bishops’ effort to set today’s peace-and-security dilemma in its appropriate moral framework. But even at this early date, much more toward the beginning of the discussion than its end, some preliminary observations may be in order.

The third draft of the pastoral, even as amended during the bishops’ meeting in Chicago in May, is clearly and significantly different than the first two efforts that had come out of the NCCB Ad Hoc Committee on War and Peace, chaired by Cardinal Bernardin. There are important differences in style; but much more significantly, there are important differences in substance. These fall (without undue stretching of the Biblical imagery) into seven categories.

1. The final version of “The Challenge of Peace” makes a sharp and clear distinction between those teachings where the bishops judge that they are on their own appropriate vocational ground, and those teachings in which the bishops offer prudential judgments that must be assessed in light of their consequences in the public policy order, irrespective of their episcopal origins. In other words, the pastoral distinguishes between the bishops’ primary role as those who set the general normative moral framework for society’s debate of war/peace issues, and the bishops’ particular policy judgments about the applications of that framework in the contingent and ambiguous world of political choice and compromise. In making these distinctions (so sorely missed by both the secular press and those forces in the NCCB which saw the pastoral first and foremost as an instrument for advancing their own political agendas), the final draft avoids the problems of a new clericalism that had so bedeviled the first two drafts of the document, which were written at points as if the Second Vatican Council’s teaching on the appropriate role of the laity in the politics of this world simply had not existed.

2. The theology of the third draft — its Biblical theology and its explication of both the just war and pacifist social ethics — is much improved over the first two versions of the pastoral letter. In its final form, the American Catholic bishops enter the contemporary discussion on the appropriate ground: as the bearers of two millennia of reflection on the moral problem of war and peace, not as Johnny-come-lately’s to the survivalist movement. The third draft rejects the kind of sentiments that had so disfigured its predecessors, particularly the queer notion that God’s sovereignty over creation would be threatened by man’s idiocy in blowing up the planet; however indebted they may be to the passions of the present moment, the bishops stake out ground that affirms the transcendent focus of human life, and rejects the neo-pagan theme that nothing is more important than sheer physical survival. As this survivalist current becomes more and more .of a factor in American political culture (with elementary school children being the latest recruits in the political-psychological campaigns of such as Dr. Helen Caldicott and others of the Church of Jonathan Schell), the bishops’ quiet confidence that, come what may, God’s sovereign purpose will be served, should be a crucially important factor in rebuilding the sense of moral purpose that rejects both ends of the “Better Red than dead” proposition. It is better to be neither, and the bishops have sketched out the moral ground on which people of concern for both peace and security, liberty and justice, may stand.

3. The third draft accepts pacifism as an honorable and morally-defensible personal option, while rejecting it as an appropriate policy for a nation-state. Both parts of the proposition are welcome. The bishops recognize that a critical and discerning personal pacifism can function as a needed witness to eternal values that stand in judgment on the politics of this world. The bishops also recognize that such an ethics of “absolute ends” (in Weber’s term) is not only inappropriate for a government that holds responsibility for many lives other than those of policy-makers, but can be positively dangerous in a world where our moral values are not universally shared. The bishops welcome the pacifists’ identification of the problem of war as the central issue on the human agenda, while challenging pacifists to address the terribly pressing this-worldly dilemmas of public policy in a world where not everyone is a pacifist, or is likely to become one. In so doing, the bishops (as a corporate body) challenge those voices in the Church who would jump directly from personal pacifist commitments to public policy prescriptions (e.g. unilateral disarmament) on the grounds that “God will provide.” The bishops take seriously the command of Genesis that we be the stewards of creation, finding appropriate moral and political solutions to our present dangers without running toward a millenarian quick- fix.

4. Operating according to the first principle of the classical “just war” theory, the pastoral in its third draft paints a much more accurate picture of the chief threat to the peace today, the armed totalitarian power of the Soviet Union. The just cause of resisting this power is affirmed by the pastoral in a way that was unhappily missing from drafts one and two. The third draft calls on American Catholics to help devise public policies that can meet the challenge of Soviet power and purpose in ways that reduce, rather than heighten, the threat of war; but this call to imaginative and creative prudential judgment is set in a context that refuses to equate the moral worth of democratic and totalitarian societies, or to create mirror-image analyses of the superpowers’ responsibilities for the arms race. In an American religious environment where “a plague on both your houses” is the too-often-encountered moral judgment, the pastoral’s explicit recognition that there are important ethical distinctions between the United States and the Soviet Union is a welcome clarification of the facts of the matter: a clarification that sets the ground for the kind of mature patriotism that can face American responsibilities, and possibilities, without self-flagellation or self-congratulation.

5. “The Challenge of Peace” re-affirms the teaching of Pope John Paul II on deterrence that the deterrence system is morally acceptable because it sets the baseline from which genuine arms reductions can proceed. The bishops acknowledge, quite bluntly, that deterrence is an ambiguous reality, ethically and politically; and the bishops argue that deterrence must be complemented by disarmament in the form of arms reductions, aimed at stabilizing the strategic relationship between the superpowers. So, too, it should be noted, does the recent report of the President’s Commission on Strategic Forces (the Scowcroft Commission). Both the pastoral and the Scowcroft Commission report agree that war itself, not merely nuclear weapons, is the central problem; both agree that the deterrence system is a necessary interim arrangement which ought to create the environment in which meaningful arms reductions can be achieved; both agree that the deterrence system is threatened by present or impending nuclear force modernizations (the Soviet SS-18s and SS-19s now targeted on American retaliatory weapons; the new generation of U.S. weapons now proposed to redress this Soviet advantage); both wish to see a situation in which deterrent stability is re-established by the elimination of first strike-capable system on both sides. Given this remarkable set of agreements, it is a shame that the third draft of the pastoral did not take explicit notice of the new ground broken by the Scowcroft Commission, particularly given the bishops’ stated desire to see new initiatives from the United States. But, explicit or not, the conceptual ground for agreement between the bishops and the new arms control/force modernization theorists has been set.

6. The third draft also recognizes that reductions in nuclear forces, and movement toward a meaningful “no first use” pledge by the United States and NATO, will involve serious adjustments in the conventional balance of forces in Europe and elsewhere, through either conventional force development in the West or successful arms control agreements with the Soviet bloc (or both). In doing so, the bishops tacitly recognize that a “no first, use” pledge without such adjustments can make war more likely, rather than less. Even more importantly, the bishops recognize that there can be no meaningful address to the problem of war that does not deal with the arms race as a whole, nuclear and conventional, rather than nibbling away at one part of it.

7. Finally, the third draft incorporates the positive teachings of Pacem in Terris much more adequately than drafts one and two. There can be no responsible moral address to the problem of war without an answer to the question, how else shall we resolve the perennial conflicts over “Who shall rule?” The bishops reiterate the teaching of John XXIII, and his predecessors in the Catholic social ethical tradition back to the medievals: the alternatives to the use or threatened use of mass violence in the resolution of conflict are law and government. Like John XXIII, the bishops dare to imagine such alternatives at an international level. Like John XXIII, the bishops recognize the incapacity of present international institutions to provide such an alternative (even if one wishes that the bishops would have been as biting in their criticism on this point as they are of certain political-military strategies they deem morally unsound). The bishops do not wish a Pax Sovietica, or any other form of tyrannical world dominance. Nor do they envision the return of a kind of Holy Roman Empire, in which a Christianized world of shared values manages its political business according to those common norms. In fact, though the pastoral does not state it explicitly, what the bishops seem to have in mind is something like our own experience: a plural political community, with institutions of law and governance based on the consent of the governed, in which conflicts over the meaning of justice in any given case can be settled without the parties involved becoming either victims or executioners (to borrow from Camus). The gap between things as they are now, and things as they ought to be according to the Pacem in Terris vision the bishops affirm, is wide indeed; but such visions can act as important horizons for understanding and judgment, even in this contingent and dangerous world. (Nuclear issues aside, the bishops’ affirmation of Pacem in Terris is a tacit endorsement of an approach to the problems of Central America that emphasizes democratization and social reform, while rejecting the spurious moral claims of those who would shoot their way to power: a message that should provide interesting reflection in certain Church social action circles, not least in the United States Catholic Conference).

In short, the final draft of “The Challenge of Peace” is notably sounder than its predecessors, theologically as well as prudentially. If there are residual reasons for concern (and there always are), they have to do with the hermeneutics of the document, and the way in which the entire process leading up to the final vote was excessively politicized.

There seems little doubt now, after reading the texts of the Chicago debates and listening to various participants in them in the national media, that there is an important fault line in the bishops’ conference between those bishops who would opt for a sectarian ecclesiology (the Church set radically over against the principalities and powers of this world) and those who would opt for a more Petrine vision of the Church at work in the world (a vision that would affirm moral casuistry as an ethical art, rather than seeing it as an unworthy compromise of “Gospel values”). This is an ancient tension in the Church; as John Meier and Raymond Brown demonstrate in their splendid new study Antioch and Rome: New Testament Cradles of Catholic Christianity, the debate between the sectarians and the ecclesiastics goes straight back to the fifth decade A.D. In an important historical sense, the bishops have entered an ecclesiological debate whose roots run to the Council of Jerusalem; there are circumcizers in the Church today, as there were circumcizers then. What “The Challenge of Peace” does — even if those left-leaning sectarians who voted for it, against their stated judgment that it “did not go far enough,” don’t realize it — is affirm the self-understanding of American Catholicism as a church rather than a sect. We can honor, and be grateful for, a sectarian witness that resolutely questions the values of this world against the radical demands of discipleship. But in the honoring, we can also distinguish between such a witness which, if honest, admits its abrogation of responsibility for contingent judgments in the here-and-now, and an ethics of consequences (to return to Weber) which judges public policy prescriptions in the war/peace field, not on the personal moral intentions of their authors, but on their outcomes tomorrow morning. The bishops, indeed the entire Church, need to pay much more explicit attention to this church/sect distinction as the debate over the interpretation of “The Challenge of Peace” unfolds.

The unfolding of that debate will have much to do with Cardinal Bernardin’s stated intention that American Catholicism become a “peace church.” The phrase can, of course, cover a multitude of sins and virtues. If certain elements in the NCCB understand a “peace church” to mean the Alan Cranston Campaign at Mass, then they stand in need of fraternal correction: just as much as those who would understand a “peace church” to mean the Ronald Reagan Campaign at Mass. At the moment, the former temptation seems to be by far the stronger; but in any case, the social ethical patrimony of Catholicism in America should not be mortgaged to any narrow set of prudential prescriptions for the resolution of our peace-and-security dilemma. The reduction of the richness of our tradition is what is most disturbing about the almost-comical debate on the first day of the Chicago meeting between the “halters” and the “curbers.” After two years, three drafts, hundreds of thousands of dollars, and hours and column-inches of argument, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops found itself challenged by its Vice-Chairman to make this change of noun because “its content and symbolism sets the tone for the rest of the pastoral letter.” Bishop Malone may have been told this by those of his congregants who were fervent supporters of an immediate nuclear freeze-in-place, but outside of a political wonderland, the difference seems small indeed: unless one is desperate to engage the public authority of the bishops in support of a partisan political cause that seemed, at the time, in some jeopardy in the House of Representatives (and which pales into insignificance before the recommendations of the Scowcroft Commission).

Catholicism has been a “peace church” for many hundreds of years, in the most important sense: it has understood the instrumental character of war in a world of conflict, and it has sketched a horizon of alternatives by which conflict may be resolved without the use or threat of mass violence. Being a “peace church” does not mean being a Church set against any possible military program of the United States; still less does it mean being a Church committed to the moral de-legitimization of the West. A “peace church” would combine a resolute moral realism about the way things are with an equally resolute conviction about the ways things ought to be. As the debate the bishops seek unfolds in American Catholicism, the task of those who would choose a church rather than a sect will be to hold these two resolutions together at the same time.

That is the task that the bishops have set before us, for “The Challenge of Peace” is the beginning, and by no means the end, of the needed conversation.


  • 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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