The Bishops’ Role


November 1, 1982

The debate around the Catholic Bishops’ forthcoming pastoral letter on war and peace has tended to focus either on questions of normative moral theology (e.g. if the bishops reject deterrence in the absolute but “tolerate” it in the present, is the door open to similar “toleration” of, say, abortion?), or on political judgments about particular strategic military options. The more fundamental ecclesiological question may have received short shrift, namely, what is the bishops’ proper role in addressing the morality of America’s peace-and security strategy?

Actually, the question has to do with roles rather than a single role, for the bishops, like the Church as a whole, enter and shape the war/peace discussion at several levels. But there are many opinions on what the bishops’ primary role should be. Three of them seem basically unsatisfactory to me: the first because it minimizes the bishops’ legitimate role in the public policy arena; the second because it would make Catholicism into a sect rather than a Church; and the third because it takes the bishops out of their particular sphere of competence.

The first view has it that the bishops should simply steer clear of the whole war/peace debate, for entering it is “mixing politics and religion.” This view is mistaken theologically and historically. Theologically, it is a denial of the essentially incarnational vision of Catholic Christianity as expressed by Vatican II’s Gaudium et Spes  when it wrote that “Nothing that is genuinely human fails to find an echo” in the hearts of the followers ot Christ. That receptivity surely includes politics, and even national security policy. Historically, this overly-minimalist view simply ignores the lived experience of Catholicism since the Edict of Constantine.

As religious leaders and as citizens, the bishops have not only the right but the obligation to speak forthrightly on matters of public policy. Those who want the bishops to push for tuition tax credits, support on an anti-abortion amendment to the Constitution, and outlaw pornography are on shaky ground when they try to tell their religious leaders to stay out of the national security debate.

The second, or sectarian, view claims that the bishops should simply declare the Church to be radically pacifist, and forbid Catholics to participate in the defense of their country, or at the very least in the chain of command, civilian and military, in the armed forces. Paradoxically, this position resurrects the claims of those hoary anti- Catholic nativists who used to argue that no Catholic could be the President of the United States because he “owed allegiance to a foreign potentate.” From Paul Blanshard to Bishop Matthiesen in a single generation may be almost too much to comprehend, but there it is. This prescription would abandon Catholicism’s classic self-concept as a leaven within the civic community, for the sake of a sectarian purity on the margins of the public discourse. The Mennonite current in Christian social ethics is an honorable one; it reminds those who choose to deal with the politics of this world that there is a politics of eternity under whose judgment they stand. But such an ecclesiology, admirable as it may be in itself, hardly coheres with anything recognizably traditional in Catholicism. Catholics need to be challenged by Mennonites, yes; Catholics need to become Mennonites, no.

The third view in the current debate is a maximalist view, which would have the bishops design the strategic military force structure of the United States as their primary contribution to the peace-and-security debate in America today. This seems questionable on several grounds. First, it is at least arguable whether the bishops, as a group, have the technical competence to make the judgment that this or that configuration of U.S. forces is adequate to the demands of deterrence, or likely to lead to serious arms reduction. Secondly, and more importantly, for the bishops to direct their primary attention to the arcana of strategic force design and military procurement is to abrogate, or at least radically minimize, the bishops’ most vital role: as religious teachers who should set the normative moral framework in which decision-makers and citizens ought to make their judgment.

I have been told, on many occasions, that this framework-setting role is not that important; that it “takes the bishops out ot the action;” that it reduces the bishops’ contribution to one of merely affirming general moral principles. None of these charges holds up under close examination. In the first place, nothing is more important now than a moral framework for America’s peace-and-security strategy that recognizes both the requirements of peace and the threat to peace posed by armed totalitarian power. Catholicism’s long history ot reflection on the moral dilemmas of peace and power (a history virtually unmentioned by many of today’s activist bishops, who talk as it the Church discovered the problem of war six months ago) makes it perhaps uniquely equipped to set standards for the war/peace debate that are both idealistic in their affirmation of the human capacity to create effective alternatives to war (like democracy), and realistic in their recognition of the obstacles that now block out way to that goal.

Nor would such tramework-setting “take the bishops out of the action.” Anyone who has followed the heated debate on war/peace issues knows that the heart of the action is precisely this question of appropriate moral standards for determining U. S. peace-and-security policy. For those interested in power — defined as the capacity to shape the contours of the public discourse in ways that determine the course of public policy — there is no power greater than the power to set the standards for determining what is right and what is wrong about various approaches to solving the problem of war.

Finally, it is difficult to understand what some activists and ecclesiastical bureaucrats find so loathsome about affirming general, normative moral principles while indicating the various means tot applying them to complex human situations. This is what Catholic moral theology, in the tradition of “casuistry,” has always been.

If the bishops wish to address the fine points of nuclear force structure or military procurement, they have an instrument to do so within the United States Catholic Conference. But speaking as the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, it seems to me that their primary role and central responsibility is to speak precisely as religious teachers giving general moral guidance to those lay specialists whose primary responsibility is the shaping of U. S. foreign and military policy. Such an approach is not only ecclesiologically more sound than the minimalist, sectarian, or maximalist options; it would also fill the most pressing need in the civic debate today, which is for a set of moral standards that lead us to peacemaking without becoming either victims or executioners (in Camus’s trenchant phrase for our contemporary dilemma).

Strategists are a dime a dozen; sectarians will always be with us. What is so sorely lacking now, in the church and in the country, is agreement on the moral principles that should guide our national policy in this most dangerous arena of national security and peace. The bishops could help create that agreement in their pastoral letter. They will lose the opportunity if they forget that the Catholic social-ethical paradigm is Thomas Aquinas, not Menno Simons, or if they succumb to the temptation to make the N.C.C.B. into a kind of Rand corporation in miters.

From Vol. 1, No. 1 of the original “Catholicism in Crisis”, published November 1982.


  • 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).

Join the Conversation

Comments are a benefit for financial supporters of Crisis. If you are a monthly or annual supporter, please login to comment. A Crisis account has been created for you using the email address you used to donate.

Item added to cart.
0 items - $0.00

Orthodox. Faithful. Free.

Signup to receive new Crisis articles daily

Email subscribe stack
Share to...