Exchange — The Novak Letter

Dear Ralph:

I’ve just finished reading the Novak encyclical on Moral Clarity. I hope you won’t think me churlish or besotted with liberal error if I say that I don’t think it will do, and that in particular I can’t see how anyone could subscribe to paragraphs 54-61. Quite candidly, I think all this stuff about intention is just nonsense. How can one have an intention “never to have to use deterrent force” (para. 59)? Negative intentions are a difficulty anyway, but one could understand having an intention never to do X. But to intend never to have to do X? One might hope or wish that this should be the case, and one might intend to do things that might make it less likely one would ever have to do X. But to intend never to have to do something belongs to the dialogue between the Red Queen and Alice. If to do this we add the alarming thought that we can have this kind of intention but co-existing with it a secondary intention to do X, for if we don’t have this intention the enemy will (quite rightly) suspect we are bluffing, I really don’t know what is being put before us for approval.

Other Points

“. . . to assure that these weapons shall never be unjustly used.” This begs many questions. If one concedes that in the abstract one could conceive of uses of nuclear weapons against nuclear weapons, and that this would be just, and further that one could make a prudent judgment that this wouldn’t provoke other and unjust uses (a large assumption indeed), then a sense is given to the notion of a just use. But since they have been used only once, why not face the uses against Hiroshima and Nagasaki and make a judgment? But this is evaded (para. 58). I can’t think what is to be gained even in the most worldly sense of “gain” in 1983 by being mealy-mouthed about such crimes as these, with the area bombing of Germany, culminating in the destruction of Dresden, as well.

I don’t think the quite simple moral question about certain things being wicked in themselves, quite apart from anticipated consequences, good or bad, is ever discussed. It is taken for granted in the discussion of abortion. One could make out for the justification of abortion in hard cases exactly the same justification as Novak makes out for the possibility of the just use of nuclear weapons. The same would hold for kinds of sexual behavior the Church tells us are bad in themselves. I should have thought that on these two questions intention, and the existence of a class of actions bad in themselves, Anscombe’s arguments (6, 7, 8, in Collected Philosophical Papers, University of Minnesota Press, 1981) ought at least to have been considered. This is why the Council condemned the direct destruction of cities — it fell under the unconditional prohibition of the killing of the innocent.

The failure to cite respectable Catholic writers whose conclusions go against the case Novak wants to put represents a general weakness in the document. Quantitative estimates of the present balance in weapons between the US and the USSR, and all such military information, these are notoriously controversial matters. Again, the judgments of the Federal Government and of serving officers have to be looked at critically — history makes this plain (remember JFK’s “missile gap”). I think the document would have been much stronger if there had been less reliance — or less uncritical reliance — on the Administration, and on conservative think-tanks, as sources of information and judgment. There are quite a number of former officers, and former holders of posts in the Government, who hold different views from those of Novak, and I think that on such issues their existence ought to have been noted and their arguments assessed. I do see, and I am glad about it, that there is a general acknowledgement that Christians do differ over these matters.

“. . . the traditional just war teaching has stood the test of time” (par. 28). One has to reflect about this. That it is intellectually the best doctrine to be had — yes, I think that’s so. But “the test of time” suggests that it has demonstrated its usefulness and its ability to shape policy. This seems to me not true, and plainly not true. Commonly in war situations the Catholic masses are quite unconscious — so steeped are they in the view that in general it is virtuous to obey lawful authority — that they have an alternative to obedience to the State. To take a text-book case of an aggressive and unjust war: the German attack on Poland in 1939. What episocopal voice was raised to summon Catholics to do their duty as Catholics? Here is a plainly criminal pagan state wantonly attacking a Catholic country and doing so in alliance with the USSR . . . But how many German Catholics, then, or as the war continued, saw it as a duty to disobey their Government? A handful of saints and martyrs such as Franz Jagerstatter„ who went against the advice of his parish priest and his bishop and ended done to death in a cellar in Berlin. To take a more recent example, as you probably know, the Hungarian bishops are very anxious about basic Christian groups that are beginning to spring up among Catholics there, and the Hungarian Communists are equally exercised; and one of the things the bishops most object to is that these groups are advocating the duty of conscientious objection to serving in the army of the Hungarian State. Thus we advance towards the, alas, familiar situation in which good Hungarian Catholics will be serving in the Warsaw Pact forces in a conventional war against the good Catholic soldiers of the NATO forces. Both will have the approval of their respective ecclesiastical superiors. I think the Americans are very fortunate in having bishops who are anxiously considering, in advance of the coming of war, what the duties of Catholics may be in the present situation, one that has no perfect parallel in the past. That many Catholics are bewildered by this, where they wouldn’t have been in the least bewildered by a general endorsement of the Administration’s position in foreign policy, is to be expected. It is a kind of open reflection on fundamental moral issues that isn’t, unfortunately, often conducted in public.

A last point. I think — I may be wrong — that much of what Novak relies on in his argument is the kind of Manichaean view of the political world put with appalling naivety by President Reagan the other day in a speech to a gathering of approving evangelical Christians: that we are faced with a choice between Right and Wrong, Good and Evil. This fuels the spirit of the Crusade. If to this we add the notion that the Soviet Government has serious plans to attack NATO, I think Western thinkers are deceiving themselves in a very dangerous way. It seems to me a simple fact about the Soviet Union that it is quite incapable of fighting a war against a sophisticated enemy. Its industrial and social infrastructure just isn’t up to it. Outside the purely military sector it is still in the nineteenth century. Again, its hold on the satellites is frail and with the coming of war would be in real peril. The notion that somehow the Soviet Union could conquer and hold, say, West Germany and France, seems to me moonshine. The curious thing about Communism throughout the world today is that no one really believes in it any more except for a few in the non- socialist countries. It survives as magical, ritual speech (like Old Slavonic!) but isn’t taken seriously. I don’t believe that Andropov and his colleagues are really anticipating the world revolution, except in the way; perhaps, Christians may expect the Last Day. I think, therefore, the notion that seems to be held by many people in the Administration, that we are faced with a swelling Messianic movement imbued with the quality of faith in their programme that the Ayatollah Khomeini has in his, is just a mistake. The Soviet Union is a cunning, but stumbling, inefficient, often frightened, insecure power that spends a lot of its breath whistling to keep its courage up.

Para. 57: I too cherish liberal societies; but I don’t see how a Catholic can give them this value. Not too long ago it would have constituted the heresy of Americanism! In any case, it seems wrong to tie “free societies” and “free moral life” together in just this way. For one thing, it seems a bit rough on all the great figures of the Catholic past, almost all of whom lived under regimes that were not at all liberal. I don’t even believe that in all respects life as it is actually lived in the US and Western Europe is necessarily as conducive to Catholic thought and life as life in some of the Socialist countries. On this see Dale Vree’s fascinating account of life in East Germany in recent issues of the New Oxford Review.

All good wishes,

J. M. Cameron


  • J. M. Cameron

    In 1983, J. M. Cameron was professor emeritus at St. Michael's College in the University of Toronto.

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