What’s REALLY Wrong with the Draft Pastoral Letter on War and Peace

Reversing itself on past procedures, the United States Catholic conference has ruled out a broad consultation with its own church members and has chosen rather to campaign in the media for the passage of the draft document on war and peace which it recently set before the American Catholic bishops. Making the entire document available to the public even before the bishops were able to discuss it — and thereby confirming the National Catholic Reporter as its publisher of record —has cast an unseemly light over the entire effort.

Unseemly or not, the consensus is that these lobbying efforts will be successful. American Catholics will probably get something very much like the present document come the spring meeting of the bishops.

The Rev. J. Bryan Hehir, a prime drafter of the document, has said that the issue addressed here is the most complex moral issue ever to face humanity. If it is so complex and so important it deserves sustained moral argumentation from premises to conclusions. There is precious little.

There is, to be sure, a vague and imprecise “theology of peace” wherein “peace” goes undefined and Jesus is presented as nonviolent and gentle. (One wonders how the money changers and Pharisees would respond to such an assessment.) There is a Schellian rehearsal of the apocalyptic consequences of any use of any nuclear weapon. (Don’t they know that most of Schell’s early supporters have jumped ship?) There is more anxiety and fear. There is even a fairly good presentation of the just-war tradition in the Catholic Church. However, there is no sustained argument which concludes to the morality or immorality of nuclear war or weapons.

Their presentation of the key proposition of the entire piece is illustrative. “There is one moral imperative we should declare: a rejection of nuclear war,” they write. This is how they support that moral imperative: “Today the possibilities for placing political and moral limits on nuclear wars are so infinitesimal that the moral task, like the medical, is prevention: as a people we must refuse to legitimate the idea of nuclear war.” Now, this is a nice rhetorical flourish but, of course, we all know that disease is an unmitigated evil. We do not know, and in fact we were hoping that this document might enlighten us about the moral evil, if there be any, in nuclear war. The text simply begs the question.

This is surely an inadequate approach to the most complex moral problem ever faced by anyone. Surely it is a loss of intellectual nerve to say that we refuse to discuss the possible moral uses of these weapons because we are not sure that anyone can ensure their moral use. Over the ages the church has not shrunk from the task of discussing the moral uses of sex and money, neither of which has proven very tractable to Christian principles. The reader looking to this document for guidance in terms of moral principles and evidence will rightly feel defrauded.

The bishops, should they endorse this document, will also make themselves vulnerable in their position as teachers of authentic Catholicism. Whenever it gets the opportunity, the text presses relentlessly on past established Catholic positions. It claims, for example, that Vatican II supports the proposition that “military force is incompatible with the Christian vocation.” It does not.

Another example of moving beyond Catholic teaching occurs in the treatment of civilian casualties in nuclear war. Catholic teaching has maintained that it is immoral to target civilian population centers as such or to intend in targeting to kill innocent people. This is clear teaching and it follows that a deterrent strategy based on the indiscriminate destruction of cities and civilian members of the population is not allowed. But what about legitimate military targets within populated areas? Can they be struck even though civilians are not targeted, nor is their death intended? No, replies the drafting committee. The death of these civilians would be “disproportionate” to the good achieved. The statement, as found in the document is absolute: it is always and everywhere disproportionate.

But clearly this is wrong, or to put it another way, under what conditions would civilian loss of life become proportionate to the good to be achieved? If it is never to be allowed, then the document will of necessity have to outlaw all modern war, both nuclear and conventional. If it is sometimes allowed to have civilian deaths as a collateral effect of a military action, then it is the responsibility of a document which claims to be able to give us moral guidance in these matters to spell out what those conditions might be. Catholic moral teaching has, in the past, not ruled out civilian deaths as byproducts of legitimate military action. These deaths cannot be intended and they cannot be disproportionate to the good to be achieved. It has never been taught, however, that all civilian deaths are ipso facto disproportionate.

The howler of the entire piece is, of course, its treatment of deterrence. In the first draft the committee allowed as how nuclear deterrence was evil, but could be tolerated by Catholics since removing it would indeed cause a very great evil. This led to an immediate reaction from stunned ethicists. When, they asked, has Catholicism ever taught that the morality of an action could be determined by its consequences? If this were the right way to proceed in matters ethical, Catholics would also have to say that abortion too was tolerable. After all, people get abortions in order to achieve some good, or to avoid some evil … my parents won’t know that I was pregnant, my other children will not have to suffer economic want because of another child, etc.

But the drafting committee was to suffer an even more acute embarrassment: on the very day on which the first draft was released to the bishops, Cardinal Casaroli told the UN, on behalf of Pope John Paul II, that under certain conditions deterrence could be “morally acceptable.” Back to the drawing boards.

The drafting committee has dutifully changed its mind about the evil of deterrence. It is no longer evil but “tolerable.” It is “morally acceptable.” But even that won’t wash.

The draft attempts to soften the pope’s words, but remains stranded in the middle of an obvious logical absurdity: it is immoral to use nuclear weapons, but it is morally acceptable to threaten and to will to use them. Both cannot be right. Either the pope will have to change his mind, or the drafters will have to relax their absolute denunciation of nuclear weaponry and war. Such a move of course, would take them back to face the question which they tried to avoid: how to legitimate any nuclear military action when it is so difficult to believe that anyone will use it in a legitimate manner.

Whether this is the most difficult moral problem around is debatable — but it is surely among the most difficult. This document however, does not go very far in clarifying it and making it more manageable. Indeed, its very ineptitude will, I fear, rebound upon the bishops, making them simply incredible to many of their people.

The document promised an articulation of the moral principles and arguments leading to moral judgments about nuclear war and weapons. What the reader gets is a kind of rhetorical fog in which pronouncements, unargued and undefended, pop up here and there. Such a situation will not lend credibility to the bishops nor to the moral intelligence of the Catholic church.

The situation worsens when it attempts to pronounce on particular matters of US policy. This is an area surely beyond the competence of the drafting committee. What, one wonders, do bishops have to tell us about the MX and its place in our deterrent forces? Do the assembled Catholic bishops qua bishops, really know anything about whether a nuclear freeze or continued INF and START negotiations will bring us closer to meaningful arms reductions? Their teaching here is unconvincing and unnecessary. If they are not expert enough to discuss these things in expert fashion then they should desist. They will only look foolish.

These are all very real and substantial difficulties, but what is really wrong with the document lies on an entirely different, and much deeper, level. Simply put, it is this: the total lack of discussion of these issues within the context of the Catholic tradition of political thought.

The Catholic tradition was born of the labors of countless thinkers throughout two millennia of human history. It is one of the pillars of the Western democratic tradition. It is the framework of all recent social papal and conciliar decrees.

It is entirely absent here.

By ignoring this tradition the committee is forced to frame the discussion in terms of war and peace. This is precisely why the result of their work is so unrealistic and intellectually sickly. Sickly, because the war-peace dialectic is not rich enough to provide philosophical theories of sufficient depth to treat matters of this complexity and gravity. Unrealistic because the choice is not between war and peace. It is not, after all, because we want war that we have built such a powerful and effective military. No one chooses war over peace. Not even the Soviets want nuclear war — they don’t want a radiated Kansas and Nebraska from which to harvest their wheat.

War or peace is not the choice which lies before America. What lies before us is the moral imperative to defend the dignity and rights of citizens against tyranny and unjust aggression. It is because this issue is so serious and of such moral gravity that the nuclear question becomes grave and complex. It is overly simple to see things in terms of war or peace, as if those choices were fundamental rather than derivative.

If the committee had framed the issues in terms of the meaning of social life and the imperatives of justice it is possible that they would have ended up with nearly the same conclusions about the moral use of nuclear weapons. If such had been the case then we would possess conclusions reached through argumentation drawn from the tradition and not from a shallow theology of peace.

Catholic teaching has it that the fundamental reality in the world is the human person and that this person has dignity and certain inviolable rights. These rights include, Vatican II says, “the right to education, to employment, to a good reputation, to respect, to appropriate information, to activity in accord with the upright norms of one’s own conscience, to protection of privacy and to rightful freedom in matters religious.”

In order to fulfill themselves as persons and in order to seek protection of these rights humans form communities and societies. The fundamental role of the state, as the institutionalized form of human society, is to promote the common welfare of human society. This welfare, Vatican II continues, “consists chiefly in the protection of the rights and in the performance of these duties, of the human person.” Among the “essential duties of government,” it asserts, is the “protection and promotion of the inviolable rights of man.”

This is all missing from the draft pastoral letter. As a result there are no reasonable terms with which to discuss the issues of war and peace and the morality of nuclear weapons. If this had not been missing then we could have focused precisely on the issue at hand, namely, how to balance two moral imperatives: the imperative to protect human rights against those who threaten to make slaves out of citizens and the moral imperative to defend oneself in a moral manner. This is an issue worthy of full and deep discussion … a far cry from the fear of death from a nuclear explosion.

The damage done in this shift from the Catholic tradition, which has been a basis for many of the most magnificent accomplishments of Western civilization, could be immense. The ignorance of this tradition is just one more way of forgetting the dignity of the human person and his rights. It is one more way of forgetting the tireless and courageous efforts which are needed in order to secure and protect those rights. It is another way of forgetting the fact that the well-being of others has a claim on one’s life.

Ignoring the tradition which has been the rationale and inspiration for so much of what has been accomplished is, I think, the most damaging feature of the bishop’s draft document. If the bishops endorse it they will be doing great harm not simply to the Catholic Church but also to the nation, for Catholics will increasingly be numbered among those who have forgotten this vision of the social life of man and, having forgotten it, will be responsible at least in part for its demise.


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