Whenever I hear a Catholic bishop confidently condemn war against Iraq — Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony is one of the latest church officials to say “war is not the solution” — I think of Archbishop Philip Hannan. A retired archbishop of New Orleans and World War II paratrooper chaplain, Hannan said of his fellow bishops’ war views: “They don’t know what the hell they’re talking about.”
The bishops are not experts on defense policy. They are not even experts on Catholic teaching, as the widespread heresy in their clerical ranks illustrates.
Nor do they appear paragons of prudence. When they are questioning George Bush’s prudence, it is reasonable to ask: What about theirs? Are they experts on prudently assessing evil and removing it? The abuse scandals in the Catholic Church suggest not. If someone like Cardinal Mahony doesn’t consider a savage dictator an “imminent threat,” that’s predictable: He didn’t consider priest-molesters imminent threats either.
One might think bishops demonstrated to be unreliable at judging threats to their own flocks’ safety would approach the Iraq crisis with more circumspection. Passivity in the face of evil is a stupid policy for churches and nations. And what faith the bishops place in U.N. inspectors! It is reminiscent of the faith they placed in the psychiatrists treating their pedophile priests.
It bears repeating that the bishops’ advice to Ronald Reagan during the Cold War — don’t compete with the Soviets in the arms race — would have lost that struggle for America. The bishops preached peace through passivity then, and they are preaching the same now. They have learned very little from their embarrassing exercises in amateur-hour defense strategy.
Why can’t the bishops restrict themselves to the presentation of Catholic teaching and not squander their teaching authority on personal opinions either for the war or against it? Because then they wouldn’t be “relevant,” they say, never mind that these attempts at “relevance” make them irrelevant when their authority really counts. Moreover, by taking a divisive stance on a prudential matter open to legitimate disagreement amongst Catholics, they are not even serving the cause of peace in their own church.
The irony, of course, is that Catholic officials who usually reject the Pope’s magisterium are now suggesting it extends to a prudential matter that goes beyond it. When the Pope repeats the authoritative teachings of his predecessors, they don’t listen; when he offers an opinion, they are all ears. Now that the Pope is saying something they like, they are even policing dissent against him, implying that disagreement with him about this highly contingent matter is tantamount to denying his legitimate authority. Suddenly papal obedience is a virtue for them. It is too bad that they don’t show such scrupulous obedience when he is teaching on matters of faith and morals.
If the Pope had come out in favor of the war, these same people would have returned to badmouthing him. Their newfound respect for the Pope is as dubious as their understanding of just war teaching. One obvious reason for not trusting their application of the just war teaching to the Iraq crisis is that they don’t agree with it. They are agnostic about the justice of war. Which is why we hear them talking about “developing” the just war teaching. They want to “develop” it into the unjust war teaching.
“Developing” a teaching is a euphemism for distorting a teaching. Any “developed” teaching which contradicts a previous teaching is not a legitimate development in the Catholic tradition.
Yet church officials are trying to smuggle pacifism into the just war teaching. When they speak of war as an intrinsic evil, they are not representing the Catholic tradition. St. Thomas Aquinas explicitly rejected that position. To the question, “Is war a sin?” he answered no. He said that it is not a sin, but an instrument of justice in stopping evil.
Antiwar church officials are making the same incoherent sounds about war that in recent years they have been making about the death penalty: They imply both are intrinsically unjust, but then say vaguely that some “very extreme” circumstances justify them. If something is intrinsically unjust, no circumstance could justify it. So either these church officials don’t understand their own position or they are fudging it so as to avoid the pacifist label which would take them out of the debate and discussion. (Since, after all, if you think war is a per se evil, you don’t need to sift through the facts.)
Future Catholics will look back at this period of pacifist tinkering and agree with Archbishop Hannan — the antiwar bishops didn’t know “what the hell” they were saying.