The response of American Catholic intellectuals to the events of September 11 and their aftermath has been profoundly disappointing to anyone looking for some genuinely Catholic thinking. Most of what’s been written and said by Catholic chatterers on left and right is Catholic in only the most superficial way: just war theory is talked about and magisterial documents appealed to, but only to ornament and defend convictions arrived at on quite other grounds, convictions drearily predictable from their proponents’ location on the American political spectrum.
For the right, the U.S.–led military action in Afghanistan has been not only morally defensible but obviously so, and claims to the contrary exhibit moral idiocy; for the left, it is equally obvious that there is rough moral parity between the U.S. government and al–Qaeda, and that what America has done and is doing in Afghanistan cannot successfully be defended. There are intermediate positions, of course; but what left–Catholics and right–Catholics have mostly exhibited, wherever exactly they are on the political spectrum, is a failure to think first as Catholics by succumbing to the temptation to think first as Americans.
These comments are intended as a corrective, a brief Catholic meditation on September 11 and its consequences. More specifically, they address the following question: Should American Catholics have supported or endorsed the U.S. government’s declared intention to use lethal military force against the government and people of Afghanistan as an element of its response to September 11?
First, there is the question of the burden of proof. Clarity about this is essential, for from it all else flows. And the Catholic tradition is in fact abundantly clear about where the burden of proof lies when the possible use of lethal military force by a nation is concerned. It lies with those who would endorse or advocate it. Catholic citizens of the U.S. must, therefore, assume that a planned use of lethal military force by their country is illegitimate and unjust until this burden has been met. Good, convincing evidence must be brought to rebut this assumption; only then may a Catholic citizen endorse what is planned. The situation is closely analogous to that facing a jury in a U.S. court of law: the working assumption should be that the defendant is innocent, and the prosecution must rebut that assumption if the jury is properly to find the defendant guilty. Similarly, Catholics must begin by assuming that their country is unjustified in planning to use lethal military force, and must then await the meeting of the burden of proof.
Some Catholic commentators have claimed otherwise. George Weigel has been particularly vociferous on the burden–of–proof question. But he and others like him are, on this matter, bewitched by their political convictions into abandoning the grammar of the faith and thereby misrepresenting Catholic teaching to others. Anyone who doubts this should read those sections of the Catechism of the Catholic Church that deal with the Fifth Commandment, and most especially those sections (beginning at §2302) that treat the safeguarding of peace. The Catechism’s analysis makes sense only if the onus probandi lies with those who would argue that a particular decision to use lethal military force is just. They must show that the ius ad bellum criteria are met, and until they do Catholics must rest, happily or otherwise, with the default assumption that the planned use of lethal military force is not just—which means that, in the particular case before us, we American Catholics should not have supported our country’s decision to use lethal military force against the government and people of Afghanistan until the burden of proof had been met.
So now the question is: Has the U.S. met the burden of proof? The answer is no—not before bombing began last October, and not even now that the Taliban have been replaced with a coalition government. Those who think that the burden of proof was met make a simple but damaging error: they are guilty of epistemic immodesty. That is, they think they are in a position to know more than they are in fact in a position to know, and as a result they make decisions that should not be made. The decision in question, recall, is whether to endorse an action that will kill large numbers of human beings, people made in God’s image, people for whom Christ died. No Catholic should endorse such an action lightly or easily. The very thought of doing so should produce horror, a wail of anticipatory lament and repentance, and this means that the burden of proof is heavy. To meet it, much good evidence and argument is needed.
Where is the evidence and argument to come from? How is the heavy burden to be met? Do we American Catholics have sources on which we can rely? We do not. Our principal sources are three: the U.S. government itself, in the person of those appointed to speak for it; the U.S. media; and foreign governments and media. But we have no good reason to think that any of these sources is sufficiently reliable to provide what we need, and we therefore also have no good reason to think that we have access to the evidence and argument we would need if we were to judge the burden of proof to be met. From which it follows rapidly, and by necessity, that we may not endorse our country’s decision to use lethal military force against the government and people of Afghanistan.
You may think that the U.S. government is a reliable source. But you would be wrong to think so. It is among the functions of government in time of war or contemplated war to combine an active withholding of relevant information from its citizens with the purveying of falsehoods to them. This is as true of democratic governments as of others. Both the British and American governments withheld and lied in a more or less systematic fashion during World War II, for example, and there are no convincing counterexamples in modern times to the generalization that this is simply what governments do in times of war. A judicious mixture of deceit and omission is a proper function of government at such times, and, at least since the post–Westphalian modern nation–state came into being and the technology of information dissemination reached its twentieth–century level of sophistication, there is no effective way for Catholic citizens to find their way to the argument and evidence they would need in order to assent to a rebuttal of the assumption that their country’s use of lethal military force is not justified.
The American media are of little help here. The mass media, print and electronic, are jingoistic and blinkered, obsessed with the national interest and with the details of particular human tragedies at the expense of analysis of the global situation. The small weeklies and monthlies, while they exhibit a broader range of opinion, clearly have access to no better information than do the mass media. If there is a supportable generalization that can be made about the media’s record of effective prediction of outcomes based upon analysis of available information during the last several months, it is that it is abysmal—and this is true across the political spectrum. And yet what is needed to meet the burden of proof is precisely the kind of evidence and argument that would permit effective prognosis.
Consulting non–U.S. media, whether European or Islamic, provides some help (one can at least find out thereby what spokesmen for radical Islamic groups actually say, something almost impossible to glean from American media); but the mendacity, blindness, and stupidity to be found in those sources go just as deep as they do in the U.S. case, and are just as hard to pick one’s way through.
So: Catholic citizens of the U.S. do not have and cannot get the evidence and argument they would need to rebut the assumption that lethal military force ought not be used. From which it follows that we ought to continue in that assumption. Quod erat demonstrandum.
Two implications of this argument need to be underlined. The first is that nothing in it speaks to the question of whether the military action of recent months is or is not just (and, of course, nothing in it even approaches the question of whether the mode of its conduct is just). The argument speaks only to the question of whether American Catholics have been or are now in a position to judge it just. The second is that the argument offered here is, if good, generalizable to all such situations in modern nation–states: it is intrinsic to the nature of such states, and to the technology of information dissemination in them, that their Catholic citizens cannot in time of war or planned war come to know what they would need to know in order to abandon the Catholic default assumption.
This is interestingly parallel to recent developments in Catholic thought about the use of the death penalty. The change on that topic has occurred in response to the increased effectiveness of modern penal systems: when it is possible to protect society from killers and rapists without killing them, this, so the Church teaches, should be done. And changes in technology and attitudes toward life imprisonment make it possible. This produces an effective ban on capital punishment in countries with efficient penal systems, even though the judgment that capital punishment may in some circumstances be required and proper remains in force. Similarly, mutatis mutandis, with ius ad bellum judgments: changes in the organization of states and in information technology may (and in my view should) lead to an effective ban on judgment by Catholic citizens that a particular war ought to be undertaken. And this is entirely compatible with the claim that in fact some wars are just.
Why, then, don’t more American Catholics think along the lines I’ve just laid out? For the chatterers there are two dominant causes, neither creditable and both sinful.
The first I’ve already mentioned: epistemic immodesty, the characteristic sin of the chatterers (I am subject to it, which is why I can speak of it with authority). You are epistemically immodest if you assume that you know more than you do (or can) know. To confess that you have inadequate information and that your attempts to assess the likely geopolitical outcomes of planned military action are almost certain to be wrong will not come easily if you belong to the chattering classes. What will come easily is the bombast of false certainty and the misplaced confidence of the self–styled expert. There has been a great deal of both in the last several months. But the truth is that as bombing began in October, and now as Indian and Pakistani armies mass along the border between those countries, no one has much chance of accurately assessing outcomes. The sin of intellectual pride prevents the confession of this truth; the same sin leads almost inevitably to epistemic immodesty.
The second cause that prevents Catholic chatterers in the U.S. from acknowledging the truths I have laid out is worse. It is an unthinking adherence to the doctrine of American exceptionalism, the view that the U.S. is somehow exempt from judgment and constraint by the teaching of the Church because it is in some morally significant sense a nation like no other. Extremist American exceptionalists think that everything the U.S. does and advocates is good, that this should be obvious to all, and that it permits—perhaps even requires—abrogation of the teaching of the Church about war. American exceptionalists are often puzzled by the fact that not everyone acknowledges the obvious goodness of the U.S., and this is worth noting because the use of tropes of obviousness and self–evidence in the political discourse of the U.S. from the founding until now is an essential ingredient to American exceptionalism in both its left and right versions. For the true–blue Catholic American exceptionalist, then, American wars are always good ones, and the burden of proof is thus shifted to those who would object to any one of them. But American exceptionalism is idolatry—whether in its right–Catholic version (America is always right) or in its left–Catholic version (America is always wrong)—and therefore a sin.
The truth is that America is a nation not exempt from the moral and practical judgments of Catholic doctrine, and that loyalty to the U.S. on the part of U.S. Catholics is a proper but subsidiary loyalty—deeply subsidiary, I would add. E. M. Forster, certainly no Catholic, said that if he was forced to choose between betraying his country and betraying his friends, he hoped he would have the courage to betray his country. He was right. And a Catholic should add that if it comes to a choice between betraying the U.S. and betraying the Church and its teaching, the choice is even more obvious.
If we Catholic chatterers in the U.S. could renounce the presumption of epistemic immodesty and the idolatry of American exceptionalism, we would see that we ought not to have judged the U.S. decision to use lethal military violence against the government and people of Afghanistan to be just. We would, instead, have devoted ourselves to prayer, fasting, and lament, and would be continuing to do so—as the Pope formally required of us on December 14, 2001.
It remains to note the chief difficulty with the position I have sketched here. It is that the Catholic hierarchy in the U.S.—and, though with more ambiguity, the Pope himself—have judged the American action in Afghanistan to be just. My own bishop, Francis Cardinal George of Chicago, unambiguously did so last October. I take this seriously: like all Catholics, I am under authority. But, humbly and correctibly, I take these claims by those who teach the Church to be prudential judgments, based, probably, on no better information than I have myself; from such judgments, I may faithfully, though humbly, dissent. These judgments do not have immediately or obviously to do with matters of faith or morals, but rather with the application of such matters to a particular situation. And so I do faithfully dissent from the application, awaiting further instruction in the doctrine. In this, I hope and intend, I exhibit a Catholic habitus notably lacking among those who have hailed this war as just, and who have done violence thereby to the teaching of the Church.
Paul J. Griffiths is Schmitt Professor of Catholic Studies at the University of Illinois in Chicago.
Professor Paul Griffiths is quite right that there is a new “default position” in contemporary Catholic commentary on war and peace. I don’t think he parses it adequately, though. The new Catholic “default position” is more accurately described as a functional pacifism that mistakenly imagines itself an authentic development of the just war tradition.
The new “default position” has a history, as I tried to demonstrate (in what some might call excruciating detail) in my 1987 study Tranquillitas Ordinis: The Present Failure and Future Promise of American Catholic Thought on War and Peace. Taking its lead from a misreading of Vatican II’s injunction to examine the moral problem of war and peace “with an entirely new attitude,” the new “default position” first shaped antiwar Catholic commentary and activism during Vietnam, a period in which many Catholic activists (and more than a few intellectuals) abandoned the Church’s classic thinking about peace and its relationship to the just war tradition. After Vietnam, the “default position” migrated from the activist world to the Catholic hierarchy, where it had a significant influence on the 1983 pastoral letter of the U.S. Catholic bishops, “The Challenge of Peace.” The “default position” is now well entrenched in Catholic leadership and activist circles in North America and Western Europe; it also has numerous adherents in the Vatican bureaucracy.
The question is whether this new “default position” and its extreme skepticism about any legitimate use of military force—a skepticism that leads, in practice, to what I called above “functional pacifism”—is a truly Catholic position. That it is taught, wittingly or not, by some bishops does not ipso facto establish its claim to Catholicity. That claim could only be established by showing that the new “default position” is in continuity with the great tradition of Catholic thought on war and peace. And that, I suggest, cannot be done.
The central and oft–repeated claim of the new Catholic “default position” is that just war thinking begins with a “presumption against violence.” To which it must be said, bluntly: it does not. As James Turner Johnson, the English–speaking world’s foremost historian of the just war tradition, has argued time and again, the tradition begins with the “presumption”—better, the classic moral judgment—that the sovereign has a moral duty to pursue the public good, even at the risk of his own life. That is why Thomas Aquinas located his just war discussion in the Summa within his treatise on charity; that is why Paul Ramsey, who revivified Protestant just war thinking in the United States in the decades after World War II, taught that the just war tradition is an attempt to think through the public meaning of the great commandment of loving our neighbor. The public good is the telos of just war thinking; defending and advancing the public good is what legitimate governments are for; and that is why provision for the common defense is a moral obligation of states, not an option.
The just war tradition begins, in other words, with a judgment about the moral obligations of rightly constituted public authority. Just war thinking starts with a “presumption for justice,” not a “presumption against violence.”
In suggesting the reverse, the new Catholic “default position” confuses ends and means and makes a tremendous hash out of moral reasoning—and out of the history of theology. Just how much a hash was vividly brought home to me in a public debate two weeks after September 11. There, a prominent Jesuit social ethicist and long–time advisor to the U.S. bishops argued that, of course, the just war tradition begins with a “presumption against violence”: Didn’t Aquinas begin the relevant article in the Summa with the question, “Whether It Is Always Wrong to Wage War?” Here was irrefutable methodological proof that St. Thomas accepted the “presumption against violence” starting point. I was dumbfounded, and after making sure that I had heard my colleague correctly, replied that Aquinas had begun the article on the existence of God with the question, “Whether God Exists?”—which did not, in my view, amount to a “presumption for atheism” on St. Thomas’ part.
In any event, the presumption for justice, and for rightly ordered public authority’s moral obligation to pursue justice, is what sets the horizon for moral analysis in just war thinking. Classic Catholic international relations theory defines a more specific goal within that framework: public authority is to pursue the peace of tranquillitas ordinis, the peace of “right order,” among nations. As Pope John Paul II reminded the world this past January 1 in his message for the thirtieth World Day of Peace, the Catholic Church has been in possession of this worldly concept of peace for more than fifteen hundred years, since St. Augustine. The Catholic Church does not teach the possibility of a world without conflict, a utopian fantasy that ill fits biblical religion. The Catholic Church does teach the possibility of tranquillitas ordinis, the peace of order, which (in contemporary terms) means that legal and political processes are the primary instruments for resolving conflict. That is the “order” that right–minded governments are to defend and advance in the contemporary world.
It is, admittedly, a humble sort of peace. It can coexist with bruised spirits, broken hearts, and ill will. It is a peace in which swords remain—sheathed or used to defend order—but are not yet beaten into plowshares. It has, however, one great advantage for moral realists, Catholic and otherwise: it is a peace that can be achieved in this world, in and among nations.
To defend and advance tranquillitas ordinis is a moral obligation. It is not an option. The obligation to contribute to the defense of order in international public life does not fall equally on every state, though. It is not American exceptionalism, but simple common sense, to recognize that the United States today carries a greater responsibility for order in international politics than, say, Italy or Great Britain. In the tradition of moral reflection that begins with The City of God, what the Catholic tradition requires of a great power like the United States is neither passivity nor pacifism in the face of international aggression, but the exercise of moral reason. If armed force is used to repel or deter aggression, the tradition requires that this be a use of force ordered to a legitimate public end: it is, in the Latin, bellum rather than duellum, a war and not a duel (a use of armed force for private ends, undertaken by private persons). As James Turner Johnson has recently argued, this was the crux of the issue for Augustine: the public versus private use of armed force. The new Catholic “default position” seems unable to grasp this distinction, thus depriving bellum of its distinctive moral texture by virtually equating it with duellum.
The “default position” also typically confuses the two clusters of criteria in the classic just war tradition. In practice, it affords an absolute priority to the in bello questions of proportionality and discrimination (noncombatant immunity), while paying insufficient attention to what have hitherto been assumed to be the morally prior ad bellum questions: just cause, right intention, legitimate authority, and so forth. (Prof. Griffiths, I should note, is something of an exception in not focusing on in bello considerations.) Indeed, more than a few Catholic leaders and commentators, operating within what they imagine to be a new, improved just war tradition, were so single–mindedly focused on noncombatant immunity prior to the war against the Taliban and al–Qaeda that the question of the moral necessity of a vigorous response to the Taliban/al–Qaeda nexus, in defense of the United States and of world order, seemed to drop out of the picture. Responsible public officials who were in fact exercising great restraint were being regularly dunned with warnings about the dangers of noncombatant casualties, as if the question of public authority’s obligation to defend both its citizens and a minimum of order in international public life were a secondary or tertiary moral issue.
Like the dubious “presumption against violence,” the disproportionate stress put on in bello issues by the new Catholic “default position” turns the tradition inside out, treating armed force as a kind of independent variable in world politics. In doing so, however, it uncouples just war thinking from statecraft. This is a serious problem, for the classic Catholic just war tradition is a tradition of statecraft, one that seeks to defend and advance the prospects of the peace of order that can be built in this world on the foundations of justice and freedom. In the pursuit of those ends, the classic tradition both allows and restrains the statesman’s use of armed force.
There are two further problems with this absolutizing of in bello questions: it is theologically inappropriate, and it leads to distorted readings of political reality.
The new “default position” is theologically inappropriate because it puts the burden of moral analysis on what are inevitably prudential judgments. Here, “epistemic modesty” is required by the very nature of the case, since judgments about “proportional” and “discriminate” military means inevitably lead us into a wilderness of contingencies where moral clarity is not easy to find, especially before the fact. We can have a reasonable measure of confidence in our moral judgments about such ad bellum questions issues as just cause, right intention, and legitimate authority, for these judgments do not depend so heavily on empirical contingencies. No such confidence can possibly attend our prior–to–fact judgments about the number of noncombatant casualties likely in most military engagements. That is one reason why the classic Catholic just war tradition gave priority to the ad bellum questions. They are logically first, because they are the questions directly relating to the primary moral obligations of public authority, but they are also the questions on which a measure of moral clarity is more likely.
As for distorting the lens of empirical judgment, the new Catholic “default position” has yet to learn the lesson of the last decade of the Cold War. “The Challenge of Peace” was deeply influenced by the emphasis laid on questions of proportionality and discrimination because of the threat of nuclear war. When that emphasis drove the moral analysis, as it did in “The Challenge of Peace,” the result was a distorted picture of reality and a set of moral judgments that contributed little to wise statecraft. Rather than recognizing that nuclear weapons were one (extremely dangerous) manifestation of a prior conflict with profound moral roots, the bishops’ pastoral letter seemed to suggest that nuclear weapons could be factored out of the conflict between the West and Soviet communism by arms control. And in order to achieve arms control agreements with an irascible, nervous foe like the Soviet Union, it might be necessary to downplay the moral and ideological (read: human rights) dimensions of the Cold War. That, at least, was the real–world political implication of the claim that the greatest threat to peace (identified as such because in bello considerations trumped everything else) was the mere possession of nuclear weapons.
The opposite, of course, turned out to be true. Nuclear weapons were not the primary threat to peace; communism was. When communism went, so did the threat posed by the weapons. As the human rights resistance in Central and Eastern Europe brought massive regime change inside the Warsaw Pact, creating dynamics that eventually led to the demise of the Soviet Union, the risks of nuclear war were greatly diminished and real disarmament (not just arms “control”) began. To put it gently, the Catholic “default position” was off base by a country mile here.
I cannot speak for others, but the judgments that I have reached over the past few months about the war against international terrorism have been shaped by the classic Catholic distinction between duellum and bellum, between the use of armed force for private ends and a justifiable use of proportionate and discriminate armed force for public goods. My ad bellum analysis has run like this: The defense of the very possibility of order in world politics, and the defense of the United States against further terrorist aggression, are just causes. The United States government is a legitimate guardian of the public good; moreover, the U.S. has a major responsibility in advancing the just cause of eradicating the international terror networks, for the United Nations as presently constituted is incapable of dealing with large–scale security issues, and one somehow doubts that a return to the days of bounty hunters as a means for dealing with al–Qaeda and similar organizations would constitute much of an advance for tranquillitas ordinis.
President Bush has said that our primary goals in going to war against international terrorism are not vengeance or revenge but the defense of our people and of the very possibility of order in world politics; our actions since September 2001 have demonstrated empirically the truth of the President’s definition of intention. No serious student of contemporary international terrorism thinks that negotiation would assuage or dissuade people prepared to commit mass murder and deem it a religious and moral good; the use of armed force against the de facto aggression that is the international terror network is a necessary remedy, and thus satisfies the ad bellum criterion of “last resort.” Is there a reasonable chance of success? We cannot know for certain. What we can know—based on the hard experience of inept, ineffective, and morally dubious responses to terrorist attacks on U.S. personnel and property during the previous administration—is that a failure to act forcefully and precisely encourages terrorists to do even worse next time. Has our military action been proportionate and discriminate? One somehow doubts that there would have been dancing in the streets of Kabul had the war been conducted, as Prof. Griffiths suggests, against “the people of Afghanistan.” Were I a betting man, I would risk a wager on a similar, perhaps even more joyful, response in Baghdad if the Saddam Hussein regime is toppled as a result of the war against international terrorism.
Then there is Prof. Griffiths’ suggestion that lay Catholics lack the information necessary to make a serious contribution to a national debate about the moral legitimacy of the use of armed force in defense of peace, justice, and freedom. I rather doubt that the American Catholic laity are as bewitched by alleged governmental mendacity and media jingoism (itself a counterintuitive notion) as Prof. Griffiths suggests. In any case, his proposal hardly squares with the Second Vatican Council’s stress on the particular responsibility of the laity to shape the public moral argument over public issues of great consequence. It is also at odds with the classic Catholic understanding that, while teaching the appropriate moral principles is the responsibility of the bishops, the laity have the responsibility to make precisely the kinds of moral judgments Prof. Griffiths suggests are beyond their capacity to make. Further, the practical result of Prof. Griffiths’ demand for a kind of radical epistemic clarity before reasonable ad bellum judgments are made seems obvious and inevitable: a retreat into a Catholic bunker.
Finally, a word about the Pope’s role in these matters, which has been hotly debated (and sometimes misrepresented) since the Gulf War. Popes play many different roles in international affairs. As supreme pastor of the Church, all popes must teach the moral principles that should guide statecraft. As a great international defender of human rights, Pope John Paul II has condemned the slaughter of innocents and the practice of terrorism. As a world religious leader, John Paul has insisted that religious convictions provide no justification for terrorism and has rallied other religious leaders to similar statements; at the same time, he has tried to keep open a space in which religious difference is not absolutized into religious conflict. As the head of the Holy See, the Pope has put the Church’s diplomacy at the service of peace, understood as a work of justice and freedom. As the Bishop of Rome, charged with the special Petrine sollicitudo omnium ecclesiarum, the “care of all the Churches,” John Paul must do what he can to protect embattled and persecuted minority Christian communities in the Islamic world.
When the Pope prays for peace, when the Pope pleads for peace, he is not taking a pacifist position, as some have claimed. Those committed to the just war tradition are committed to it precisely because they are for peace. The difference between pacifism and the just war tradition is that the latter recognizes that there are circumstances in which the use of proportionate and discriminate armed force is a moral obligation in pursuit of peace. That is a difference the new Catholic “default position” blurs, and that is yet another reason why it is dubiously Catholic.
George Weigel is Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and author of Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II.