I write the day after military action was launched. What happens in the days and weeks ahead nobody knows, and any speculation would be dated by the time you read this. So there is no point in that. What can be known now, and is very much worth trying to understand, is how the several religious communities have attempted to influence the decisions leading up to war. The following is an annotated summary of positions, arguments, admonitions, and agitations that reflect the ways in which religious leadership tried”for better and worse”to bring moral judgment to bear in a time of war.
How does it feel to be all alone, or almost all alone? The reporters question suggested that I was the only person in a Roman collar defending American policy in the media. He was not quite right about that, but it is true that there werent many of us. And I did not think of myself as defending American policy so much as trying to contribute a measure of moral clarity in a time of great confusion. Of course, I readily admit that those who disagree thought they were the ones providing moral clarity. Perhaps the best way to begin is to offer a précis of the arguments Ive been making, with special reference to Catholic positions, and then come back to some alternative accounts of moral duty in a time of war. We will want to attend also to the sounds of oldline and evangelical Protestants, as well as Jews, in the public square.
Up until the first rocket hit Baghdad, the Pope was urging us to pray that Iraq would be disarmed without resort to military force. For months he tirelessly repeated that war is always a defeat for humanity, a failure to maintain the peace of right order. St. Augustine called the peace of right order tranquillitas ordinis . In addition, the Pope urgently reminded us that in history nothing is inevitable, and that with God all things are possible. In every statement I have made, I have underscored my unqualified agreement with that message of the Holy Father.
That message is entirely consistent with the teaching of St. Thomas Aquinas and others in the just war tradition that, in the absence of tranquillitas ordinis , war may sometimes be a moral duty in order to overturn injustice and protect the innocent. The cause must be just, and the just cause in this case is the disarmament of Iraq. That just cause was explicitly and consistently affirmed by the Pope, also in his messages to both Saddam Hussein and President Bush. And it was affirmed by multiple resolutions of the UN Security Council.
The question was whether that just cause could be vindicated without resort to military force. France”despite having voted for the unanimously approved Resolution 1441 that presumably gave Saddam one last chance to disarm”was in the lead of those contending that it would be wiser to wait and see what Iraq might do over a period of months or even years, during which time it could be safely contained without war. How best to vindicate the just cause, I insisted, is a matter of practical wisdom, of what is called prudential judgment. In just war doctrine, the Churchs competence and responsibility is to set forth the pertinent moral principles. As No. 2309 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church makes clear, the application of those principles to specific cases is the responsibility of political leaders. It is true that religious leaders can claim that the principles are being ignored or misapplied, but in the latter case they do so at the considerable risk of exceeding their competence and undermining their credibility. The questions raised to religious spokesmen are inescapable: On the basis of what expert knowledge do you advocate policy x against policy y? By what authority or by whose authority do you speak?
The Criminal Intelligence
It was pointed out that for twelve years Saddam Hussein had successfully defied the Security Council, beginning with his refusal to disarm as required by the terms that ended the first Gulf War. He had been responsible for the death of hundreds of thousands (some authorities say over a million) people in aggressive war, and had used weapons of mass destruction to slaughter thousands of his own people. He possessed and was bent upon further developing more horrible weapons; he had publicly stated his support for the attack of September 11, and was in contact and declared sympathy with terrorists devoted to multiplying such attacks. None of these facts were in dispute.
In the judgment of the U.S. and many other governments, Saddam posed a grave and imminent threat to America, to world peace, and to the lives of innumerable innocents. If that judgment is correct, I argued, the use of military force to remove that threat is, in the absence of plausible alternatives, both justified and necessary. Then I always added this: heads of government who are convinced of the correctness of that judgment would be criminally negligent and in violation of their solemn oath to protect their people if they did not act to remove such a threat.
I emphasized that, as a theologian and moralist, I had no special competence to assess the threat posed by Iraq. On the basis of available evidence and my considered confidence in those responsible for making the relevant decisions, I was inclined to believe and I earnestly prayed that they would do the right thing. I was impressed by the degree to which opposing contentions turned on this question of confidence, or, rather, widespread lack of confidence in”indeed contempt for”George W. Bush. In the slogans of street demonstrators, but also in statements by churchmen, the opposition positions advanced frequently came down to little more than defamation of presidential character. It was not an edifying spectacle.
Discussions and debates sometimes turned on the meaning of preventive or preemptive war. Those terms were also used by the Administration, and I argued that they should not be. Some even spoke approvingly of wars of choice. War, if it is just, is not an option chosen but a duty imposed. Just war is in response to aggression. Iraqs aggression was first against Kuwait, then in defiance of the terms of surrender, then in support of, if not direct participation in, acts of terrorism. Joined to that was the brutal aggression against its own citizens, and the possession of weapons of mass destruction which it could use or permit others to use for further aggression. Q: But how could we know what Saddam would do? A: We couldnt know for sure. Q: Wouldnt it be better to wait and see? A: To wait until he did what it was reasonable to believe he had the means and intention of doing would be to wait too long. Leaders guilty of such negligence would rightly be held morally accountable.
And so the arguments went back and forth. As it happens, there is in the Catholic tradition a considerable literature on prudential moral action in the face of aggressive threats and great injustice. Augustine, Aquinas, Francisco de Vitoria, and Francisco Suarez, for example, all addressed these questions. The almost total absence of reference to such recognized authorities in statements by Catholics, including bishops and curial officials in Rome, was impressive. Of course there are novel elements in any historical circumstance, but it is particularly unseemly for Catholics to talk like neophiliacs, so enamored of the new that they forget the centuries of reflection that is the Catholic moral tradition.
The Locus of Moral Authority
A curiously prominent novelty in the discussion was the claim that the United Nations is the exclusive locus of moral authority in international affairs. As it happens, since 1945 only two wars”the Korean and the 1991 Gulf War”have been endorsed by the Security Council. And the Korean War was approved only by the happenstance that the Soviet Union was on one of its walkouts and therefore could not exercise its veto. Depending on the definition of what constitutes a war, there have been between 100 to 180 wars in the world since 1945. As it also happens, Resolution 1441, unanimously approved in November, demanded that Iraq disarm immediately or face the consequences. Nobody claimed that Iraq had complied, and proposals for extended timelines and the like appeared to invite no more than continuing defiance of the past twelve years. I agreed with those who said that no further UN authorization was required, if it was morally required in the first place.
The day after military action began, the evening news headlined, Vatican condemns both sides for war. Spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Valls said the Pope received news of the war with deep pain. The official statement explained: On the one hand, it is to be regretted that the Iraqi government did not accept the resolutions of the United Nations and the appeal of the Pope himself, as both asked that the country disarm. On the other hand, it is to be deplored that the path of negotiations, according to international law, for a peaceful solution of the Iraqi drama has been interrupted. On the one hand, on the other hand. What Saddam did was regretted; what Bush did was deplored. Some pounced on this as an instance of precisely that false evenhandedness of moral equivalence that John Paul so sharply opposed during the Cold War. Others deplored that in none of the statements issuing from the Holy See was there any reference to the totalitarian oppression and massive violation of human rights by the Saddam regime. The suggestion seemed to be that there were two heads of state, Saddam and Bush, who disagreed about how to implement UN resolutions, and the latter was guilty of abandoning the search for a peaceful solution by resorting to war. Moreover, there was no mention of the fact that in the 1991 Gulf War the U.S. had the backing of the Security Council and therefore had presumably satisfied the requirements of international law, and yet in 1991 the Pope condemned military action against Iraq in what George Weigel, author of the monumental biography of John Paul II, Witness to Hope , calls apocalyptic terms.
It is not easy to counter the complaint of those who say that the Holy See seriously confused the question of moral legitimacy in international affairs, sometimes leaving the impression that questions of war and peace, right and wrong, come down to how the Pope feels about things. I do not accept that complaint, but it is most particularly puzzling that, with respect to moral credibilty and authority, some in the Curia seem bent upon hitching the wagon of the Catholic Church to the dubiously constructed institution that is the UN. The life and mission of the Catholic Church will continue long after the UN is a historical footnote along with, say, the Congress of Vienna. The experience of the last quarter century seems to have been forgotten by some. When, for instance, the Pope was playing a crucial role in bringing about the end of the evil empire of the Soviet Union, the UN was more than simply useless. Why now is it the bearer of moral authority in international authorities? If indeed that is, as some contend, the position of the Catholic Church.
In Pacem et Terris
The claim that the UN is the exclusive locus of legitimate authority in international affairs was over the past three months frequently asserted by leading churchmen, but it was not argued, and certainly it was not argued in terms of Catholic doctrine regarding legitimate authority. The week before the military action began, I was invited to give a lecture at the UN to the Pacem in Terris Society. The encyclical Pacem in Terris was issued by Pope John XXIII forty years ago this Holy Week. In working through it again, I was impressed by how judicious it is in its discussion of the UN, affirming it chiefly as a defender of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Nowhere in the encyclical, or in John Paul IIs discussion of it in his world peace message this January, is there a suggestion that the UN has supplanted the nation-state. In fact, to the consternation of many world government proponents of the past and present, the UN is constituted on the premise of national sovereignty. Further, the Security Council”with its permanent members possessing the right to veto”very deliberately reflects the realities of politics among great powers. (At least what were thought to be the realities back in 1945 when it was envisioned that France might again be a great power.) The U.S. and others who wrote the UN Charter understood the Charter. Can anyone imagine a President of the United States declaring that, as a matter of principle, any use of American military power is subject to the veto of Russia, China, and France? Any President who said so would soon be out of office. Yet in the recent debate, that was precisely the interpretation of the Charter espoused by many, including prominent Catholic leaders.
The UN officials and leaders of nongovernmental organizations at the Pacem in Terris meeting were keenly aware that these were probably the most critical days for the UN since its founding. Some of them had over the years worked closely with the Holy See in countering UN policies with respect to abortion, family policy, population, and related questions. They were deeply troubled, as was I, by prelates associated with the Holy See now bent on so inflating the moral authority of the UN. It was strange to hear bishops seeming to suggest that the UN had also supplanted the Holy See, claiming for it a moral authority that many had previously associated with the Catholic Church.
And all present at the lecture were grimly aware of the possibility that the UN will go the way of the League of Nations if it is not prepared to support the enforcement of its own resolutions. That would seem to be the almost inevitable consequence if the UN persists in rejecting support such as that of the coalition led by the U.S. in Iraq. Contra the proponents of a world government, the UN is constituted by a recognition that there is a necessary connection between power and moral responsibility. Nations do and should act in their own interests, in the hope that interests can be coordinated to serve the common good. The UN has sometimes been useful toward that end, and many would understandably regret its self-inflicted diminishment or demise.
For the first time since the founding of the UN, opinion makers in the mainstream of American political discourse are advocating a formal or de facto withdrawal from the organization by the U.S. It is said by others that, if there were no UN, we would have to invent it, and there is something to that. I expect the UN will be significantly modified, but not before its present apparat puts up a vigorous fight to make it what it never was and was never meant to be. Or it will be replaced by new institutions more attuned to the nexus of power and responsibility and aimed at coordinating national interests in the service of peace, never forgetting that peace as tranquillitas ordinis will always be sadly deficient short of Our Lords return in glory.
Elevating the Public Discourse
In the debate leading up to military action, there was much understandable talk about the terrible consequences of war. The question of consequences bears strongly, of course, on the just war criterion of proportionality. One was struck by the ways in which the Bush Administration addressed the Iraq crisis with explicit reference to just war doctrine, including proportionality. Protests in Europe”more precisely, in what is now called Old Europe”frequently alluded to American inexperience and cowboy impetuosity. Such statements would be insulting were they not so demeaning of those who make them, including prelates associated with the Holy See. As it is, we must exercise a measure of patience with societies that have run out of steam and resent the vibrancy of America. A cardinal tells me that I must understand that his brethren in the Curia reflect the dominant views of their own countries, which are usually of the Old Europe. No doubt, but the Church is supposed to be universal, as in catholic.
On the putative dangers posed by American immaturity and inexperience, one might consult the history of, say, the last hundred years. I pointed out that the record of the U.S. in combating tyranny, defending freedom, providing humanitarian aid, motoring economic development, and securing a modicum of world order compares very favorably with the record of, for instance, Germany, France, Russia, or Italy. Yes, it was said in response, but you cant expect Europeans to be grateful forever for what the U.S. did in two World Wars and the Cold War. In effect: What have you done for us lately? After all, the end of the Cold War was more than a decade ago. This seemed odd coming from bishops. It used to be said that Rome thinks in terms of centuries.
Ranking ecclesiastics took up the time of U.S. decision makers, badgering them about whether they had thought of this possible consequence or that. What about Muslim reaction? What about civilian casualties? The simple answer is that such consequences are unknowable and therefore unknown, except to God. I know that possible consequences have been considered, day and night for many months, by competent parties. I know there is a determination to minimize damage to innocents, and a reasoned expectation that successful action will weaken Islamist enemies of civilization and strengthen the Muslim forces of decency and freedom. The U.S. plans for changing the politics and culture of the Middle East, including Palestinian-Israeli relations, are indeed ambitious. Nobody can know for sure what will happen, but religious leaders should bring more to the discussion than their fears. Nervous hand-wringing is not a moral argument.
I had said that we should, with the Holy Father, be on our knees in prayer that Iraq will disarm without military action. If war comes, I said, we must pray that a just cause prevails”swiftly, surely, with minimal damage to innocents and with a clear determination to help the Iraqi people then freed from a brutal tyranny. Nobody asked or expected that the Catholic Church bless military action as though it were a Christian crusade. After the war, the Church, and the Holy Father in particular, will be indispensable as an interlocutor in moving Islam away from the most ominously destructive possibilities of a clash of civilizations. In sum, the position that some of us tried to advance during these weeks and months was this: Military action in order to disarm Iraq can be morally justified in terms of just war doctrine. Whether, in the retrospect of history, it will be viewed as a prudent course of action, nobody can know. If such action is undertaken, however, we have no moral alternative but to pray that a just cause will prevail justly.
And now war has come. By the time you read this, a great deal more will likely be known about consequences. At present, Im afraid it must be said that the public witness of the Catholic Church, severely battered by the sex abuse scandals of the past year, has been further confused and weakened. Compared to, for instance, the leadership of oldline Protestantism, the Catholic bishops in the U.S. have been generally careful in their public statements, mainly confining themselves to raising questions. When military action commenced, Bishop Wilton Gregory of the U.S. episcopal conference issued a carefully crafted statement, noting that faithful Catholics and people of good will can disagree about the wisdom of the policy, and that the Church spiritually supports both those who conscientiously support and those who conscientiously oppose the war. The same carefulness did not characterize the statements by officials of the Holy See, some of whom have come unconscionably close to suggesting that Catholic Americans must choose between loyalty to their country and fidelity to the Church. If, as one curial archbishop has declared, the coalition led by the U.S. is engaged in a crime against peace, it would seem to follow that our soldiers are engaged in a criminal activity.
As you might imagine, I have received many messages taking issue with what I have said. A surprising number attribute to the Pope things he has not said. Dont I know that the Pope has declared the war to be illegal, immoral, in violation of the Churchs teaching, and a crime against humanity? No, I dont, and I dont know that because he has never said what many are claiming he said. The crime against humanity line was cited even by the Wall Street Journal , which, to its credit, promptly retracted when the error was pointed out. There are times when Catholics, and all Christians, must choose between complicity in great injustice and fidelity to moral truth. That choice has over the centuries produced martyrs beyond numbering. For a curial official even to imply that coalition soldiers and others are facing such a choice is a reckless abuse of ecclesiastical office. Unless, of course, he really thinks that his view of the war is binding upon consciences. Were that the position of the Church, one would expect the Pope to say so, and the Pope has not said anything even remotely like that. It is to be feared that some churchmen are more enamored of being players in world politics than devoted to being shepherds of souls.
At the same time, and somewhat contradictorily, curial officials have said that they are not arguing moral theology but are making prudential judgments, drawing on the Churchs vast experience in international affairs. People may be forgiven if, faced with the choice between the geopolitical expertise of the Curia and that of the people surrounding George W. Bush and Tony Blair, they choose the latter. A crucial question is this: In the past three months, has the Holy See elevated the level of moral discourse or added to the discussion considerations that would otherwise have been neglected? It is not easy to answer that question in the affirmative.
His most devoted admirers acknowledge that the Pope bears a measure of responsibility for this unhappy circumstance. And it is a mildly amusing nuisance to hear chronic dissenters from firm magisterial teaching on faith and morals proclaim that, on war and peace, they are loyal to the Pope, while the champions of magisterial teaching are, in fact, dissenters. Well, let them have their little fun while they can. With respect to providing moral clarity about war and peace, it must candidly be admitted that this has not been this pontificates finest hour. But nobody should be shaken too severely. Flannery OConnor said that we sometimes suffer more from the Church than for the Church. And it is really not suffering so much as it is a matter of disappointment, and more than a little embarrassment.
The Religious Influence
Within hours of the military action, the Pew Research Center did a national survey to find out how statements by religious leaders affect views of the war. It turned out that only ten percent said statements of religious leaders were more determinative than”in order of influence”the opinions of family and friends, political commentators, elected leaders, and entertainment celebrities. (In terms of influence, celebrities were a distant last.) Im surprised that the determinative influence of religious leaders was as high as ten percent. Apart from pacifists who are opposed in principle to all military actions, thoughtful people take their cues on such matters from those who they assume are most knowledgeable, which usually does not include priests, pastors, and rabbis. According to one news story on the survey, it showed that Catholic priests were overwhelmingly opposed to the war. This is based on the finding that 14 percent of Mass-goers said their priest spoke against the war and none said their priest spoke in favor of the war. Again, given the widespread pacifism among Catholic clergy, I am surprised that the number outspokenly opposed is so low. And what would it mean to preach what the reporter calls a pro-war homily? I doubt if any priest unfurled a flag in the pulpit and called for death to the infidels. And a good thing, too. Whoever paid for the Pew survey should ask for their money back.
Not, of course, that many religious leaders did not do their utmost to influence public opinion. There is, for instance, the moribund National Council of Churches (NCC), which is not much heard from in recent years, except when it gets an influx of outside funding to tout a favored issue. The NCC has been reduced to hiring itself out as a rent-a-blessing agency for leftist causes. The last time it got some national attention was its 2000 campaign to return little Élian Gonzalez to the dictatorship of Fidel Castro. The Rev. Robert Edgar, a former Democratic Congressman, is the general secretary of the NCC, and a while back he led a group that took out a full page ad in the New York Times and other papers (costing well over $100,000) addressed to President Bush: Jesus Changed Your Heart. Now Let Him Change Your Mind. The ad said, Youve proclaimed the crucial role of your faith in your life, and youve said that people of faith are often our nations voice of conscience. Listen to our voices now. I expect that Mr. Bush had different voices in mind.
After protesting Americas unprovoked attack on a nation which is not threatening the United States, and predicting that it will bring death and destruction to Baghdad, a huge city filled with innocent civilians, Mr. Edgar and his colleagues declared: It is inconceivable that Jesus Christ, our Lord and Savior and the Prince of Peace, would support this proposed attack. After delivering themselves of Our Lords opinion on U.S. policy, the leaders concluded by casting doubt on George W. Bushs faith: If Jesus Christ truly changed your heart as you have said, let him change your mind. In other words, the authenticity of your faith is being tested by whether you agree with us who agree with Jesus. Call it arrogance or call it blasphemy or call it just plain dumb, the leadership of the Protestant liberal oldline has once again reacted in a manner utterly predictable and utterly shameless. Edgar led a peace delegation that was well received in France, Germany, and Iraq. He and his fellow delegates have complained loudly and persistently that Bush refuses to meet with them. I expect the President has heard their message that he is a usurper, a moron, and a war criminal, and really does not feel a pressing need to hear it again.
Frank Griswold, Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, has an additional and somewhat more personal complaint. In the circles in which he moves in Europe and America, he says, the animosity toward Bush and his policies is so strong that I am embarrassed to be an American. I may be wrong, but I dont think the President is inclined to give a great deal of weight to the social embarrassments of Bishop Griswold when pondering questions of national interest and the securing of world peace. Bishop Griswolds complaint was voiced in connection with his delivering himself of moral reflections on the war. Not only is Bushs policy immoral and illegal, but, among Bishop Griswolds kind of people, it is thought to be in very bad taste. One counts on the Episcopalians to make the clinching argument against the war.
Evangelicals and Others
For the first time in years, the media have not been going on about the dangerous religious right. Perhaps because the assumption is that Bush embodies the danger. Newsweek ran a long cover story on his faith, revealing, inter alia, his creepy habit of getting up early in the morning to pray and read the Bible. The story was accompanied by a column that condescendingly chided Bush for his God talk and helpfully reminded him that self-examination and repentant action are critical components of any faith. (Albeit, one might note, not a conspicuous component in contemporary Islam.) Among many protesting U.S. policy, including the religiously credentialed, the theme that Bush is a religious fanatic who thinks he has a monopoly on knowing Gods purposes vied with the warning that he is a Texas cowboy set upon proving his manhood, regardless of the consequences for others.
The leaders of the religious right, and evangelical Protestants more generally, have not been notably vocal during these weeks and months. Several explanations are offered. Most evangelicals strongly support the Administration, it is said, and they assume the Administration knows that. Plus, most evangelicals do not belong to tightly organized denominations with national bureaucracies issuing pronouncements on public affairs. Dr. Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention has been outspokenly supportive, as have some leaders of parachurch organizations. And I imagine that in many local evangelical congregations there have been a good many sermons that the aforementioned reporter might call pro-war. But evangelical Protestant leaders have not been prominent in the public discussion. I suppose they figured they didnt have to be.
If there were such a thing as a Ramsey Award and I was in charge of it, I might give it to the president of the Lutheran Church”Missouri Synod (LCMS). The late Paul Ramsey, a Methodist ethicist who taught for many years at Princeton, urged upon religious leaders certain self-denying ordinances. One such ordinance is the Wittgensteinian-sounding rule that, on those things on which one cannot speak with authority, one should remain silent. Put differently: when it is not necessary to speak, it is necessary not to speak. This came to mind as I was reading another roundup of religious pronouncements on the war. Last on the list was Gerald B. Kieschnick of the LCMS. He said, We hold up the biblical principles of just war for our peoples consideration. But our people have the freedom to form their own conclusions. I expect my friend Paul Ramsey would approve of Dr. Kieschnicks getting the Ramsey Award.
The idea is not that religious leaders should remain silent in a time of war. Far from it. Precisely as religious leaders, they should have a great deal to say that needs saying: about conflict and reconciliation in a sinful world, about the relationship between peace and justice, about the virtues of courage and self-sacrifice, about the formation of conscience under conflicting pressures, about the source of the peace in which we ultimately trust. My point, in agreement with Paul Ramsey, is that the trouble begins when religious leaders abandon their presumed competence as theological and moral teachers in favor of political punditry and policy prescriptions. As individuals, they may of course express political opinions, which others may take for what they are worth. But any political statement that begins with As religious leaders, we . . . should be accompanied by a warning label indicating the probable abuse of religion.
Then there is the Jewish community. Jews and Jewish organizations have been generally supportive of the action against Iraq. This has not escaped the attention of hard core anti-Semites who detect a Bush-Sharon conspiracy behind the entire war on terrorism, including September 11. Overt anti-Semitism is prominent in European protests, notably in France, but there are whiffs of it here as well, from both the left and the right. Pat Buchanans new magazine, the American Conservative , rails against Jews in high places who are promoting American imperialism. Buchanan rightly says that the charge of anti-Semitism is sometimes used to silence legitimate criticism, but then he tauntingly employs language that makes the charge almost irresistible. He says that the cabal of Jews in high office and influential publications who are driving Bush policy have loyalties divided between the U.S. and Israel. Or maybe not so divided after all. For them, he writes, it is a matter of one nation, one leader, one party. Israel, Sharon, Likud. Get it? Ein Volk, Ein Führer, Ein Partie. This is vile, and it morally discredits Mr. Buchanans potentially useful role in cautioning against those, both Jews and non-Jews, who sometimes appear to be beating the drums for perpetual warfare as the prescription for American vitality and leadership in the world.
Short of the City of God
Peace is a very great good. The statement is commonly attributed to Martin Luther King, Jr.: Peace is not merely the absence of warfare but the presence of justice. St. Augustine said it first in speaking of peace as tranquillitas ordinis . Right order is always in short supply. And there will always be disagreement over when the use of force is required to put to right grave disorder. Setting aside the principled pacifists, the inveterate Bush-haters, and those who are always on the side that is against America, there are millions of thoughtful people both here and abroad who are profoundly uneasy about, or strongly opposed to, the war in Iraq. I believe the war is just. Whether it turns out to have been wise depends upon contingencies that are known to none but God. There are great risks in such actions. There are, it can be reasonably argued, greater risks in inaction. The decision against military action is as much a morally fraught decision as the decision for military action.
As people have tried to make their decision over the past weeks and months, the sounds of religion in the public square have, with few exceptions, not been helpful. More often than not, religious leaders have sown confusion, inflamed passions, and demeaned the traditions they are called to represent by appending them to partisan political positions. As of this writing, our nation is at war. The sound of religion that is now required is the sound of urgent prayer that our cause may be just; that, if just, it may prevail swiftly and surely and with minimal damage to innocents; and that, if it prevails, it may secure a greater measure of the tranquillitas ordinis that, in the City of Man so far from the final triumph of the City of God, is never more than approximate and always provisional.
When America Was Christian
I do not take issue with those who say that Mark Noll is todays premier historian of religion in America. His influence is all the more impressive in that he is not at Yale, Chicago, or Harvard but is Professor of Christian Thought at Wheaton College, the evangelical Protestant school in Illinois. We treasure him as a contributor to these pages. His productivity is daunting, and more so because his writing is always substantive and never facile. Among his major books, A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada is a standard reference, and The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind started a debate the end of which is nowhere in sight.
Now he comes out with a very big and important book, Americas God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (Oxford University Press, 656 pages,, $35). The book helps clarify for me what has been a difference in perspective between us over the years. As longtime readers know, I have devoted a good deal of attention to the ways in which this country still is”culturally, sociologically, morally, and spiritually”Christian America, albeit very confusedly so. A difference is that Mark Noll lives and breathes the history of an earlier time when America really was Christian America, and unambiguously so. It was a Protestant America and an evangelical America, for up until the modernist-fundamentalist battles of the early twentieth century almost all Protestants called themselves evangelicals. In the tradition that Noll mentally inhabits, the consciousness is that of a religious and cultural empire lost. For Noll, Christian America is not about contemporary cultural or sociological analysis, or not chiefly. Christian America is what America was. In this view, and despite wan and sometimes wild efforts to restore what was, we now live in post-Protestant and, it is commonly said, post-Christian America.
With respect to American beginnings, the Protestantism described by Noll was, to borrow a phrase from Dean Acheson, present at the creation. Its people were the proprietors of the American experiment. The world in which I was formed was, by way of sharpest contrast, the world made by nineteenth-century German Lutheran immigrants. Viewed from that world, the Protestant empire of which Noll writes was the empire of them. Moreover, my world was that of Missouri Synod Lutheranism, which was constituted and driven by the determination not to become like them. Still in the 1950s, many thought that determination had been vindicated. Books were published then with titles such as Zion on the Mississippi and The Triumph of Conservative Lutheranism . It was thought that the conservative forces (theologically called confessional, referring to the sixteenth-century Lutheran confessions) had prevailed against the Americanizers who wanted Lutheranism to attain a denominational place at the imperial table of Protestant America. All that is now dramatically changed, notably with the formation of the ELCA, which has joined what is now oldline Protestantism, only to discover slim pickings at a table that is anything but imperial.
The Arguments and the Tune
And of course there are powerful parallels between the Lutheran and the Catholic immigrant experiences. For the Irish, Italian, German, and Polish Catholics who came to this country, Mark Nolls Christian America was at least equally a world of them. This touches on what is called a nontheological factor that I might have discussed more fully in my article How I Became the Catholic I Was (FT, April 2002). Those of us whose people were not present at the American creation can try to appropriate and even revitalize that moment. That was the monumental effort of Father John Courtney Murray who in his 1960 book We Hold These Truths suggested that it is the historic mission of Catholics to breathe new life into the genius of the American founding, a genius that Protestant America had largely forgotten or repudiated. In his recent book On Two Wings and in other writings, Michael Novak, a Catholic with strong Slavic roots, does a fine job of telling the creation story in a way attuned to the sensibilities of those who were not there, including the heirs of the Jewish immigrant experience. And, of course, Ive done my share”some would say more than my share”of writing about how to get the American experiment right. Long before Murray, there was Orestes Brownson, whom we featured in our December 2002 issue. But he and a few other Catholics like him were different in that they came out of the Protestant Christian America that they called upon Catholics to reshape, and maybe to save.
We heirs of the great unwashed of nineteenth-century immigration can get the words and the arguments right, but we have trouble with the tune. At least we dont, and perhaps cant, sing it the way it was once sung by the proprietors. In our frustration, we propose a different tune, and sometimes different words and arguments too. We speak about America as a nation of immigrants, or contend that it is a universal nation bound together only by principles, not by the identity of people or tribe. The Puritans who came from England were immigrants, in a way of speaking, but not in a way anything like the immigrant experience of German Lutherans, Irish Catholics, or Polish Jews. The people whose story Mark Noll tells were here before us, and there is no reason why we should dispute that or pretend it is not important. Yes, in the beginning there were a few Catholics in Maryland, Lutherans in Pennsylvania, and Jews in New Amsterdam, but that is to quibble. And yes, Catholic Spain was here before the Puritans, but that is marginal to the beginnings of the religious, cultural, and political experiment called America. (Although todays pattern of immigration ensures that Hispanic Catholics will not be marginal to Americas future.)
Lurching into Modernity
Viewed from the perspective of the people who undertook what Perry Miller called the errand into the wilderness, the historical sequence of Christian America/attenuatedly Christian America/post-Christian America makes a good deal of sense. Indeed it is almost unavoidable. Here is the magnificent conclusion to Nolls Americas God :
With tradition, hierarchy, and deference to historical precedent discredited by the ideology of the Revolution, religious thinkers in the national period made do with what was left in their efforts to preserve Christian doctrine and inspire Christian practice. The materials at hand were commonsense moral reasoning, narratives of republican liberation, and the Bible. With all thought of a Christian establishment washed away by the republican tide, believers knew it depended upon themselves and the direct ministrations of the Holy Spirit to do what had to be done. An extraordinary mobilization of the churches was the result. The substantial contribution of this religious mobilization to the construction of a national culture”inadvertently from the Methodists, with more forethought from the older formalist churches”was, in nearly literal terms, a gift of grace.
Yet because the churches could make that gift only because they had themselves absorbed the national ideologies so thoroughly, the gift came at a high price. Uniquely in modern Western history, recognizably orthodox theology flourished in the construction of a liberal society. Yet profoundly as that theology flourished and as vitally as it helped build the nation, its inability to grasp as high as it reached was evident by the centurys middle decades. As for so much else in American history, so too for theology was the Civil War a grand climax and transition.
Theological debates on the issues that led to the war drew American religious thinking deeper into the intellectual patterns that had been established between the founding of the republic and the outbreak of armed conflict. The cultural influence of those theological habits had been extraordinary, in fact so extraordinary that even the cataclysm of total war would not completely overwhelm them. Yet if these patterns”the merger of Reformed biblicism with principles of American freedom expounded by the canons of commonsense moral philosophy”were too strong to be destroyed, they were nonetheless permanently damaged.
It was thus neither farce nor irony when the religious habits of mind that had built a Protestant Christian America divided and eventually petered out after the war. It was rather a tragedy of worthy thinkers striving faithfully for noble goals who were brought down by the very synthesis of Christian theology and American ideology that had transformed their society and made them its intellectual leaders. As a result of these deeply entrenched patterns of thought, and also because of the way that theological debates over issues like the Bible and slavery were settled by armies instead of arguments, American theology lurched, rather than self-consciously thought, its way into the modern world.
Reviving and Remembering
What was left after the petering out were the habits of mind of the WASP”the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant. It was not a precise designation, but it worked reasonably well in identifying those who were them and those who were us. In the last half century there has been a great deal of writing about the decline of the WASP, a genre almost invented by the sociologist Digby Baltzell. I daresay that many bright high school students today have never heard the term WASP. Our society is awash in ethnic-religio-cultural identities, but it would seem that the WASP has simply disappeared. The children of the errand into the wilderness once constituted what was indubitably the Establishment, but they pushed their genes one generation too far and in the last half century accommodatingly abdicated to the cultural forces bent upon their overthrow, or, perhaps as often, joined the revolution.
That accommodation is evident, for instance, in the comatose state of the National Council of Churches. It is hard to remember that fifty years ago the NCC was an American institution comparable in status and influence to Harvard and the AMA. To cite another instance, when William Buckley published God and Man at Yale in 1951, an outraged Yale insisted that it was keeping faith with its founding and emphatically Christian mission. It is impossible to imagine Yale saying anything like that today. As impressive as the Protestant Christian disestablishment of the last half century has been, Mark Noll would remind us that the more consequential disestablishment, largely self-administered, happened almost a century earlier. Christian America before the Civil War was in many ways two Christian Americas, the North and the South, and the tragic fact is that the great question of slavery was not resolved by Christian theology or moral argument but by an unspeakably bloody resort to arms, thereby discrediting, in the eyes of many, the idea of Christian America.
But not all the heirs of the original errand have disappeared. Some are to be found on the other side of the family, the somewhat disreputable side of the family. The side that never stopped believing that Americas God really is the God of the Bible. That is the side that lost the fundamentalist-modernist war in the early part of the twentieth century. The memory of Protestant Christian America is very much alive, for instance, in the Southern Baptist Convention. In an odd twist, some who cleave to that memory, and think it may be again, are today viewed as un-American. But among them are the children of the pilgrims who are now, in the phrase of historian Martin Marty, strangers in their own land. They are still on an errand into the wilderness, but now it is seen as a wilderness not of native savagery but of culturally regnant apostasy and secularism.
Most of them, to be sure, are not of the original stock of the proprietors. Their story of Christian American is largely that of the second Christian America, the one that lost in the Civil War. Their hope for restoration is invested in a revivalism that is native to the South, although now spread nationwide. The efforts of revivalism are typically fervent, fragmented, and lacking in intellectual coherence. If the heirs of the first Christian America”grounded in the New England story of Congregationalism and Presbyterianism, of principled argument and confident tradition”are largely missing from action today, their work is being done, to the extent it is being done, by Catholics and Reformed Protestants, pretty much as Fr. Murray foresaw (although he missed the Reformed Protestant part).
These things must be kept in mind when you hear some of us contending that America is, however ambiguously and complicatedly, a Christian society. It is a great contribution of Mark Nolls work, and especially of Americas God, that it alerts us to the fact that there are others who, when they hear the mention of Christian America, respond, Ah yes, I remember it well.
While Were At It
I recently noted the full court press that the Society of Jesus is applying in support of homosexuality and gay priests. The campaign continues with the March issue of Theological Studies , the academic journal published by the Jesuits. Three articles frontally attack the Churchs teaching on sexuality and marriage. In The Open Debate: Moral Theology and the Lives of Gay and Lesbian Persons, Father James F. Keenan, professor of moral theology at the Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Massachusetts, leaves no doubt that he thinks it is a legitimate debate and it is wide open. He cites numerous gay and gay-friendly Catholic thinkers who agree with him. [I]n comparison to the other Christian churches, the Vaticans position has changed only a little even though a lively debate exists within the Church at every other level. The Vaticans teaching remains so because its contemporary exponents privilege as a condition of truthfulness a teachings unchanged status. Put differently, the contemporary exponents, including John Paul II and Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, impermissibly privilege their view on the odd assumption that two millennia of consistent Christian teaching has something to do with truth. The authors whom Keenan favorably cites challenge the reluctance of the late moral theologian, Richard McCormick, to affirm that the homosexual condition and homogenital acts are good and normal. McCormick has been outdated by developments that, writes Xavier Seubert, initially appear threatening and disruptive but lead to a recognition that homosexuality can be a new name for its own embodying manifestation of Godlife. John Pauls extensive writings on nuptial sexuality are criticized for privileging gender complementarity and providing grounds for excluding the moral validity of expressed same-sex love. Homosexuality was once viewed in terms of inversion, and Keenan is taken with the suggestion that we should find consolation in Gods revolutionary movements of inverting all things. He concludes his reflection with this: The open debate is an extensive one, occurring throughout the Catholic world. As they engage in this debate, moral theologians do not superficially validate personal lifestyles but rather propose a variety of criteria for assessing the morality of the way ordinary gay and lesbian persons live their lives. The debate helps us to see, then, that the Catholic tradition is rich, human, and capable of being relevant to help gay and lesbian persons find moral ways of living out their lives and the ways they are called to love. Gay and lesbian persons respond offering, from their experience, a variety of ways of imagining not only their own self-understanding, but the way we are called to be Church. Like other groups of people who have been oppressed by, among others, the Church, they help us to see that by silencing and marginalizing them, we do harm to them, ourselves, the Church, and the gospel. Now if only the current exponents of the Vaticans teaching could get over their habit of privileging Scripture and tradition in order to overdetermine the truth about human sexuality.
Aleksandr Solzhenitsyns Dvesti let Vmeste (1795-1995) (Two Hundred Years Together) has yet to appear in English, but Daniel J. Mahoney has a splendid review essay on the first volume in Society . The together in the title refers to Russians and Jews, and Mahoney convincingly rebuts the slander that Solzhenitsyns Russian patriotism entails a form of anti-Semitism. At the same time, Solzhenitsyn does not evade questions that some will not touch for fear of being charged with anti-Semitism. Mahoney writes: Any adequate treatment of the Russian Jewish question must sooner or later confront the difficult question of Jewish involvement in the various revolutionary movements of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Solzhenitsyn rightly insists that this question cannot remain taboo for the serious historian of Russia and the modern world. But it is necessary for the historian to read carefully, displaying scrupulous respect for the facts and doing nothing to inflame already overheated passions. Solzhenitsyn condemns those extremist elements on the right who have irresponsibly blamed the Jews for the Bolshevik plague-even as he cannot ignore the fact that a disproportionate number of Jews participated in various leftist revolutionary movements. Solzhenitsyn confronts this delicate issue equitably and forthrightly . . . . [H]e praises the Jewish people for their positive contributions to capitalist economic development and democratic politics. He praises the commitment of many responsible Jewish leaders to the path of political moderation. But he also laments the unreasonable choice of some de-Judaized Jews for totalitarian and revolutionary politics. This choice for revolution was unreasonable but understandable: the revolutionary intelligentsia welcomed educated Jews to their ranks and offered an easy path to assimilation for those Jews who had broken with the traditional Jewish community. The old regime, in contrast, vacillated between enlightened efforts at accommodation between Russians and Jews and imposing humiliating restrictions that could only feed revolutionary discontent. The revolutionaries not only welcomed Jews to their ranks but provided a messianic secular religion”a universalist political mission”to those who rejected the seemingly provincial and antiquated traditions of their fathers. As he has written before, notably in August 1914 , Solzhenitsyn laments the assassination of Pyotr Stolypin, the Russian prime minister from 1906 to 1911, who he believes was the one man who could have conserved what was good in the old regime by making necessary adaptations, not least in granting full rights to Jews. Mahoney concludes, This very Russian book does not draw any grandiose theoretical conclusions about the Jewish question. But it reminds its readers of those universal traits of soul that are essential in every time and place: moderation, repentance, courage, balanced judgment, and statesmanlike dedication to the public good. If only such traits were more universal.
Philip Jenkins of Pennsylvania State reflects in Books & Culture on two new books on American religion, The Religious History of America by Edwin S. Gaustad and Leigh E. Schmidt (HarperSanFrancisco), and Religion in American Life by Jon Butler, Grant Wacker, and Randall Balmer (Oxford University Press). Jenkins is generally favorable toward both, although he is doubtful about the distinction made by Butler et al. between religious and secular history, since Americas secular history is inseparable from religion. He also marvels at the ephemeral nature of what is taken to be important. In the 1970s, everyone knew that the most important fact in American religious life was the growth of the New Age and the culting of America-a perspective that now looks incredibly dated. And he wonders why Randall Balmer devotes so much attention to Promise Keepers while ignoring the pro-life movement. But his chief disappointment with the books is that neither addresses the remarkable difference between the vitality of religion in America and its dismal decline in Western Europe. Jenkins writes: Even for Americas most supposedly secular social movements, the most potent rhetoric still draws on underlying religious assumptions and frames problems in the language of martyrdom and crucifixion, of righteous victims and evil Pharisees. Witness the crucifixion imagery in media accounts of the death of gay martyr Matthew Shepard, or the powerful themes of martyrdom and vindication running consistently through black political rhetoric. One reason that Bill Clinton retained the presidency for eight years was that he was such a master of the pseudo-evangelical oratory that clearly resonates with large sections of the American public, at the same time that it appalls secular Europeans. Why, though, should such similar economic, cultural, and demographic trends seem on the face of it to have produced such radically different consequences on either side of the Atlantic? I dont have an answer, and I am little the wiser for reading these books. But perhaps this transnational approach represents yet another kind of diversity that will reshape a future generation of American religious history.
Eamon Duffy, professor of history at Cambridge, came to favorable and well-deserved attention with his 1994 book, The Stripping of the Altars , a convincing revisionist history of the English Reformation. Support for Henry VIII and the expropriation of the Church in England, he demonstrated in great detail, was found among a relatively small number of dissenters centered in London, while the great majority of the population was devoutly Catholic and wanted to remain so. The reviews of his 1998 book, Saints and Sinners: A History of the Popes , were decidedly more mixed. In these pages and elsewhere, puzzlement was expressed about his palpable hostility toward Paul VI and, most particularly, John Paul II. The puzzlement appears to be resolved by the transcript of a long interview Duffy gave to PBSs Frontline in connection with its production, John Paul II: The Millennial Pope. The Pope, he says, is something of a mystic but [he] misses the opportunity of discovering that the mystery of life is even more beautiful than the beauty of the Church. That life as such is beautiful and warm, and that we dont need any mediator . . . like Jesus Christ, dying for our sins on the cross. Life doesnt need that. But life doesnt claim as much because life is over when you die. Duffy, it seems, is no longer a Catholic or a Christian, and he rather resents the fact that the Pope is. You cant claim that Jesus rose from the dead if he didnt, historically speaking, says Duffy. You cannot develop the world of dreams. You have to go back to reality . . . .Thats what I call the mystery of life. And I think saying that there will be no resurrection for us makes life richer, gets all our power back from heaven to this earth . . . . Im glad that I have found a way, or a way has been given to me, to get out of that building of the Church and move on to a universe which may be cold, but which has an enormous reach and is endless and has enormous promise. Duffy complains about the Popes position on the ordination of women and his insistence upon priestly celibacy, but his deeper complaint is that he is sticking to old doctrine and, by his enormous popularity, encouraging others to do likewise. I have taken a long journey from a devout believer to a skeptic, he says. He describes himself as a theologian who, having given up all the promises of the Christian faith, having given up resurrection and eternal life, is now a man whos proud to be on this earth and who sees the beauty of this earth. The interview makes for very sad reading. Eamon Duffy is a historian of great talents, with a gift for illuminating unsuspected aspects of the past. One cannot help but wonder at how fragile must have been the props of a faith that collapsed into such banalities. Pray for him.
The 223 Catholic colleges and universities in the country are, like most colleges and universities, constantly examining themselves, comparing themselves with other (mostly elite) institutions, and devising and revising mission statements. As odd as it may seem, the one question that usually doesnt get asked is how theyre doing in proposing to their students the challenge of Catholic faith and life. In 1998, Father James Burtchaell published his invaluable The Dying of the Light , showing the ways in which Catholic and other religious colleges have”bit by bit and sometimes at a gallop”abandoned their constituting purpose. A decade ago, John Paul II issued Ex Corde Ecclesiae (From the Heart of the Church), laying out a course of renewal for Catholic colleges that are serious about being Catholic. Now the Cardinal Newman Society and Catholic World Report have commissioned a study of thirty-eight fairly representative Catholic colleges and universities, conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA. The findings make for grim reading. On moral teachings (abortion, homosexuality, casual sex) and in sacramental observance, entering freshmen are dramatically less Catholic by the time they are seniors. (The sobering details are laid out in the March issue of CWR .) The study was widely reported in newspapers and elicited some unsurprising reactions. Monika Hellwig, for instance, is president of the Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities and a strong opponent of what she views as Ex Corde s threat to academic freedom. There isnt all that much that Catholic schools can do, she suggests. Students look at movies, at their friends, at their families, at everything around them, and that doesnt mean Catholic colleges are failing. Im not sure what she is saying. That students would be more Catholic if they didnt look at movies, friends, families, and everything else? Maybe Ms. Hellwig does think that, for her view of what it means to be Catholic seems terribly constricting. She says, The question is whether the task of higher education in our pluralistic, changing society is to lock students into rules”even rules I agree with”or to teach them critical thinking. To be Catholic, one is given to understand, means being locked into rules. The problem is, it would seem, that colleges have all these freshmen coming in with their rigid indoctrination, victims of authoritarian catechesis, mindless ciphers locked into traditional rules, and the colleges task is to liberate them by teaching them critical thinking. And what should they think critically about if not the Catholicism by which they are, whether they know it or not, oppressed? Never mind that most entering freshmen today are thoroughgoing relativists who have but the slightest acquaintance with Catholic teaching. Never mind that the Christian, and specifically Catholic, intellectual tradition is the richest and most adventuresome known to man. By comparison with that tradition, modernitys notion of critical thinking is pretty thin gruel. For Ms. Hellwig and others who think in conformity to the stereotype of the ghettoized Catholic mind of fifty years ago, however, Catholicism is the problem from which higher education is the escape. The alternative t