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Who could have imagined, on that May afternoon in 1983 when the National Conference of Catholic Bishops adopted “The Challenge of Peace,” that senior figures in the American Catholic opinion elite would concede, by the end of the decade, that the bishops’ pastoral was, in a sense, “already dated”? Yet that is precisely how Father David Hollenhach described TCOP at a Catholic University of America conference this past fall. And who, in truth, could disagree?

For who could have imagined, seven years ago, that by 1990 Solidarity editor Tadeusz Mazowiecki would be prime minister of Poland? Or that the Hungarian Communist Party would, on its own initiative, declare itself no longer Marxist-Leninist, but “social democratic”? Or that the Baltic states of Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia would declare their sovereign independence from Moscow—and not get themselves invaded for their pains? Or that virtually all religious prisoners of conscience would be released from the Gulag? Or that Soviet foreign minister Eduard Schevardnadze would publicly embrace Richard Perle’s description of the Krasnoyarsk phased-array radar as “an open violation of the ABM Treaty”? Or that the Berlin Wall would have been breached? Or that Alexander Dubcek would be celebrated at a mass rally in Prague’s St. Wenceslaus Square? Or that Rumania would, virtually overnight, overthrow the Ceausescu tyranny?

It has been, to say the least, an extraordinary seven years. Would a different kind of pastoral letter—one less beholden to the nuclear freeze movement; one with a more measured assessment of Reagan administration policy; one less dependent on the orthodoxies of the arms control mandarins for its understanding of the political function of nuclear weapons, its analysis of the deterrence system, and its image of the way to a measure of peace (or nuclear stability)—worn better over the intervening years? Probably. Do the weaknesses of the document (which may appear clearer to some eyes than they did in 1983) vitiate the chances of TCOP’s making an enduring contribution to the debate? I don’t think so—if we engage those weaknesses seriously, without polemics, and with the openness to new evidence that has characterized modern Catholic social ethics at its best.

My purpose here is not to recapitulate the extended critique of TCOP that I made in Tranquillitas Ordinis (although given the way that critique has been misrepresented in some quarters, the temptation to do so is great). Rather, I want to survey at least a few peaks on the “next line of hills” in the American Catholic (and ecumenical) war/peace debate, drawing from TCOP where appropriate, and extending or correcting its analysis and prescriptions as necessary.


TCOP was distinguished, theologically, by the bishops’ attempt to argue for the “complementarity” of pacifism and the just war tradition as Catholic moral perspectives on the problem of peace, security, and freedom. A difficult business at best, the bishops’ problems on this front were compounded by terminological imprecisions that have continued to confuse the war/peace debate since 1983.

The division, as I understand it, is not between “non-violence” and “the just-war tradition” (cf. TCOP #120), but between pacifism (in a Christian context, the evangelically grounded and principled refusal to take a human life, even in a “just cause”) and the just-war tradition. Non-violence and the just-war tradition are not antithetical. Although attempts have been made to build “non-violence” into what amounts to a Weltanschauung, non-violence is essentially an ensemble of techniques (non-violent resistance and non-violent direct action) for effecting social change (as in the American civil-rights movement) or, more grandly, a means for achieving a non-military defense of one’s community or nation (as in Gene Sharp’s proposals for “civilian-based defense”). Sharp, America’s foremost theoretician and historian of non-violence, is himself not a pacifist, and neither were many of the leaders of the civil rights movement. TCOP’s implicit assumption that non-violence is “for pacifists only” takes just-war theorists out of the discussion about effective non-violent means of forcing social change or defending community interests, and seems to suggest a kind of pacifist monopoly on non-violent resistance and direct action. This is historically false, and draws the boundaries of the debate on non-violence too narrowly (ignoring, for example, the success of democratic legal and political systems as instruments for non-violent conflict resolution).

The same terminological imprecision continues to bedevil the use of the term “nuclear pacifism.” What is termed “nuclear pacifism” is in fact a set of judgments (about either nuclear war or the threat of escalation to nuclear war from a conventional war between the superpowers) that is based, not on pacifist moral premises, but precisely on the just-war norms of proportionality (ad bellum and in bello) and discrimination. I continue to suspect that the nomenclature “nuclear pacifism” was, and is, used on the assumption that identification with pacifism places one on the moral high ground, so to speak. Since this is, at best, a dubious proposition, I think we would all be better off if things were called by their proper names. “Nuclear pacifism” isn’t pacifism, and it shouldn’t describe itself as such.

Those American Catholics who choose the pacifist option must confront more than problems of semantics, however. They, and the rest of us, have to confront the sorry history of American pacifist acquiescence in others’ violence over the past twenty years: a tragic history laid out in great detail in Guenter Lewy’s recent study Peace and Revolution: The Moral Crisis of American Pacifism (Eerdmans, 1988). I believe that Lewy’s understanding of the proper pacifist role in American public life is deficient; but his historical research is impeccable, and the astounding inability of most pacifist organizations to respond to his critique by anything other than ad hominem attacks is further reinforcement for Lewy’s basic claim that there is a deep moral decay in the American pacifist enterprise. That decay has not, as yet, metastasized to so great a degree in American Catholic pacifist organizations. But it could: which is why Lewy’s work is an unavoidable cautionary tale for those who want an American Catholic pacifism that could contribute to the quest for peace and freedom.


Mythologists like Richard P. McBrien notwithstanding, the heart of my critique of TCOP had to do not with the bishops’ entry into the debate (which was long overdue), and not even with their “prudential judgments” (wrong-headed as I thought some of them were), but with the letter’s lack of close attention to the classic Catholic understanding of “peace” as tranquillitas ordinis—the peace of rightly ordered and dynamic political community. Put another way, TCOP failed to teach that the just-war tradition is in fact a theory of statecraft. The just-war tradition is not merely a moral calculus through which one determines when the resort to war is morally legitimate, and what conduct within war is morally acceptable. No, in addition to the ius ad bellum and the ius in bello, the just-war tradition, in its logic and in the interstices of its mutually reinforcing principles, contains within itself a ius ad pacem (to adopt a neologism I coined in Tranquillitas Ordinis): a theory of this-worldly peace whose deepest roots go back to Augustine, but whose more sophisticated development came in the medieval and renaissance theologians, jurists, and commentators. Failure to explore (and exploit) this rich and thick body of social-ethical reflection had two unfortunate results: a letter that was far more a “weapons pastoral” than a “peace pastoral,” and a wider American Catholic debate on the challenge of peace notable for the absence within it of the distinctively Catholic concept of that challenge.

This lacuna in TCOP had other consequences. Had the bishops, for example, more carefully explored the linkage between peace and freedom—had they framed the discussion of nuclear weapons in terms of the root ideological conflict between East and West and the need for positive political change in adversary states as an essential component of “peace” conceived as rightly ordered political community within and among nations—TCOP might not seem quite so “dated” today. For if the past several years have demonstrated anything, it is that progress on arms control, arms reduction, and disarmament follows changed political attitudes and behaviors. The threat of nuclear war seems less pressing today than in 1983, not because there are fewer nuclear weapons in the world; not because senior Defense Department officials are no longer talking about “prevailing” in a nuclear war; not because there are more exchange programs between Americans and Soviets; and not because the Carnegie Corporation, the MacArthur Foundation, and others spent tens of millions of dollars in the early 1980s “warning” Americans about “the danger of nuclear holocaust”; but because of changed behavior on the part of the Soviet Union. Nuclear weapons, in other words, and contrary to the logic of the freeze movement and the anti-nuclear activism of the early 1980s, were not the disease, but one drastically inflamed symptom of the disease.

The changes of the recent past go far beyond the bilateral U.S./Soviet relationship, of course. Why does peace seem to be breaking out all over in Europe? Again, not because of radical change in the configuration (which is to say, imbalance) of Warsaw Pact and NATO conventional forces, but because change in the Soviet Union has been paralleled by a process of de-Leninization + cultural liberalization + political democratization + market economics in central and eastern Europe which now seems irreversible-short of a massive, post-Gorbachev Soviet invasion and occupation.

These striking events and others seem to me to confirm the classic Catholic heritage in its claim that peace is a matter of rightly ordered political community within and among nations. The INF Treaty, the principal arms control success since TCOP, was not the result of anti-nuclear activism (as claimed by the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and other European activists), nor was it the child of an isolated negotiating process. Rather, the negotiating process succeeded because of a changed political relationship between the U.S. and the USSR, which was in turn made possible by changed declaratory and on-the-ground policy by the USSR. Desirable change on the weapons front followed desirable change on the political front.

Had TCOP paid more attention to peace as a matter of the structure of politics within and among nations, the Church would also have been in a better position to help shape the debate over America’s role in the democratic revolution in world politics. In Tranquillitas Ordinis I argued that the quest for democracy in totalitarian and authoritarian countries was one expression of the quest for peace—the peace, again, of “dynamic and rightly ordered political community.” Viewed from another angle, the democratic revolution was the structural component of the human rights revolution which the Church had championed—and linked to the pursuit of peace—since Pacem in Terris (1963). David Hollenbach once accused me, in this matter, of endorsing a “crusade for democracy,” with particular reference to the tangled business of building peace, security, freedom, and prosperity in Central America. The formulation “crusade for democracy” struck me as a bit much then; what I was proposing, after all, was (primarily non-military) support for indigenous democrats who had asked U.S. assistance for their cause. And I would argue that the course of events since—in the Philippines, South Korea, Chile, Poland, Hungary, East Germany, Czechoslovakia, Argentina, Brazil, and a number of other locales—has tended to confirm my claim that the democratic revolution makes an invaluable contribution to the quest for peace with freedom and justice in this sort of world. Moreover, it is surely one of the most striking developments of the past decade that the democratic revolution has been actively supported by the Holy See.

One hopes that such support, and particularly support for a prudent yet creative American engagement with the democratic revolution, will come from the formal leadership of American Catholicism in the 1990s. That the bishops are not, now, perceived as a significant institutional supporter of the work of the National Endowment for Democracy is a sadness—a sadness that could easily be remedied.

Finally, the democratic revolution raises the question of what might be called “grand linkage” or grand strategy in TCOP. At Catholic University last October, David Hollenbach argued that “the ethical debate about deterrence must simultaneously address the question of how to preserve security, improve the human-rights and economic situations in both East-West and global contexts, and reduce the danger of nuclear war—all at the same time,” and suggested that “a few years ago, the suggestion that all these areas of policy should be linked together would have produced ideological fireworks in almost any forum.” Well, not precisely any forum. The entire political argument of Tranquillitas Ordinis was aimed at recovering the “grand strategic” sense which had informed the classic Catholic heritage in its insistence on the inseparability of weapons issues (i.e., issues of arms control, arms reduction, and disarmament) from larger political contexts. I certainly don’t claim to have foreseen the rapidity of political change in the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact countries. When I wrote about “pluralizing” or “de-Leninizing” the Soviet Union, I was thinking in terms of generations, not half-decades or decades. It is encouraging that Catholic social ethicists like David Hollenbach agree that “there is now at least a realistic possibility that the threat of nuclear war and the denial of human rights can be simultaneously reduced.” But for the sake of the historical record I think it should be acknowledged that some of us were at least exploring that possibility—and its roots in the Catholic heritage of tranquillitas ordinis—before Mikhail Gorbachev made his welcome entrance onto the stage.


To say that the Catholic quest for peace ought to be framed, in the first instance, in terms of the politics of peace within and among nations is not to suggest that weapons issues aren’t important. Four issues seem particularly worth exploring in the post-TCOP environment.

First, I think we need to clarify what TCOP called the “new moment” in international politics brought about by nuclear weapons. I would argue that, in terms of moral analysis, the “new moment” preceded the development of nuclear weapons; rather, the “new moment”—the point at which modern technology began to put tremendous strain on the classic in bello criteria of the just-war tradition—came with the advent of long-range bombers capable of delivering masses of high explosives to civilian targets. To argue for an earlier “new moment” is not to diminish or minimize the gravity of the moral problem of nuclear weapons. But it is to suggest that Theodore Hesburgh, among others, was simply wrong when he stated that the bishops in 1983 found themselves in a unique historical situation in which “there were no precedents to invoke, no history to depend upon for a wise lesson, no real body of theology except for that which dates back to pacifism or a just-war doctrine that was first applied in a day of spears, swords, bows, and arrows, not ICBMs.” That is not the logic of TCOP, which rightly argues that the classic criteria of moral assessment remain true and relevant, even if the conclusions to be drawn from them will bring little comfort to some in the policy community. But too fevered an emphasis on the unique destructive capacity of nuclear weapons may lead (and in some quarters, may have already led) to a view of TCOP in which the letter is interpreted so as to teach that nuclear weapons render the moral insights of the just-war tradition nugatory.

Second, we need a continued debate on the relationship between weapons modernization and the pursuit of arms control, arms reduction, and disarmament. TCOP suggested, obliquely, that the emplacement of Pershing II missiles in Western Europe would create further obstacles to peace. Now these things are impossible to nail down with arithmetic precision, but it does not seem illogical or implausible to argue that it was precisely the emplacement of the Pershing IIs (after a massive and Moscow-endorsed anti-modernization campaign in Western Europe) that led, in relatively short time, to the completion of the INF Treaty with its elimination of intermediate-range nuclear weapons and delivery systems from the European theater. At the very least, one cannot argue that INF modernization impeded arms reduction and disarmament. We ought to be extremely cautious about deriving general modernization-plus-negotiation principles from this single episode. But it was, it seems to me, an instructive experience.

Third, we need a new debate on strategic defenses. At the level of capabilities, the old (seven years old!) SDI debate seems to have been largely resolved in favor of the technological possibility of effective strategic defense systems—albeit defense systems short of an “Astrodome” over the United States. Assuming that the present pattern of U.S./Soviet relations holds—admittedly, a large “if”—the focus of the strategic defense debate may well shift from the superpower conflict to the nightmare scenario of the 1990s: the dreadful, yet not unlikely, combination of crazy states + chemical or gas warheads + IRBMs. It is not an accident, for example, that the State of Israel has been perhaps our most enthusiastic partner in SDI research. Do the moral criteria of TCOP and the bishops’ follow-on 1988 Report preclude any development and deployment of strategic defenses?

I should certainly hope not. The combination of technological feasibility and international instability in volatile regions of the world makes it likely, bordering on probable, that the 1990s will see some deployment of strategic defense capabilities. So the task for moral reason will be to try to shape those deployments so that they contribute to the evolution of a measure of order in international public life. I would be loath to see the Church virtually eliminate itself from that debate because of a rigid acquiescence to old arms-control orthodoxies which may be increasingly irrelevant in the superpower context, and which are certainly less than persuasive in the context of, say, an Iraq or a Libya with gas-tipped IRBMs and the will to launch them at Tel Aviv.

Finally, the 1990s may well see a newly intensified effort at major conventional arms reduction in the European theater. Here, too, “weapons issues” will—or ought to be—linked to issues of political change within and among the countries of the Warsaw Pact. Can the Catholic war/peace debate, on both sides of the Atlantic, contribute to the fleshing out of the image of a “common European home”? We shall see.


I continue to believe that the Catholic tradition carries the most sophisticated package of moral understandings on this matter of war and peace, security and freedom, of any of the major Christian traditions. I also believe that Catholicism in America has a distinctive role to play in shaping public moral discourse about our country’s role in world affairs. Indeed, if anything has brought the classic Christian moral understandings contained in the just-war tradition into the American public debate over the past decade, it has been the American Catholic argument before and after TCOP. It is no secret that I think we could have done better, and done more. But I don’t doubt that the challenge of peace is still before us, and that we have resources at hand to help meet that challenge.

Old alliances are breaking up, and new arguments forming, in the U.S. foreign policy debate. Assuming, again, that U.S./Soviet relations continue in their present pattern, it seems likely that there will be a great interventionist/isolationist debate in the 1990s. New expressions of isolationism on the left will intersect and make common cause with a renascent America Firstery on the right. The interventionist or internationalist camp itself will be riven by arguments between unilateralists and multilateralists. In this new configuration of intellectual and ideological forces, somebody will have to continue to press the case for an American foreign policy in which the concept of national interest does not become crabbed and narrow and the concept of national purpose does not drift off into either messianism or globaloney.

I think American Catholicism could be that “somebody”: if we clarify our understanding of the just-war tradition as a theory of statecraft and not simply a theory of hardware; if we thoughtfully probe the relationship between political change and arms control, arms reduction, and disarmament; and if we avoid the temptation to take our strategic or political cues from any one faction or camp on the current political spectrum. So many “ifs” may make for a long bet. But it seems to me a bet still worth making.

George Weigel is the president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C., and the author of Catholicism and the Renewal of American Democracy.