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On July 6,1991, the Italian Jesuit biweekly, La Civilta Cattolica, published a lengthy editorial arguing that the just war tradition should no longer be considered normative in Catholic thinking about the ethics of war and peace. Those familiar with the ideological peregrinations of many members of the Society of Jesus over the past generation, but unfamiliar with Civilta’s historic position in the complex worlds of Roman discourse, may be pardoned for stifling a yawn: Jesuits condemning war and Western governments do not exactly make for news these days.

But the July 1991 editorial (reprinted in English in the December 19, 1991 issue of Origins) was pathbreaking, politically if not intellectually, precisely because it was published in La Civilta Cattolica. For Civilta has long been assumed to be a kind of sounding board by which the Secretariat of State of the Holy See “tests” certain propositions that it does not, at the moment, wish to assert publicly. On this reading of its position in the Vatican scheme of things, the July 1991 editorial was news indeed, and perhaps news of great moment: was La Civilta Cattolica testing the waters for a possible disenthronement of the just war tradition from its accustomed place in Catholic moral teaching?

Much rests on this question of “position,” for the editorial itself was a deeply confused jeremiad in which misstatements of fact conspired with tendentious readings of history and sloppy moral reasoning to produce what one American Jesuit commentator. Father John Langan, called (with perhaps an excess of fraternal charity) a “controversial and vulnerable ensemble of affirmations.” In the past, La Civilta Cattolica did live in an intellectually symbiotic relationship with the Secretariat of State of the Holy See and with other major Curial departments—“dicasteries,” in the Vatican code. But whether that close relationship remains the case today—whether Civilta can in any serious sense be said to “reflect the views of the Holy See”—is not at all clear. The head of one Roman dicastery told me last year that “they [i.e.,   La Civilta Cattolica] do not speak for us [i.e., the Holy See].” A Vatican diplomat, acknowledging the cordial relations that had existed between the Secretariat of State and Civilta in the past, and the respectful conversation that continues today, still insisted recently that “it is an independent journal.”

Roman bureaucratic habits being what they are, it is unlikely that one will ever get much more by way of clarification than these indirect statements, even off the record. And it would be a mistake to think of the editors of Civilta as the Roman equivalents of, say, the editors of the National Catholic Reporter; there are boundaries of propriety within which Civilta will take care to operate.

But does La Civilta Cattolica speak for and with the anonymous authority of the Vatican? No. Are its editorials still used as a sounding board? Not in the sense that they once were. Indeed, the truth of the matter may be that the old polarities are now reversed, and that Civilta editorials reflect the efforts of some on the Church left to press the policy of the Holy See in certain directions.

And therein lies the substantive significance of the July Civilta editorial: it offers a window into the mindset of a segment of the Catholic left that, because of its position in Rome, may eventually come to have a measure of influence over the international posture of the Holy See. Alas, it cannot be said that the view one gets through the “window” provided by Civilta is very encouraging.

For the editorial was, to put it bluntly, an intellectual embarrassment. It makes dubious historical claims about the ubiquity of pacifism in the pre-Constantinian Church, and on that basis treats the just war tradition as a corruption of Christian ethics. Yet it uses just war criteria (especially proportionality ad bellum and in bello, and discrimination) to declare the just war tradition beyond the contemporary moral pale. It presents a caricature of modern warfare as inexorably escalatory and inevitably involving weapons of mass destruction: a claim clearly falsified by the Gulf War. It suggests, against much of the evidence of the twentieth century, that aggressors can be appeased by negotiations. It argues that modem war never really solves problems, and always leaves behind a “thirst for revenge that will explode as soon as an opportunity arises”: a claim falsified by the post-World War II experiences of Germany, Japan, and (need it be said?) Italy.

It glides over the ideological motivations behind many modern conflicts, adopting instead a vulgarized Marxist argument about the relationship between war and economic interests. It completely ignores the ius ad pacem—the theory of statecraft and the political concept of worldly peace—that is embedded in the just war tradition. Indeed, the editorial doesn’t even get the present intellectual situation right: it begins with the startling suggestion that “hardly anyone speaks about” the Gulf War a few months after it ended. One wonders precisely what worlds of discourse the editors of La Civilta Cattolica inhabit.

Finally, the editorial is redolent with the anti-Americanism that one often finds on the Roman left: an ideological deformation composed of one part Continental and Latin American ressentiment about the position of the United States in world affairs, one part liberation theology and dependency theory, and, in its address to the Gulf War, one part anti-Zionism. The intellectual sloppiness of the editorial would have made it dubious under any circumstances. Add the nastiness of its anti-American subtext, and the editorial moves from the questionable to the dangerous.

Is all of this merely a tempest in a Roman teapot (or espresso machine)? Not really, and for two reasons. First, the emergence of a Roman left expounding the historical, political, economic, and moral simplifications that characterized the Vietnam-era New Left (and that were dealt a crushing empirical blow by the Revolution of 1989 in Central and Eastern Europe) is going to be a major obstacle to the genuine work of theological development in Catholic international relations theory for which both the Second Vatican Council and Pope John Paul II have called. The serious conversation required to develop such a post-Cold War Catholic theology of peace and freedom will be difficult enough without having to contend with the static generated by people who, so to speak, just don’t get it.

There are also some iron laws of ecclesiastical bureaucracy to be remembered. The editor-in-chief of La Civilta Cattolica, Father Gianpaolo Salvini, was named a consultor to the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace this past December. To some, Iustitia et Pax is a Curial backwater of little real consequence. But those who have witnessed the havoc created in American and Western European dioceses when those putatively marginal “Peace and Justice” offices (ideologically fueled by New Left-dominated Catholic publications) began to extend their influence throughout the Church bureaucracy will watch with interest, and not a little concern, as the long march through the institutions gets another push.

George Weigel is the coauthor, with James Turner Johnson, of Just War and the Gulf War, published by the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He also contributed a chapter to But Was It Just? Reflections on the Morality of the Persian Gulf War, recently published by Doubleday.