Sed Contra: Making Our Own Decisions

Deal W. Hudson
March 1, 2003

Just over a month ago, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger issued a remarkable statement on Catholics and politics. Doctrinal Note on Some Questions Regarding the Participation of Catholics in Political Life clarified once again the problems of duplicity that emanate from a U.S. Congress where almost half of all Catholic senators and representatives are pro-abortion. Cardinal Ratzinger’s statement, personally approved by Pope John Paul II, was predictably treated with disdain by a media long accustomed to applauding pro-abortion Catholic politicians. Democratic presidential hopeful, and “Catholic,” Sen. John Kerry (Mass.) went to the trouble of saying he would ignore the Vatican.

There was, however, another aspect to the document that passed by without comment and is very germane to the situation in Iraq. Since President George W. Bush announced his intention to invade Iraq if Saddam Hussein didn’t keep his decade-old UN promise to disarm, there has been a veritable avalanche of criticism from bishops in the United States, around the world, and in the Vatican. With the exception of the Holy Father himself, the criticism has been pointed and specific. An Iraq war, we’re told, would not meet the criteria of a just war according to Catholic social teaching. The pope confined himself to general statements on the obligation of avoiding war, turning to it only as a last resort, and avoiding short- or long-term harm to noncombatants. But other notable bishops, archbishops, and cardinals have spoken in such a way that Catholics would be led to believe that they must agree with them or be considered disobedient.

A case in point is the steady stream of emails I receive asking me when I’m going to defend the Holy Father’s “position” on Iraq the way I’m defending his position on abortion. The two positions are equivalent only if the question is about the application of the principle, not the contingent or prudential conclusions that may follow. The difference between a conclusion drawn from the principles of just-war theory and the sanctity of life is simple: Some wars are just, whereas no innocent life should be killed. Cardinal Ratzinger’s doctrinal note makes this distinction clear: The “Church’s Magisterium does not wish to exercise political power or eliminate freedom of opinion of Catholics regarding contingent questions.”

I’m afraid that the level of official comment has done precisely what Cardinal Ratzinger said should not be done: Church leaders are using their political power and media access on a contingent question. This leads Catholics to the conclusion that they don’t need to consider this issue individually, that they must simply adopt the conclusions of certain U.S. bishops or Vatican officials.

The Vatican officials making these comments might claim that they were not meant as expressions of policy. But bishops with titles like “prefect” and “secretary of state” really don’t have private personas that allow the Catholics reading their remarks in the press to know they’re speaking without official authority. Not all bishops agree: What about the U.S. bishops who voted against the bishops’ conference resolution condemning the proposed war against Iraq?

One of the most serious consequences of official criticism is the undermining of our elected leadership. The Catechism of Catholic Church, in the section on just war, says very clearly that “the evaluation of these conditions for moral legitimacy [of war] belongs to the prudential judgment of those who have the responsibility for the common good.”

Trusting political leadership in a time of war is decisive; most of us have lived through a period in America’s history when the moral authority of the presidency was lost. Those demons need not be loosed once again. It’s the prudential judgment of our president and his advisers (whose job it is to fight terrorism) that war, in this case, is just. And there are those of us—myself included—who believe the president is right in seeing the Iraqi threat as “lasting, grave, and certain.” As we have already seen in the case of Afghanistan, this administration can wage war in a manner that protects civilians. Certainly, the prospect of an Iraq after an invasion could be no worse than what we see there now: a secular dictator with Stalinesque aspirations in a nuclear age.

I hope our leadership will continue to guide our thinking according to the principles of Catholic social teaching but allow us to support our president if that’s the decision we make.

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